By Yayoi Lena Winfrey
Northwest Asian Weekly
Most people know that Asians have migrated to countries all over the world, but some are still surprised to learn that Asians live in the West Indies. Some say this is likely due to images perpetrated by the media. Vacation ads often feature white couples enjoying the tropics. Asians aren’t commonly in sight.
However, there have been migrations of Asians to the Caribbean since the mid-1800s. According to Rebecca Tortello, author of “Out of Many Cultures,” the Chinese originally flocked to Panama to work as railroad laborers. Out of the 205 people who sailed for Jamaica, fewer than 50 survived. One of them, Chin Pa-kung, opened a wholesale business that paved the way for other Chinese to become entrepreneurs.
Originally inhabited by indigenous clans like the Arawak, Carib, and Taino Indians, there are more than 30 nations in the West Indies. Some countries are made up of more than 700 islands. After being invaded by Europeans, most islands became plantation colonies that provided coffee, tea, sugar, spices, produce, and minerals to Europe. This was due to the labor of enslaved Africans and the Chinese and Indian indentured servants who replaced them following emancipation.
Many South Asians were brought to the Caribbean by their British colonizers. South Asians currently represent 40 percent of the population in Trinidad and Tobago. They represent the majority there.
CIA records indicate that nearly 10 percent of the population in the U.S. Virgin Islands is East Indian. Grenada claims 5 percent mixed with European. Cuba has a population of 25 percent that claim a mestizo, or mixed, heritage. The country has one of the oldest Chinatowns in the region. Asians make up 1 percent of Cuba’s population. They are Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Vietnamese — all descendants of farm laborers.
Although there are ethnic Asians in many parts of the Caribbean, Chinese Jamaicans have a particularly interesting history. Among some of the more famous names are models Tyson Beckford and Naomi Campbell, spoken word artist Stacyann Chin, recording artist Sean Paul, and investor and chairman of AIC Limited, Michael Lee-Chin.
Musician Wayne Chin is also Jamaican with Chinese ancestry, though he says he is often mistaken for Polynesian or Puerto Rican. Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Chin grew up in Harbour View before moving to New York about 20 years ago.
“As Jamaican people, we don’t categorize ourselves as Chinese Jamaican, African Jamaican, Caucasian Jamaican, or any other. We are just plain Jamaican,” said Chin, speaking about why most people in the world are oblivious about the presence of Asians in the Caribbean.
Chin says his grandfather left China to escape persecution by Communists and married his grandmother, a descendant of slaves, in Jamaica or ‘Jamdown,’ as he jokingly calls it. Although Chin loves Chinese food, he admits to knowing very little about the culture.
Besides working as a sound engineer for the United Nations in New York, Chin is also a successful record producer and a singer of reggae. His group is named Chinafrica.
In addition to their contributions on plantations, Chinese Jamaicans are often credited with starting the grocery business, importing items that would become staples for other Jamaicans. In
1892, Chin Tung-Kao founded the Chinese Benevolent Society to preserve Chinese culture and identity.
The following years brought strict immigration laws as the Chinese began to be branded as a threat because of their skill for entrepreneurship. By the 1940s, second generation Chinese in Jamaica were becoming more acceptable and, in turn, embracing more of the island’s culture than the Chinese culture of their parents. Currently, they make up about 1 percent of the population. ♦
Yayoi Lena Winfrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.