The first group of migrant Chinese arrived in Jamaica on July 30, 1854 aboard on the ship Epsom. The ship had journeyed from Hong Kong to Kingston with 267 Chinese immigrants.
Initially working as small farmers and more significantly as retail traders, they began to enjoy levels of success by the 1890’s. Fortuitously, their arrival coincided with the period when freed persons had joined the consumer market and Chinese immigrants applied prior knowledge in retail to their advantage. The industrial revolution of the 1880’s created mass production of goods at a cheap rate that ensured their expansion as retail traders. The revolution also launched new industries that emerged at the end of the 19th century including the manufacturing of carbonated beverages, the baking and service industries and financing among others. Having secured financial and technical capital, the Chinese community solidified their economic growth.
The Chinese migrated from their country of origin due to a combination of economic and political circumstances. Deteriorating economic conditions and recurrent political unrest in the nineteenth century had led to a gradual breakdown of centralized control, which had influenced many to migrate to Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. Chinese migrants played a significant role in the development of Jamaica’s economy and have widened the Asian base in the society, adding to its ethnic complexity.
Within years of their arrival in Jamaica, the Chinese community, which had occupied the lowest social ranks initially, would by the turn of the century began to move into the middle class, based on their accumulation of wealth.
Their social mobility aggravated community relations as the Black population became hostile in the face of the Chinese community’s economic success, which they perceived to be to their detriment. Hostilities lessened with increased Chinese assimilation and their adoption of some Creole values.
The Chinese became pioneers in businesses including grocery, hardware, and dry goods stores, bars, and wholesales. These forms of enterprise were nothing new to the Chinese and formed an important part of their tradition. Haberdasheries, restaurants, and “house shops” were commonplace in domestic China and their eventual presence in Jamaica was a manifestation of Chinese influence through their culture and traditions.
Chen, Julie. “The Chinese in Jamaica”. A Tapestry of Jamaica: The Best of Skywritings –
Air Jamaica’s Inflight Magazine 2003. 367-369.
Chang, Victor. ed. “The Chinese in the Caribbean.” Caribbean Quarterly Vol. 50, No. 2
Look Lai, Walton. The Chinese in the West Indies 1806-1995: A Documentary History.
Mona, Kingston: The Press University of the West Indies. 1998.