Monday, December 4, 2017


By Wayne Chen - address to Chinese Cultural Association - Nov 29 2017

"History is a set of lies agreed upon."

-  Napoleon Bonaparte

It is difficult to grasp history as it unfolds.

History is being made as even we speak.

But history is important; it is a powerful tool, especially useful to craft a national narrative.

History, properly deployed can create a shared sense of nation.

It can inspire, unite, and mobilise a people around a common vision.

Just recently, the New York Times columnist David Brooks noted:

"History is full of examples of nations that built new national narratives, revived family life, restored community bonds and shared moral culture: Britain in the early 19th century, Germany after World War II, America in the Progressive Era."

Jamaica has had a difficult birth. We are the descendants of slaves, indentures, and outcasts. Many of us were deliberately stripped of our history, and now have the challenge and opportunity to write it to best suit ourselves.

Jamaica's first nation was the Taino, and they thrived here for about 2,000 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the Europeans.

They did not survive the encounter, and for the next 400 years, Jamaica was not really a Nation, but merely a piece of real estate to be exploited first by Spain, then by England.

In 1915 Marcus Garvey proclaimed:

"Jamaica has a lesson to teach the world and it is this - that people of different races can live together within one country as brothers and friends, on the best of terms, without prejudice, upholding one Government, ready to die for one flag, enjoying the same liberty of constitution and looking to one destiny."

A few years later, in 1924, on the other side of the world, Sun Yat-sen, regarded by many as 'The Father of Modern China', lamented:

"The Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit...they are just a heap of loose sand...Other men are the carving knife and serving dish; we are the fish and the meat."

From 'China as a Heap of Loose Sand'

China has had the blessing, or curse, of a long history as a people, and its current incarnation as a nation-state can trace its roots over four millennia.

It may not be obvious today but the challenges facing China and Jamaica at the beginning of the twentieth century were quite similar.

It's notable that China's rediscovery of its nationhood roughly coincides with Jamaica's struggle to find its own.

Both were underdeveloped and poor after centuries of colonial exploitation and conflict.

Jamaica attained universal adult suffrage on 20 November 1944.

The People's Republic of China (PRC) came into being just five years later on 1 October 1949, ending a long and divisive civil war.

Both were searching for a sense of 'nation' to inspire, unite, and build upon for future generations.

Tonight, I will be discussing our shared past, present, and future; how China has shaped, and continues to shape Jamaica.

China's first impact was from the inside, starting in 1854 with the arrival of the first indentures from Hong Kong on the Epsom, and henceforth by successive waves of immigrants.

In more recent times Jamaica has been influenced from the outside by a newly resurgent China, flexing its economic power and influence.

The Chinese have been embedded in the deepest recesses of Jamaican society since first arriving on these shores 163 years ago.

They have toiled shoulder to shoulder with the majority Black working class and peasantry, and their impact has been far greater than the numbers of Chinese in Jamaica relative to the overall population would suggest.

China has written records dating back over 4,000 years and is considered with Egypt, Babylon, and India, one of the four great civilizations of the ancient world.

However after centuries of civil war, depredation by colonial powers, a once great civilization was on its knees.

My paternal grandfather, my 'ah gung', told me many years ago that China would rise to take its rightful place in the forefront of nations. Back in the 1960s that seemed fanciful, but he was firm in his belief that the past few hundred years were merely a brief dip in fortune for a nation that measured its history in millennia.

In 1962, independent Jamaica boldly declared itself to be "Out of many, one people."

From the time of its own independence in 1776, the United States has the same motto, 'E pluribus unum', and has built its national narrative on this, its sense of self as a 'nation of immigrants.'

Although Jamaica is touted as a multicultural society, it is actually more homogenous than the USA.

In the 2011 Census 92.1 % of Jamaicans identified as 'Black', 6.1% as mixed, only 0.8% as Asian, which includes those of Indian and Chinese descent.

The USA is 73.6% White, 12.6% Black or African-American, 5.1% Asian - more heterogenous than Jamaica

China is relatively homogenous with 91.5 % being Han people.

But despite the small number, Jamaicans of Chinese descent have made a lasting contribution to Jamaican culture, even more profound than the proportionately larger number of Chinese have made to American culture.

A good example is the critical role in the development of Jamaica's popular music

For example, the first sound system was built by Thomas Wong.

Byron Lee introduced the solid bodied bass and built the most modern recording studio.

Many other Jamaicans of Chinese descent were pioneers in Jamaica's music, our greatest cultural export.

Many of Jamaica's greatest dancers trained at Madame May Soohih's School of Ballet. Her students include Monica McGowan, Clive Thompson, Bert Rose, Melanie Graham and other great Jamaican dancers and choreographers.

