The first Chinese arrived in Jamaica as indentured laborers for British sugar plantations in the 1850s and 1860s, and continued to immigrate voluntarily in small groups right up until the 1940s. Originating mostly from Guangdong and Fujian, Chinese immigrants in the Caribbean did exactly what they do elsewhere in the world: they opened small businesses, got rich and sent their kids to good schools.
But maybe Chinese doctors started using some of the local herbs in their remedies because something different happened in Jamaica: Kingston’s Chinese population was involved from the earliest days with the down and dirty ghetto music that became reggae.
The first Chinese Jamaican music pioneer was Kingston hardware merchant, Thomas Wong, better known as “Tom The Great Sebastien”. He is generally credited with developing the first real dancehall sound system in the early 1950s. At that time, urban Jamaicans liked to dance to American soul and blues music, but local bands were not very professional and it was much cheaper to have a DJ selecting records than to hire an entire band. Jamaican sound systems were the world’s first dance clubs in the contemporary sense of the word, and Jamaican selectors were the first DJs to start “toasting” or talking over the musical tracks, a style that later led to ragga and dancehall. Many music historians trace the roots of hip-hop to Jamaican sound system DJs, via DJ Kool Herc who went to New York 1967 and started rapping over records.
But in the 1950s, hip-hop was a long way off and Jamaican music was only beginning to define itself as a national style. One of the key figures in making reggae music Jamaica’s national sound was Byron Lee. Lee sang rock and roll and rhythm and blues in the 1950s, and together with his band the Dragonnaires, played a leading role as bandleader and promoter in transforming ska from a west Kingston sound into a national and later internationally renowned musical form. Ska grew out of a fusion of American soul and local Caribbean rhythms. It’s fast pace and steady beat made it really popular as dance music, and it later morphed into reggae as well as gaining a strong following in the UK with — strangely enough — punks and skinheads.
One of the most prolific and successful reggae producers was Leslie Kong (pictured above). Kong owned a combination ice cream parlor and record shop called Beverly’s. He got interested in the music business after selling records, and started producing records with a recording studio upstairs from the ice cream parlor. Kong was the first producer to spot Bob Marley’s potential. In 1962 Kong released Marley’s first two recorded songs: “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Judge Not”. Although neither of these songs ever became hits, Marley’s went on to become reggae’s most celebrated musician and the most famous Jamaican of the 20th century.
Kong’s major contribution to reggae was probably his longer-lasting association with Jimmy Cliff who was also Kong’s first artist. In 1961, Cliff was hoping to get sponsorship to record a song he had written called “Dearest Beverly.” The young singer stood outside Beverly’s Ice Cream parlor singing the song. Kong was enchanted, and agreed to fund the recording. Beverly’s record label was born, and Cliff’s recording career was launched. Kong also produced Desmond Dekker’s “Poor Me Israelite” the first record made in Jamaica to hit the top ten in Britain and America. The song topped the British Charts in April 1969 and went to number nine on the American charts in July 1969, eventually selling over two million copies. This was Jamaica’s first real international hit.
Kong himself died of a heart attack, aged 37, in August 1971. A Rastafarian legend says that Bunny Wailer (of Bob Marley and the Wailers fame) put a curse on Kong when Kong released a sub-standard collection of hits called “Best of the Wailers”. The story goes that just after Kong’s accountant told him how much money he would make from the record, Kong went home and died.
Jamaica’s Chinese community is still very much involved in music. Reggae record liner notes are still full of names like Chan, Chung, Lee, Hookim and Chin. In addition to musicians and producers, Chinese Jamaicans have been active on all musical fronts: Old-timer Byron Lee promotes a new Jamaican popular style called Soca (a kind of carnival music) while Karl Young (Yang) runs IRIE FM, Jamaica’s all-reggae radio station. In fact, if you want to know more about this strange corner of history, one of the finest histories of reggae music was written by two Chinese Jamaicans named Kevin Chang and Wayne Chen.