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How does a Chinese association serve Chinese-Jamaicans?

Dalton Yap


Born: Hong Kong
Raised: Hong Kong & Jamaica

Dalton Yap tells one maxim that really hit home.

“The Chinese in general have great economic powers. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at gaining political power.”

“When things are going bad, we become scapegoats.”

This comes from his experience, having gone through the tumultuous ‘70s in Jamaica and then from his 35 years of volunteering with Chinese associations in Jamaica.

Chinese activism in Jamaica

In his time volunteering for the Chinese community, Dalton raised two events where having political influence really made a difference.

“Sometimes, public opinion can be very much against the Chinese,” he said. “Because you know, some of the Chinese community — they’re not freaking angels. They do bad things.”

“And the newspapers would hammer on them to the extent that it could inflame nationalist sentiments or some sort of anti-Chinese sentiment which we as an association had to bring down the temperature.”

 “And we would approach the ministers and say ‘you need to tell the newspapers publishers to bring down the temperature, man.’”

And prior to him, Chinese organizations would also sit with the government to discuss discrepancies in immigration visas.

One example he raised involved having overly strict rules applied to a family member coming from China.

“We’d go sit with the minister, and we would air our concerns and ask whether the government can consider it,” he said. “And most times, yes, because they are all very reasonable requests.”

How do Chinese-Jamaicans gain political influence?

I was genuinely curious to learn how the Chinese associations in Jamaica managed to gain the ear of the government.

I have never heard of this happening anywhere else.

Chinese-Jamaicans number 50,000 to 200,000 according to Wikipedia. In a country of about 3 million, that is, at best, about 6.7 per cent of the population. That’s very similar to the number of Asian-Americans as a percentage of the U.S. population.

Here’s the answer: Chinese-Jamaicans gain political influence through their economic prowess.

“If the Chinese decided to close the supermarkets — all the supermarkets the Chinese owned — the people would go hungry,” Dalton said.

 “Simple as that. I’ll make no bones about that because certain sectors of the economy are largely controlled by the Chinese Jamaicans. The supermarket business being one of them.”

Dalton also pointed out that many Jamaican-born Chinese people have become influential in their professions such as professors, doctors, dentists, architects, and other fields.

Some also get a prestigious American education and return to Jamaica to build their family businesses.

In effect, Dalton told me that Chinese-Jamaican political power stems from occupying the higher tiers of the Jamaican economy.

He did mention that some Chinese people became politicians, but “I was hoping for more.”

“Having economic power is great but the downside of that is that when things are going bad, then we become scapegoats,” he said. 

“You may not want to be in the front seat as a politician, but you should be organized in such a way that you should have the power to influence and I don’t believe that we are doing well enough in that regard.”

What’s the purpose of a Chinese association?

While Dalton has volunteered for many Chinese associations, the biggest and most enduring Chinese association in Jamaica is the Chinese Benevolent Association of Jamaica (中华会馆)..

What I learned is that there are two thrusts to the Chinese Benevolent Association’s role: to promote Chinese culture to non-Chinese and to help new Chinese immigrants.

Dalton explained that new immigrants sometimes seek help to get established and this is where the CBA gets involved to help them find doctors, lawyers, bankers, accountants, schools for their children. 

Beyond that, they also offer new immigrants English lessons. The biggest barrier for a newcomer is, after all, a language barrier.

To the general public, the CBA hosts different events and activities. The biggest one is the Chinese New Year celebrations.

“That is our major fundraising event and also one of our events where we really reach out to the Chinese community,” he said. “At its peak, we had about 2,000 attendees in one day.”

They’d cook food at the CBA headquarters’ kitchen at 176 Old Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica, and serve food at the hall. 

The event also serves as an intercultural event where both the Chinese community and the wider Jamaican community intermingle. Chinese children would sing the Jamaican national anthem and musicians would perform on Chinese instruments such as the erhu and Western instruments. 

There would also be lion dances which Dalton said was difficult to upkeep.

“It’s not easy to maintain this part of the culture because Jamaica, unlike the North American countries … you wouldn’t be able to attract even professionals from China and Hong Kong.”

Lion dancing requires skill and hence requires skilled performers.

What is Gah San?

Another event that the CBA hosts is gah san during the annual Qingming Festival.

Gah san is Hakka and speaks to the strong influence the Hakka have had in Jamaica.

Dalton explained that gah (挂) literally meant “hang” and it speaks to hanging a floral arrangement on a grave.

San translated to “mountain” (山) which points to how Hakka graves were generally placed on a mountain.

Baidu further explains that this aspect of Chinese culture comes from the Changsha, Hunan region.

From Hakka to Hong Kong to mainland China

Dalton explained to me that the Chinese community in Jamaica has seen a change in its composition in the last 50 years.

