MUSIC: How the Chinese-Jamaican Community Influenced the Development of Classic Reggae – Opinion

 By Jared Proudfoot | Bandcamp Daily

Jamaican music as we know it today—from mento to ska, rocksteady, reggae, dancehall, and dub — has been well documented. But within those genres, there was a small but influential group of innovators whose story is not as well known. — these were the studio and record shop owners, sound system engineers, producers, and session musicians who each played an underappreciated but outsized role in the development of Jamaican music as we know it. They were also all descendants of the Hakka people from the Guangdong province in China.             

The emergence of a Chinese-Jamaican commVincent and Patricia Chin; Clive Chin; Mikey and Geoffrey Chung; Byron Lee; Justin Yap; Leslie Kong; Ernest, Jo Jo, Kenneth, and Paulie Hoo Kim unity in Jamaica dates back to the 1850’s, when a population of Hakka Chinese moved to the island as indentured laborers.     

By the mid-20th century, more than half the population of Hakka Chinese were local-born and had cemented an integral role in Jamaican society. Many of the same people who would later go on to run the legendary record stores and recording studios in Kingston initially made their money through ice cream parlors, grocery stores, and betting agencies.

Patricia Chin — aka Miss Pat, aka “the mother of reggae” — was one such entrepreneur who opened a store in order to sell all of the discarded records her husband, Vincent, would collect through his work as a jukebox repair man. The store, which was called Randy’s Record Mart, and its accompanying Studio 17, went on to provide a crucial platform for young up-and-coming musicians who would later become household names. “We owned a studio called Randy’s Studio 17 in the ’60s and that was where we did the recording,” says Miss Pat over the phone from Jamaica Queens, New York, where, at 82 years old, she continues to run VP Records — the world’s largest independent reggae label. “We recorded people like Bob Marley before he became popular, Bunny Wailer, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Israel Vibration.” 

Randy’s was one of many businesses owned by Chinese-Jamaicans that helped to define the sound of Jamaican music. The Hoo Kim’s Channel One Studio, Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s Record Label, and Herman Chin Loy’s Aquarius Record Store are some of the other cultural institutions that ushered in the accented upbeats, jazz-influenced horn riffs, powerful bass lines, and nyabinghi rhythms now commonly associated with Reggae.

At Randy’s, Miss Pat often had the final say on whether a record was going to be a hit. “They wouldn’t play reggae music on the radio because they didn’t like it,” she says. “It was too revolutionary — like some of hip-hop today. We had to play our music on our own sound-systems that we built. It was the force of the people and the sound-systems that made the music popular. I was on the counter selling music for 20 years, from 1958 to 1977. Herman Chin Loy was Uptown and I was Downtown. When they made a record upstairs [at Studio 17], they would cut it on a disc — a dubplate — and then they would come downstairs and play it to see if the record sounded good. If the people react to it, then you know it’s good. You have to know the trends of what’s going on — a fast record, DJ record, lovers rock, drum & bass, or a different beat. You have to be very conscious of when the trend is going to change.”

As Jamaican music moved through trends and periods of change, so did the country’s politics. Instability, violence, and economic uncertainty were rife on the island in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and it was reflected in the music of its people, who began to dream of distant utopias. In his lecture on “The Far East Sounds in Jamaica,” Professor Andrew Jones describes the influence of the Chinese and African diasporas: “The music create[d] a realm unto itself, a geographically indistinct zone of displacement that is neither here in Jamaica nor there […] an isthmus where a distant African continent comes into contiguity with the Far East of Chin-Loy’s forebears, and a doubly diasporic music is born.”

It is within this context that one can notice a subtle presence of minor-key signatures, pentatonic scales, and harmonies utilizing consecutive fourths and fifths (all stereotypically “Eastern” sounds) that artists such as The Skatalites, Don Drummond, Byron Lee, The Revolutionaries, and Augustus Pablo all employ. And it is also within this context that Herman Chin Loy, one of the most underrated and influential figures in Jamaican music, produces Aquarius Dub — “arguably the first dub record,” according to legendary percussionist Larry McDonald. In 1971, Chin Loy “discovers” a young Horace Swaby, aka Augustus Pablo, and thus begins a creative partnership (Chin-Loy on production and Swaby on melodica) that results in perhaps the truest representation of the Far East in Jamaica: 1977’s LP East of the River Nile.

On the influence of far away places in Jamaican music, Anant Pradhan, a multi-instrumentalist in Skatalites, and Brooklyn-based reggae band The Far East, states “everyone is a product of what they grew up on. People say I invoke a lot of Eastern sounds in my playing. It’s my attempt at bringing my culture into the mix. It’s not conscious — it’s subconscious.” When you consider the fact that Chinese-Jamaicans have been pioneers in every genre in Jamaican music from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, their importance becomes clear. After speaking with everyone quoted in this article, it also became apparent that Jamaica’s status as a home for all races and cultures is what guides its music — themes of unity, universality, coalescence, and one love are vastly apparent. “Music is the universal language,” says Miss Pat.

Asked if he was aware of the outsized role Chinese-Jamaicans had on the music at the time, Larry McDonald responds: “How could I not be aware!? At the time, we were just all into the music, though. We leave it to the sociologists to sort the rest out.”

Here are 11 songs in chronological order that showcase the emergence of “Far East” sounds in Jamaican music from the mid – ‘50s to the late ‘70s.

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  • guyaneseonline  On 08/16/2020 at 9:26 pm

    Laddie Kong
    To Guyanese Online

    I am Chinese Jamaican living in Miami Florida.

    My mother was Panamanian and her father was also Panamanian. His father, however, came from British Guyana and went to Panama around 1885.

    I am not sure if he was born in BG as they used to call it, or whether he was indentured.

    Do you know if there are any records of the manifest of the ships that brought indentured laborers from China?

    Has the Government of Guyana transferred their records from paper to digital or does the major newspaper in Georgetown have pasta publications on microfiche?

    Your blog was referred to me by Dr.Trev Sue a Quan the author of the book Cane Reapers.

    Thanks to any readers who could help.

    Derek “Laddie” Kong

    • Brother Man  On 08/16/2020 at 10:02 pm

      That’s like looking for a rubber ball in the middle of the ocean. It’s almost mission impossible. But who knows?

      Brother Man

    • albert chiang  On 01/12/2021 at 8:41 am

      Hii Derek! I hope this finds you well. Im a fan of Jamaican music, and my family is actually from China and than later resided to Taiwan. I dont know what kind of records they hold in Guayana. What I can tell you is that many of the families in China did keep these records. In the Guangdong culture. They kept a family “PU”. This book tracks all the genealogy and whereabouts. Its been proven that many Chinese Jamaicans and Chinese Latinos were able to trace there family origin. To begin your research, this is what I can suggest. 1st. The KONG last name has changed and been interpreted in many incorrect ways by the Western culture. In Cantonese it would be Gong. In Taiwanese Mandarin it would be Kung.After the Post Communist Takeover of China, many of the Hakka and Cantonese had fled to Taiwan, HK, S.E. Asia. So the pronunciation and spelling can be quite different. If you can locate any family members original Chinese name. That would be the start. And the exact town and province. This can resolve and answer a lot. Good luck!

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