But there is the downside:

Jamaica inherited from the British a social hierarchy determined by complexion and wealth.

The Chinese notion of class and status squared with the British rulers', and the local reality that class and complexion walked hand in hand put the Chinese a rung above the majority Black Jamaicans.

It fit neatly with the Chinese notions of class and complexion where a lighter skin was desirable and a sign of high status. Working in the sun as a labourer or peasant would leave one tanned, darker skinned and of lower status.

The term 'Gwei', Hakka for foreigner, or 'barbarian', was commonly used to describe non-Chinese.

Jamaica was very upwardly mobile society if you had money, so the Chinese talent for the accumulating wealth pushed them up the social ladder.

But there is a thin line between national and ethnic pride and chauvinism and racism.

Amy Chua, an American of Chinese-Filipina descent, in 'World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability' (2011) notes:

"In the Philippines, the Chinese community comprise 1% of the population but control 60% of the private economy, with the result being resentment on the part of the Filipino majority against the Chinese minority creating an ethnic conflict. Similarly, in Indonesia the Chinese Indonesian community make up 3% of the population but control 75% of the economy with similar patterns occurring throughout other Southeast Asian economies."

"Constituting just 1 percent of Vietnam's population, the Chinese controlled an estimated 90 percent of non-European private capital in the mid-1950s and dominated Vietnam's retail trade, its financial, manufacturing, and transportation sectors, and all aspects of the country's rice economy…. Today in Vietnam, both markets and the Chinese are back. The government's post-1988 shift to market liberalization, or doi moi ("renovation"), has led to an astounding resurgence of Chinese commercial dominance in the country's urban areas. Vietnam's 3 percent Chinese minority cluster in Ho Chi Minh City (still Saigon to most Vietnamese), where they control roughly 50 percent of that city's market activity and overwhelmingly dominate light industry, import-export, shopping malls, and private banking. Once again, resentment among the indigenous Vietnamese is building…."

"....of Thailand's roughly seventy most powerful business groups...all but three were owned by Thai Chinese…."

"In Malaysia...despite extensive affirmative action policies for the indigenous Malay majority, which have been in place ever since bloody anti-Chinese riots in 1969 left nearly a thousand dead in Kuala Lumpur...the Malaysian Chinese...account for 70 percent of the country's market capitalization."

Chua notes the entrepreneurial dynamism of the Chinese - underpinned by frugality, hard work, co-operation, willingness to delay gratification, and an intense desire to accumulate wealth almost as an end in itself, have reaped economic success, even as it has garnered resentment from the majority population.

Sounds familiar? We see it here in Jamaica.

In Jamaica, the Chinese are most visible, living shoulder to shoulder with the Black masses.

As Chua argues, rich and powerful minorities attract resentment everywhere: but when those minorities are ethnically different, and highly visible, then that resentment can erupt into violence.

Jamaica has a notable difference - in the Asian countries there is very little social intermixing and virtually no intermarriage.

In Jamaica, there have been significant anti-Chinese protests of 1918, 1938,  and 1965. They were rooted in resentment by poor Jamaicans of relative economic success and anti-foreigner sentiment in times of economic difficulty.

Chinese assimilation into Jamaica was never easy, starting with the racist nature of the plantation society.

At the beginning of the 20th century anti-Chinese sentiment was fueled in the ruling classes by the feeling that they were responsible for the opium trade, and consequent impact on the wider society.

A newspaper editorial of 10 June 1913 lamented the difference between earlier Chinese immigrants and the recent wave of "poverty stricken, ignorant fellow countrymen" responsible for the "opium scare" in Jamaica where "natives are succumbing to the vile and deadly habit".

In this xenophobic atmosphere, the seeds were sown for the anti-Chinese riots of 1918.

It began in Ewarton and spread to other parts of St Catherine, and into St Mary, St Ann and Clarendon as Chinese shops were looted and burnt.

Fake news is not a new phenomenon, and it was wild rumours, mostly untrue, that sparked the riot.

During the harsh economic conditions of the 1930s, culminating in widespread labour uprisings of 1938, Chinese shops were often targeted.

The 1965 anti-Chinese riots, rumours and fake news again played a role, and culminated in a week of arson and looting against Chinese shops.

The mass exodus of Chinese in the 1970s, was not a paranoid over-reaction. It was a real fear sparked by socialist rhetoric, fear of communism and its impact on businesspersons including relatives in China who had been persecuted by the communists, and the fresh memory of pogroms in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Today, anti-Chinese sentiment has been resurfacing against the new arrivants.

