Most Chinese Jamaicans are Hakka and can trace their origin to the Chinese labourers that came to Jamaica in the mid-19th to early 20th centuries. The British parliament made a study of prospects for Chinese migration to the West Indies in 1811, and in 1843 made an attempt to recruit Chinese workers to come to Jamaica, British Guiana, and Trinidad, but nothing came of it.
The two earliest ships of Chinese migrant workers to Jamaica arrived in 1854, the first directly from China, the second composed of onward migrants from Panama; they were contracted for plantation work. A further 200 would arrive in the years up until 1870, mostly from other Caribbean islands. Later, in 1884, a third wave of 680 Chinese migrants would arrive; with the exception of a few from Sze Yup, most of these were Hakka people from Dongguan, Huiyang, and Bao’an. This third wave of migrants would go on to bring more of their relatives over from China.
From 1910, Chinese immigrants were required to pay a £30 deposit and pass a written test to demonstrate that they could write 50 words in three different languages; the restrictions on Chinese migrants were tightened even further in 1931, but relaxed again by 1947 due to lobbying by the Chinese consulate. The 1943 census showed 12,394 Chinese residing in Jamaica; these were divided into three categories by the census, namely “China-born” (2,818), “local-born” (4,061), and “Chinese coloured” (5,515), the latter referring to multiracial people of mixed African and Chinese descent.
This made Chinese Jamaicans the second largest Chinese population in the Caribbean, behind Chinese Cubans. By 1963, the Chinese had a virtual monopoly on retail trade in Jamaica, controlling 90% of dry goods stores and 95% of supermarkets, along with extensive holdings in other sectors such as laundries and betting parlours.
Since the 1970s, thousands of Chinese Jamaicans moved abroad as Jamaica’s economy slowed; at first, they went primarily to Canada, which was more open to immigration than the United States, but the U.S. later became a major destination as well. As a result, clusters of Chinese Jamaicans can be found outside of Jamaica as well, in Toronto, New York City, and South Florida. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a new wave of Chinese migration to Jamaica, consisting of Hong Kong and Taiwan entrepreneurs who set up textiles factories on the island targeting the U.S. market, and often brought in migrant workers from China to staff their ventures.
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