Jamaica Fiwi Roots

The Settlement of the Chinese in Jamaica

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, many Chinese laborers, predominately men, migrated to the west coast of the United States in search of employment in agriculture, mining, railroad construction and other low skilled jobs. Some went south to Panama to work on the Panama Railroads.

In Jamaica, the Chinese came in 3 major waves; 1854-1884, 1900-1940 and the 1980s. The first wave, was the smallest in numbers and consisted of workers imported for plantation work. The second wave was much larger and consisted primarily of the immigration of businessmen.


Two groups of Chinese arrived in Jamaica in 1854. The first, a group of 224, travelled from Hong Kong on a ship called the "Epsom" and arrived in Jamaica on July 30. The second was a group of 197, part of a contingent of 1,042 who had travelled to Panama to work on the Panama Railroad. Being fearful of catching yellow fever, they were sent by the Panamanian authorities to Jamaica in exchange for Jamaican laborers. They arrived on a ship called the "Vampire" on November, 1854.


Ten years later, in 1864, another group of 200 Chinese arrived from British Guiana, Trinidad and Panama. The last and final group that arrived in the 19th century, arrived twenty years later in 1884.


The last group of Chinese laborers arrived in July 1884 from Hong Kong, via San Francisco and Panama on a ship called the "Prinz Alexander". There were a total of 694 passengers that disembarked; 509 men, 109 women, 59 boys and 17 girls. All were laborers destined for estates across the island. The majority were headed for estates in St Thomas and St Mary, with the remainder headed for Portland, St Andrew, St Catherine and Westmoreland.

The terms and conditions were poor. They were paid about $4.00 for a 12-hour day, worked six days a week and were poorly treated. Terms and conditions for food and shelter and for medical treatment were often violated. They suffered prejudice and injustices leading to them protesting violently. Within 2 years of arriving, many had deserted the estates that they were assigned, and by 1891, only 481 per the census data, were left on the island. The practice of importing Chinese laborers was later abandoned as a failed enterprise.

By the end of the 19th century, a number of Chinese residents had become shopkeepers and over the years had become associated with the grocery trade. Successful Chinese merchants invited relatives to come to the island, where they too over time, entered business on their own.


By the 1943 census, the number of resident Chinese had increased from 481 in 1891, to 6,886. The dramatic increase of the numbers was a result of the second wave of Chinese immigration. The majority were businessmen, but the number of Chinese women also increased during this wave. The 1920s and 30s saw the most increase in immigrants.

In 1921, 621 Chinese immigrants arriving on the ship, the "Georgistan", were all businessmen. They all gave forwarding addresses of other businessmen scattered across the fourteen parishes. Immigration of Chinese women was encouraged by the English. They wanted to reduce the coupling of Chinese men, who had wives back in China, with local Jamaican women. This union had created 5,508 mixed Chinese children by 1943, over 50% of whom were female. It was not uncommon for a Chinese man to have a family in China and another in Jamaica. As a result, wives back in China were encouraged to join their husbands in Jamaica.

The Local Grocer

About 64% of Chinese men, and 50% of women, listed professions related to the grocery trade in the 1943 census. A century had passed since the emancipation act, and many former slaves and their descendants had become wage earners. The demand for affordable goods was on the increase, and the Chinese, who were spread across the island, were well positioned to fill that need. So entrenched were the Chinese in the grocery trade, it was not uncommon to refer to "going to the Chinaman shop" to buy a piece of meat, or rice or bread.

The practice of offering credit and "brawta" (providing a bit more) further entrenched the Chinese in the grocery trade. They were quite willing to sell something on "trust", i.e. on the promise that they will be paid at a later date. By 1942, the average earnings of the Chinese was 34.83 shillings per week, below the Syrians at 54 shillings, but well above the Blacks, East Indians and Colored with 6.16, 10.08 and 18.16 shillings respectively.

A rapid pace of urbanization occurred during World War II, with Kingston and St Andrew seeing a rise in its population. The Chinese began to emerge as part of the middle class, integrated economically but resisted full assimilation. They developed the Chinese Benevolent Association, which in turn founded the Chinese Sanatorium, which offered free medical care to any Chinese who could not afford medical fees. Chinese families who could afford to to do so, sent their children to China to be educated in the Chinese way of life.

Later Generations

As the descendants of the first generation Chinese increased in number, so did the links with China decline. This trend, as would be expected, continued with subsequent generations. The acceptance of Jamaican norms became routine and an integral part of the identity of later generations. It did not necessarily replace the Chinese customs but complemented without eliminating a strong sense of ethnicity that exists between members of the Chinese community.