Dalton’s father once said that within the Chinese community, you could not find a job if you didn’t speak Hakka. That’s because the Hakka were the first group of Chinese-Jamaicans.

Hakka lost its predominance as it made way for Cantonese and then Mandarin as migrants came from various parts of China such as Fujian, Guangdong, Taishan (Guangzhou area) and Wenzhou (Zhejiang).

So why are there Chinese people in Jamaica? It turns out that the reason is simple opportunity.

1970s: Bye bye Chinese Jamaicans

Dalton explained that in 1972, Jamaica elected a left-wing government under Michael Manley.

A 1992 New York Times article clarified Manley’s stance as “a keen admirer of Fidel Castro, a prominent spokesman of militant third worldism” who “preached to his followers that capitalism was ‘a morally bankrupt way of life.’”

“And remember many of the Chinese that came to Jamaica initially, they already suffered under communism,” Dalton said. “So, wow, deja vu? What is this? Jamaica is now falling in the hands of ideology?”

That period of history saw a wave of emigration of many professionals and wealthy Chinese to North American destinations such as Miami.

“Michael Manley famously said, doubling down on this migration fever to say, look, there are five flights a day to Miami. Go,” Dalton said. “A lot of Chinese just packed up their bags, sold their assets for cheap, especially after the 1976 election when Michael Manley won again.”

1980s: Thanks to America, Chinese people move to Jamaica

The 1980s was a decade where even the biggest champions of communism abandoned their pursuit of that ideology.

The USSR pursued perestroika, China pursued Reform and Opening Up and Vietnam pursued Doi Moi.

Jamaica was no different in pursuing what the previous prime minister termed a “morally bankrupt way of life” in the 1980s.

The Chinese came back after the election of a new government in 1980 who created the Free Zone which brought Chinese workers into Jamaica.

It helped that Jamaica had special trade terms with the United States under the Caribbean Basin Initiative in 1984.

A lot of garment companies, based in Hong Kong, would send their managers and skilled workers to Jamaica. 

Chinese staff primarily came from mainland China provinces such as Sichuan, Jiangsu and Lanzhou.

“They would rent a house and they will have all of these Chinese packed in the house and in the morning they’ll have a bus to truck them to the factory and in the evening they’ll send them back and they’ll use the same bus to take them shopping on a Saturday or Sunday. They’re tightly monitored,” Dalton said.

More importantly, this marked the first time Chinese migration to Jamaica was not primarily Hakka, unlike the shiploads of Hakka people that came in the 19th century.

Those favourable trade terms with the United States ended with the passing of NAFTA, which caused manufacturing to go to Mexico and a lot of workers returned to China.

Some remained and started what Dalton called the “third wave” of Chinese migration to Jamaica.

The cycle begins where these remainers (not a Brexit pun) who have established their homes, businesses and work in Jamaica brought their families from their villages from China to Jamaica to join their businesses.

“Jamaica is very much where my heart is”

Let’s talk about Dalton.

Dalton was born in Hong Kong and spent 12 years there before moving to Jamaica. He considers himself a third-generation Chinese Jamaican. 

His grandfather moved to Jamaica in 1918 following his grandfather’s uncle who did very well in Jamaica and started “bandwagon immigration.”

“You do well, you start to ask your family to come,” he said. This started from immediate family, then extended family, then people from the same village.

Dalton family members came, worked for the grandfather’s uncle for a while and then started their own businesses.

Dalton’s father was born in Jamaica in 1924 and was sent back to China for education.

“Like most of the Chinese boys … they were sent back for education,” he said.

Apparently, his father did return to Jamaica for a while but fell out with Dalton’s grandfather and returned to China. 

Dalton’s father lived through Mao’s China and that was when he migrated to Hong Kong in the late 1950s.

In 1960, Dalton was born.

By 1968, his father took the first steps to return to Jamaica by making an exploratory trip to speak to Dalton’s grandfather’s uncle (the first person in the Yap family to move to Jamaica). His father received a promise that he would receive assistance if he wanted to move to Jamaica.

I was curious to know why his father would move to Jamaica. Were the opportunities in Jamaica better than in Hong Kong?

Turns out, there’s a whole host of reasons. His father had no formal qualifications and would have hit a glass ceiling at the cargo department of Pan Am airlines. He also wanted to start a business and saw the opportunity Jamaica presented.

He also pointed to Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, which was about 30 years in the future at that time. Dalton sarcastically commented that his father was “way ahead of his time.”

And this started a few batches of familial migration in the Yap family. His siblings and mother went first. Then, Dalton arrived in Jamaica in the last batch on Sept. 9, 1972 with a sister.

“Jamaica is very much where my heart is. I grew up here, I have a lot of network and I am still with the CBA, and I am very deep in working in the community,” he said. “So, I am very comfortable with what I do here and what I have established here.”





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