Out of Many, One People: Jamaica’s Rich Chinese Heritage

The winning costume group parading at Jamaica’s 1972 Grand Gala at the National Stadium. The group, formed by the Chinese Benevolent Society, depicted aspects of Chinese culture – a part of Jamaica’s rich heritage. (Gleaner Archives photo)

Once upon a time, Jamaica had an influx of Chinese that caused so much unrest among natives, that the Government implemented quota restrictions on Chinese immigrants. The Chinese who were already here – about 4,000 by the mid-1920s and 6,000 by 1930 – had to suffer through ill-will to ward their many businesses, which included  laundries, restaurants, bakeries and retail groceries. During the 1930s labour riots, their stores were robbed and looted. According to Dr Rebecca Tortello:

 “This decree stood until 1947 when the Chinese consulate (established in the 1920s and largely supported by the Jamaican-Chinese community) in Kingston succeeded in persuading the Jamaican Government to relax these restrictions, remove the quota system that had been placed on wives and children and parents and allow Chinese immigrants to send for their family members.”

Long before this happened, however, the Chinese arrived in Jamaica in the mid-19th century, during a time when labourers were required for the building of a railroad from Panama City to Colon, and when the excitement of the gold rush in California, America, offered promises of better opportunities and a higher quality of life. The first large group came to Jamaica from Hong Kong on July 30, 1854 to work as indentured labourers. Later, when yellow fever broke out in Panama, Chinese workers demanded to leave the country, and Panamanian authorities sent them to Jamaica – because of the close geographical proximity. They arrived in ships in exchange for Jamaican labourers. Not many of them survived.

One of them, Robert Jackson-Chin, was a trailblazer for what most Chinese are known for in Jamaica today. He opened a wholesale house in downtown Kingston, and soon, other Chinese opened stores nearby. They helped other Chinese immigrants to come to Jamaica and do likewise.