Kingston, Jamaica: Out of Many, One People
During a short stint at a surfing retreat on the south coast of Jamaica, I meet a Jamaican Chinese lady called May. She is visiting the surf camp ahead of an organized outing for kids from the school that she runs. Surprised to see a person of Chinese heritage in such a setting, I excitedly tell her about the purpose of my visit to Jamaica, which is to research the Jamaican Chinese community, and about my work in roots research. “Oh no,” she tells me, “I’m much more interested in tracing my roots to Africa!”
Considering the heavily integrationist discourse Jamaica has held since its independence in 1962, best conveyed in the country’s motto, “Out of many, One people”, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to hear such a statement. Like many Caribbean countries, it is populated by a plethora of ethnicities, with many claiming a mixture of African, South Asian, British, Scottish, Irish, Lebanese, Syrian, Portuguese or East Asian descent.
The situation of the Jamaican Chinese community today, however, is vastly different to how it was 50 years ago. Back then, the newly arrived Chinese congregated in associations, such as the Chinese Benevolent Association, and the Chinese Freemasons or Chee Kung Tong. They opened a Chinese school to teach their children Chinese, a clinic, and an old people’s home. Affectionately nicknamed “Mr. Chin” or “chiney”, they ran grocery shops, bakeries, and small money lending businesses. They published several Chinese-language newspapers, socialised at the Chinese Athletic Club, and ran their own beauty pageants.
When an anti-Chinese riot erupted in 1965, Chinese Jamaicans sought help from the Chinese Consulate, but were turned away: according to the Chinese government, they were Jamaican nationals. As a result, many emigrated to the US and Canada, forming large communities in Florida, New York, and Toronto. Previously bustling with “chiney shops”, Kingston’s Barry Street slowly emptied out. The Chinese school stopped teaching in Chinese and eventually closed down in the mid-1960s. The Miss Chinese Jamaica beauty pageant was racked with controversy, branded as “unpatriotic” and “un-Jamaican” by Afro-Jamaican journalists, with the last pageant organized in 1962. Jamaicans with Chinese ancestry, such as May, speak better patois, the creole dialect of the island, than hakka, the language of their ancestors.
In many ways, the Jamaican model of multicultural “blindness” is a complex one: it strives to create a harmonious society out of a people whose roots are scattered miles and continents apart. It reflects the country’s struggle for identity and keen desire to define itself beyond slavery and its colonial past. It reminds us that culture and identity are dynamic concepts that continually evolve and shape the societies we live in.
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