The newest wave of Chinese immigrants have transformed the grocery and restaurant business in Jamaica, often in areas that were neglected and derelict.

To ease potential friction Chinese immigrant businesses must of course, observe labour laws, business regulations, and pay taxes.

This is necessary, but may not be sufficient.

Jamaican businesses have a long history of what is now termed 'Corporate Social Responsibility.' The longer-established Chinese businesses have been in the forefront of community-building and the new ones, need only to take a cue from this.

Jamaica can learn, and has learnt much from the Chinese in its presence.

On the global stage, as countries grow in confidence there is a tendency to become hubristic and arrogant.

Action in other countries may be wrapped in good intentions, but often morph into exploitation and narrow self-interest.

Aid and assistance can easily be perceived as imperialism.

Jamaica declared a 'One China' policy in 1972 and established diplomatic relations on November 21.

Around the same time, in the communist spirit of universal solidarity China built the Tanzam railway, linking Zambia's copper belt with the Tanzanian coast 1,100 miles away.

It was its first major showcase project in Africa. It put up $400 million, to be repaid over 30 years, interest-free. It was the largest loan ever made in the Third World by a Communist country.

Over the ensuing six years of the rail line's construction, China deployed more than 50,000 engineers and technicians.

In July 1976, the railroad was completed and handed over to the two African countries.

This aid project by China served two goals. First was boosting the economic development of the two host countries.

Second was breaking the economic blockade imposed by South Africa by opening up a route to Zambia and supporting the independence movement in southern Africa.

China's recent spate of successes in Africa is not accidental. There is much good will among the leaders who were supported during the liberation struggles.

History is not forgotten.

Jamaica's deep involvement in Jamaica's development  today is not accidental.

The memory of Jamaica breaking ranks with the West in 1972 to recognise the PRC is not forgotten.

Today China is rebuilding the historic Silk Road as "One Belt, One Road". This is just the biggest of the ambitious infrastructure projects China is implementing, mostly in developing countries.

It is the hallmark of its use of 'soft power' to garner influence and enhance trade.

We see China's global plan manifested strongly here in Jamaica where it has bankrolled and built our biggest infrastructure projects, and are shaping the very landscape of our island.

Amy Chua notes:

"Americans and the United States can also be seen as a global market-dominant minority, in particular when combined with their use of cultural soft power, military strength, economic might, and flaunting political hegemony, thereby causing resentment throughout the world and by the various countries of the international community."

China, as it rises to the top must be careful to avoid the same fate, and consequent backlash.

Jamaica can learn much from China, but China can also learn from Jamaica.

Interestingly, China's president Xi Jinping, with echoes of Marcus Garvey, has declared:

"During the long process of history, by relying on our own diligence, courage and wisdom, Chinese people have opened up a good and beautiful home where all ethnic groups live in harmony and fostered an excellent culture that never fades."

Our histories have been significantly different, but our aspirations are the same.

To refer back to Napoleon's view of history, or even the Rastafarian concept of 'His-story', what is the narrative that we can agree on, to use the past as a foundation for the future?

We have two histories to honour.

And to integrate.

The mix has been at times volatile, but more often beneficial.

A new nation/culture can learn from an old, and an old homogenous culture can learn from the new one seeking to make one out of many.

Jamaica is still a work in progress.

But so is China in many ways.

I find it interesting that in my frequent travel in the Eastern Caribbean, that Jamaican immigrants there are described in many same ways that we describe Chinese immigrants here. "Entrepreneurial, diligent, clannish..."

Is it the Chinese influence in Jamaica, or is it that immigrants, being a self-selecting minority, share many traits in common?

Jamaicans are entrepreneurial by nature, in a way that say Barbadians are not.

What are the lessons from our shared history?

We don't have to "lie", as Napoleon cynically noted, to create a positive and inspiring national narrative.

The truth is compelling.

The history of the Chinese in Jamaica can be seen as a story of perseverance and success in a strange and foreign land, ultimately forming an integral part of a culture that demonstrates to the world that peoples of different language, faith, and complexion can live in harmony, and together create a culture that is the envy of the world.

The Chinese experience in Jamaica, offers a lesson to China itself.

It is important to understand and be sensitive to different cultures and nations, even as economic power and self-confidence mushrooms. Pride walks hand in hand with hubris.

Xi Jinping, a leader steeped in history, often quotes 'The Han Fei Tzu, central text of Legalism' by Master Han Fei (280-233 BC)

"No country is permanently strong. Nor is any country permanently weak."

Or Marcus Garvey, paraphrasing George Santayana:

"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Wayne Chen

29 November 2017

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