Conflicts with the Chinese revisited

Conflicts with the Chinese revisited


Tuesday, April 01, 2014

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This article aims to respond to recent matters concerning the new Chinese immigrants and black Jamaicans. Some of these incidents occurred on construction sites and at the business establishments of these newly arrived migrants.

THE story of the Chinese and issue with those children in Black River, St Elizabeth, late last year, could have provoked ugly atrocities of the past. There have been reports of increasing criminal insurgency against Chinese immigrants in Jamaica. The newspaper reports, 'St James police urge Chinese businessmen to report crimes' (Jamaica Observer, November 28, 2013). However, the problem goes beyond crimes. Both groups have mutual suspicion of the other, and this attitude has to be carefully treated. Just recently, four appropriately dressed 'deadlocks' went into a Chinese restaurant. The operator, suspicious of the four men, called his private security to stand by until they finished their dinner. How could this action affect this business if the story went out? Black people must ensure to minimise or completely stop unnecessary provocation of the Chinese immigrants. Ominous signs are on the horizons. Let history be our guide to prevent the return to an ugly past.

There are some frameworks that have been used to explain the anti-Chinese sentiments that have erupted in Jamaica over the years. There is a thought that black people are jealous of their accumulation of wealth; there is the idea of the wave of anti-foreigner sentiments at times of harsh economic setting; and lastly the school of thinking that these attacks took place at the heights of black conscious agitation. The racist nature of the plantation system made the integration of the Chinese migrants a major challenge for both majority blacks and minority whites. According to a newspaper report (31 March 1934) on "pernicious drugs" in Jamaica, the issue concerning opium became one of the early roots of xenophobic attitudes against the new Chinese immigrants of the early 1900s. The white elites became intolerable of this new wave of Chinese migrants coming in large numbers as shopkeepers. The newspaper editorial (10 June 1913) made the distinction between the earlier Chinese migrants and their present "poverty stricken, ignorant fellow countrymen", who were blamed for the 'opium scare' in Jamaica now that the "natives are succumbing to the vile and deadly habit". This first anti-Chinese thrust was rooted in the opium drug trade. The foundation was set for the first and a massive anti-Chinese riot in 1918.

A study, The anti-Chinese riot of 1918 by Howard Johnson (1982), it argues that, when compared to other anti-Chinese events, the 1918 event was a massive expression of anti-Chinese sentiments in Jamaica. It began in Ewarton and spread like lightning to other parts of St Catherine to other parishes of St Mary, St Ann and Clarendon. The events were inspired by a story that a Chinese shopkeeper in Ewarton caught a black off-duty policeman with his black "paramour". He and several of his Chinese friends brutally thrashed the black man. It was then rumoured that he was killed by the Chinese, and then all hell broke loose against the Chinese shopkeepers. The anti-Chinese violence took the form of isolated attacks against their properties and arson. This event was provoked by the attack and rumours. During the late 1920s letters (22 September 1926) from white informers to the colonial secretary indicate "anti-white" utterances by L P Waison at the corner of Orange and West streets. Against this background, the police began to attend Waison's meetings. A letter from the detective inspector (19 February 1931) to the inspector general illustrates Waison's nativistic tirade against the "Chinese man". According to the letter, Waison accused the Government for its failure to employ the law against Chinese immigrants: "such as the open exploitation of shop assistants; the breaking of the spirit and gambling laws" (peaka-pow). Waison's threats were drastic. He advocated extreme violence against Chinese, "that their shops will be burnt down". He told the crowd, "When a man is hungry he will do anything." Writers on this issue provide a range of discussions on the social and economic crisis of that period; the late 1920s going towards the 1930s was characterised in terms of the harshness of time and place resulting in 'gut-wrenching poverty'.

The years leading to 1938 were characterised by the emergence of the early Rastafarian movement and increasing black consciousness thinking; there was also increasing 'riots' against the plantation and the commercial sectors in Jamaica. In several parishes, including St Mary, labourers protested, accompanied with arson and sabotage. Newspaper reports in January and March 1934 described this "pernicious" drug traffic by the Chinese and expressed concern that it was spreading among the lower class of that community who were becoming "chronic opium addicts". The demonstrations and mob attacks against commercial establishments, especially in Kingston, increased. During 1938, these activities increased and they included Chinese establishments. According to B Brereton (1985) in Social Life in the Caribbean: 1838 to 1938, the Chinese became victims of attacks in the widespread uprisings of 1938. The harsh economic conditions and widespread poverty among the black masses created a fertile condition upon which the natavistic/anti-foreigner thrived. Lacey (1977) in Violence and politics in Jamaica, 1960 to 1977 discusses the mob attacks and arson against Chinese business places within the context of the widespread disturbances. The writer treats the 1965 anti-Chinese riots separate from other similar occurrences.

According to the writer, a group of three Chinese brothers brutally attacked a female employee who had an argument with them over payment receipts for a radio bought on hire purchase. Within the same period of time there was a report of a Chinese man shooting a black labourer; both events were followed by a week of violence in the form of arson and looting against Chinese immigrants. In his book, Radicalism and Social Changes in Jamaica, Obika Grey (1990) argues that the Chinese sentiments of the 1920s, 1930s and 1960s occurred under the influence of the agitation in black culture. The history of the attacks and the evidence linking the causes do not conform to Grey's (1990) thesis.

Anti-Chinese conflict sentiments have been resurfacing with the increased attention to shopkeepers and restaurant operators. The issues of language and history are important; there is the need for the Chinese immigrant organisations (and the benevolent society) to assist with a sort of orientation for new migrants. It is important that Chinese immigrants in their business operations adhere to the labour laws of the country and pay their fair share of taxes and other obligations. Generally speaking, Chinese immigrants have contributed to major entrepreneurial projects in Jamaica. Some behave in an "exclusive" manner, while others embrace integration. Many newly arrived Chinese immigrants have done much in transforming the wholesale in areas where the older form of the same business failed. For black Jamaicans, it is important for us to admire the entrepreneurial attitudes of the Chinese and probably learn something philosophically. This lesson must not be ignored. There is something we can learn, especially the lessons now imparted by the National Bakery. It is important for both to understand the past in order to prevent any revisit to ugly scars of the past.

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