Those major anti-Chinese riots in Jamaica


Sunday, February 11, 2018

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As we scrutinise the history of the anti-Chinese riots in Jamaica, the table must be set firstly by providing the economic, social and political context in which these referenced riots occurred.

I must emphasise very early that this article is about incidences and occurrences in our historical journey as a multiracial, multi-ethnic society; One which is still trying to come to terms with itself. It is neither intended to fan any flames of hatred and resentment towards Chinese nationals; nor to be used as a platform to peddle envy and bad mindedness masquerading or rationalised as a search for social equity and justice.

The Jamaican national motto: Out of Many, One People — is both a statement of reality and also a declaration of a vision of social cohesion which remains and continues to be a dynamic work in progress. And while everyone does not have to be buddies or friends, our mutual survivability as a society is less guaranteed by fighting more rather than fixing more. Admittedly some fighting will precede the fixing to establish boundaries, placement and locations, but this process must not lead to a preoccupation with stripping and tearing away, unthinkingly, the cohesive fabric to guarantee the mutual continuance of all races and social classes within the Jamaican society. The incidents of the confiscation of — from predominantly Chinese nationals — highly contaminated foods and drinks by the St James Health Department immediately after the recent massive flooding in Montego Bay speaks volume. The Chief Public Health Inspector Lennox Wallace and his staff must be commended for their vigilance and resoluteness in the protection of the people. Well done!

What the Chinese have been caught red-handed doing, by polluting the food supply chain, is inexcusable. The instinct to make money at the expense of everything else in business is corrosive as it is compelling. And so, Chinese, whites, blacks, Indians and all the mixed races in between are helplessly vulnerable to the need for prosperity, as well as the fear of failure, spawned by the motivation of greed. It behooves all races, but moreso the Chinese, to be careful and to inform themselves about aspects of Chinese history while sojourning in Jamaica since 1845.

This story of the Chinese is an area in our history that so little is known about. Yet it is 173 years of history of the Chinese in Jamaica and, therefore, a single article cannot cover comprehensively the story to be told. As a point of departure, we will look at three periods of anti-Chinese riots carried out by blacks against the Chinese. The riots of 1918, 1938 and of 1965 — the latter just three years after the Declaration of Jamaica's political Independence. And there is a common cord running among the events, and that is what the social anthropologist called the “revolution of rising expectations”, firstly.

Secondly, the Chinese distribution of opium in Jamaica. The “Mother” country England, along with her allies, were victorious during the war (1914-1918) which unleashed an avalanche of new hopes and dreams of the domestic population in its far-flung corners of the Empire. The people wanted and expected more opportunities in their lives, particularly those returning from the war fighting for the mother country. It was not surprising, therefore that workers in Jamaica, among their many demands, marched and rallied for the legalisation of the trade union movement in Jamaica.

The national leader of the agitations was a returning war veteran Bain Alves, who succeeded, after a monumental national strike, in getting the colonial governor to accede to their demand for trade unions to be made legal. This was done in 1919 and so no longer could trade unions by their mere existence be charged for acting …”in Restraint of Trade”. Again, expectation spiked at the time of Jamaica's political independence from Great Britain. The Union Jack was lowered on August 6, 1962, and the black, green and gold Jamaican flag hoisted in its place. Similar, too, after the first World War ended in 1918 and produced an avalanche of new hopes and dreams in the Jamaican people so did the 'coming of age” of Jamaica to produce a similar revolution of rising expectations about how the society has operated since colonial times and demanded change: political, economic and social. In this quest for a more equitable and just society, attention began to turn inward to see the connection between wealth and poverty based on ethnicity and social cleavages. The large masses of black people were seemingly permanently enthrenched at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. They being descendants of 300 years of slavery of blacks by whites brought to the fore again the question of race. The hatred, anger and resentment of the negro boiled over on other major occasions such as the 1938 riots which started in Frome, Westmoreland, and spread throughout the island, including rallying on the Kingston Waterfront and Islington in the parish of St Mary leading to the shooting death of protesters by police and soldiers. The Chinese who operated economically and socially closest to the black masses on a daily basis would, by virtue of that proximity, be immersed in the stream of anger during those moments when the blacks were fully infuriated and mobilised. There were several skirmishes, but the incidents of 1918 ,1938 and 1965 deserve special focus.

