How The Chinese Came to Jamaica

In the mid-19th century, more than 500 men traveled from China to Panama as labourers.

In 1854, 205 Chinese workers demanded to leave Panama because of yellow fever breaking out. They were sent to Jamaica because the country was closer than China.

Fewer than 50 immigrants survived. Robert Jackson Chin (Chin Pa-kung), opened a wholesale house on downtown Kingston’s Pechon Street (Desnoes and Geddes building in there now). In doing so he unknowingly paved the way for many of his countrymen.

In the 1860s, Chinese people arrived from Trinidad and British Guiana. They had worked as indentured labourers in the canefields until hurricane and insects threatened their job security. They were given contracts in Jamaica for three years to tend to American-led large scale planting of coconuts, bananas and sugar.

After the contracts, some continued in the fields and others opened small shops. By this time, Chinese grocers were selling by barter, providing round-the-clock service and selling goods in small, affordable quantities. As result of importation activities, they sold rice, saltfish, saltmeats, flour and cornmeal which became staples of the Jamaican diet.

via Youtube
via Youtube

Two decades later, in the 1880s, another group of 680 immigrants arrived directly from China. They had been recruited as farm labourers. There were 501 men, 105 women, 54 boys and 17 girls who docked in Kingston Harbour in 1884 after having survived a typhoon aboard the 67 day voyage.

Upon arrival, they were claimed by the plantation owners who held their contracts and scattered across the island. Among this group was Chin Tung-Kao, who in 1891 would found the Chinese Benevolent Society to offer humanitarian and social aid as well as protect Chinese customs and preserve their ethnic identity, at 131 Barry Street in downtown Kingston.

By the mid-1920s there were about 6,000 Chinese immigrants. The government issued a decree that no passport was to be issued to Chinese coming to Jamaica excepting to those under 14 years old. This decree stood until 1947 when the government relaxed restrictions and allowed Chinese immigrants to send for their family members.

Chinese Jamaicans have made their mark in the political arena with MPs such as Rose Leon, Ferdinand Yap-Sam and Delroy Chuck. Similarly, Chinese Jamaican impact on the business world is far reaching with families and individuals controlling substantial restaurant, bakery and supermarket chains.

Curated from Excerpts from Dr. Rebecca Tortello

By Neo Makeba

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