One of the early roots in the resentment against Chinese was the pernicious drug in Jamaica — opium. 'Opium Scare' in Jamaica saw “natives succumbing to the vile and deadly habits”, reported one newspaper. And so, the foundation was laid for the first anti-Chinese riots of 1918. It began in Ewarton and spread like wild fire to other parts of St Catherine, and the parishes of St Ann, St Mary and Clarendon. The flash point was a clash between a Chinese man with a black man over the Chinese man's black girlfriend. The Chinese and several of his friends brutally beat the black man. The rumour spread that the Chinese and his friends had killed the black man and then pandemonium broke out. As tension built, L P Waison at his street-side meetings launched a broadside against “Chinese man”. Waison accused the Government for its failure to employ the law against Chinese immigrants — such as the open exploitation of shop assistants, and the breaking of spirits and gambling laws (peaka-pow). Waison's threat were drastic. He called for extreme violence against the Chinese, including for their shops to be burnt down. He told the crowd “when a man is hungry he will do anything”! It was a period of “gut-wrenching poverty”, wrote Ken Hill in a newspaper editorial. Those years leading up to 1938 with the rise of Alexander Bustamante, St William Grant, Norman Manley, Noel Nethersole, and earlier in 1927, Marcus Garvey, along with the four “H's” — Hart, Henry and two Hill brothers … saw also the emergence of the Rastafarian movement and increasing black counciousness thinking.

The 1938 riots escalated on sugar plantations and in the commercial sector in Jamaica with arson and sabotage. In all this, there were more newspaper reports describing “pernicious” drugs trafficked by the Chinese and expressing concern that it was spreading among the lower classes of the communities who were becoming “chronic opium addicts”. The 1938 uprising saw increased mob and arson attacks on the Chinese within the broader context of the widespread national disturbances.

The year 1965 was the next major anti-Chinese riots and exploded with its wick lit by a report that a group of three Chinese brothers brutally attacked a female employee who had an arrangement with them over payment for a radio bought on hire purchase. Within the same period there was a report of a Chineseman shooting a black labourer. Both events were followed by a week of riots in the form of arson and looting against Chinese immigrants. Now in our time anti-Chinese sentiments with increased attention to supermarkets, shopkeepers and restaurant operators are quietly simmering under the social surface. And finding contaminated food and drinks after the recent flooding in Montego Bay, to sell to customers who are overwhelmingly black, has done nothing to advance social comity between blacks and Chinese.

On the positive side, however, the Chinese immigrants have contributed to major entrepreneurial projects in Jamaica in areas where the older form of the same business had failed. For black Jamaicans it is important to give some credit to the entrepreneurial attitudes of the Chinese and learn something from them. For example, that there is strength in unity. The new wave of Chinese immigrants and investors have helped to expand and consolidate Jamaica's physical and social infrastructure, contributing solidly to the country's gross domestic Product, provided training of skills to our workers, and helping also to foster better work ethics in our people. Thirdly, the country has benefitted from the Chinese transfer of technology skills, particularly in the area of e-commerce among other things.

Both blacks and Chinese are not being heralded, therefore, to live in the past but it is a wonderful place to visit! They will discover that there is something for both blacks and Chinese to learn: That for an angry, hungry and resentful illiterate man of any racial strain totally lacking in the assets of intellectual sophistication and the possession of money, the capacity to inflict injury and potential for destruction … are not diminished by the absence of those wonderful attributes and assets. And that there is no difference between Chinese “Opium Scare” and the negro “Scamming Scare” as both actors are imperfect humans marching towards the annals of ancient history and, in the process will all long be forgotten — both the winners and the losers alike.

On July 21, 1973, I was driving past the Pye River Cemetery in Montego Bay with my father-mentor the Hugh Lawson Shearer when he asked me rhetorically: Do you know how many winners, indispensable people, who are lying down over there? Word to the wise.

Shalman Scott is a historian and former Mayor of Montego Bay

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