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In the Newsroom

May 12, 2009
Generations meet in Jamaica’s Chinese cemetery

The Lignum Vitae tree — Jamaica’s national tree — shades the grave of Albert Hosang in the Chinese cemetery in Kingston, Jamaica. Photo: Lisa Biagiotti

Lisa Biagiotti is currently reporting on HIV/AIDS, sexuality and young gay men in Jamaica. On Saturday, she visited her grandfather’s grave in the Chinese cemetery in Kingston. She shares a personal story of death and renewal of the Chinese community in Jamaica.

I never met my grandfather, Albert Hosang, but I knew he was buried in the Chinese cemetery in Kingston, Jamaica. The 11-acre cemetery serves as the buffer zone for three main gangs in one of Kingston’s most volatile neighborhoods.

Before the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) erected a wall around the cemetery, it was a blanket battleground. People slept in graves and pillaged marble tombstones, preventing many Chinese Jamaicans from visiting the final resting places of their relatives.

The cemetery is a reminder of the Chinese presence in Jamaica since 1854. After slavery was abolished in Jamaica, British landowners recruited the Chinese — specifically the peasant, nomadic Hakka Chinese from the Guandong province outside Hong Kong. They came as indentured laborers, but soon rose through the economic and social ranks of Jamaican society, settling in downtown Kingston and throughout the island as traders, shopkeepers and bakers.

From the beginning, the Chinese mixed with the local population and converted from Buddhism to Christianity. At one point, some estimate the Chinese population reached 20,000, but it’s difficult to calculate a precise count because many Chinese are a blend of other ethnic backgrounds like black Jamaican, white European, South Asian, Lebanese, Syrian and Jewish.

When independence from British rule came in 1962, the Chinese fully integrated into Jamaican society. The second and third generations identified more as Jamaican than Chinese. They didn’t speak the old Hakka dialect, but spoke Jamaican patois. The CBA in Jamaica is trying to revive haunts of Chinese culture with Mandarin language lessons, Chinese socials, badminton, Kung Fu and other traditional Chinese celebrations.

There is also a new wave of Chinese immigrants in Jamaica today. Like their Chinese ancestors 150 years ago, they are setting up shops in downtown Kingston. When I walked into Chun Lai’s shop on Princess Street, no one spoke patois (yet), and all the goods were made in China.

At 10:00 on Saturday morning, I sat at the foot of my grandfather’s grave in the 99-year-old Chinese cemetery while resident expert David Chang read the Chinese characters on the tombstone. (My grandfather died at age 46, but the Chinese characters read 49 — it’s common to have errors like these as the language slipped away from the Chinese Jamaicans.) David read from top to bottom, right to left: The town and province my grandfather’s family came from in China, the names of his parents, brothers and wife. Then he said, “And 10? Ten children?” and turned to me.

I nodded, “Yes, 10 children.” And I looked down at my right hand, at the worn, barely-beveled ring my Aunt Paula sent me in a plastic bag a few weeks ago. I sighed and thought of her as she waged her final battle with cancer. I patted her father’s grave and heard her slim gold band tap the white tile.

My aunt, Paula (Hosang) Sperrazza, died at 1:30 p.m. that very same day. I’m not sure if my visit was karmic or auspicious — maybe it just is. She was a courageous and brilliant woman who began her life 62 years ago in the Chinese Jamaican community in Kingston.

Rest in peace Paula Sperrazza and Albert Hosang.

– Lisa Biagiotti

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2/16/2010: Lisa, great work. Always nice to hear someone investigating the Jamaican-Chinese or is it Chinese-Jamaican?.] Sorry I only found out about this right now. The last time I was at the Chinese cemetery, someone swiped a gold necklace off a Chinese woman; other fellows supposedly went to catch him with machetes in their hands. Meanwhile, a rich family had a whole large roast pig in their pagoda. Back then,the JBC burned real money for the spirits. We had no fake money in Ja. to burn. Only when we emigrated to US did we discover there was fake money to burn. There are two yearbook size books from the JBC in Toronto Canada chronicling the history of Chinese in Ja.; not sure if the CBA in Jamaica showed them to you. That’s pretty much the history. I have both books if you wish to peruse them. I live in NYC, but my brother and quite a few uncles/cousins still live in Kingston and I go back frequently. If you wish to learn more about the Jamaican Chinese, now is the time to act. Many of the grandparents are dying off. They are the ones with all the history. I even went to do my ancestral village trip in 2001. Just find the oldest person in family village in China and tell them your grandfather’s or great-grandfather’s name [unfortunately they don’t care to ask about your grandmother] and they will show you the horrible cement barrack where your grandfather was born. But those old folks in China are dying out too. And the villages have changed so much. As for the Facebook, I don’t think too many of the young ones care enough about the past–yet. My parents age group, 60 to 70, don’t use computers really. My generation moved to America so seems very little interest in a life they don’t remember; mostly they are Jamaican-Chinese-American. I remember too much of a GREAT life growing up in Jamaica. If you are interested, let me know. Got family in Germany, England, Canada, Miami, NYC, Maryland, Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, China, Viet Nam, Taiwan, Hawaii, Trinidad. Hope you got to eat some really good Jamaican and Chinese-Jamaican food while you were there. If not, I can hook you up with some in NYC. Walk Good!


hi my name is chin, am black chinese from montego bay jamaicaand i must say i hate when people in america see jamaica as a black country and its my community in montego bay they are more chinese than blacks.also most of the blacks are are mix with chinese.I see my country as China in the west.


glad to read about chinese in jamaica,i am hakka and my grandfater he is a merchant between china and jamaica last about 100years ago.


Hi John: Thanks for your comment! I’m sorry I’m just responding now. I’ve sent you Anshan’s chapter via e-mail. Please let me know if you have any other questions. All the best, Lisa


Lisa this is really a wonderful read. I have a close friend who is Chinese and was born in Jamaica. Could you email me the pdf od Li Anshan’s chapter on Chinese Jamaicans in the book, “Chinese in the Caribbean” that you offered Joseph in one of your replies? Thank you


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This information was so very good for my research project. However, I wonder if you have any information about the culture of courtship and Marriage, birth and death in the Jamaican-Chinese society. I need this info for Saturday please if that is possible. Thank you.


Hello Vincent:

Thanks for your comment! I’m really glad you did NOT go into the cemetery…it’s in one of Kingston’s more dangerous neighborhoods. I advise anyone reading this: Contact Vincent Chang of the CBA ( if you’d like to visit the Chinese cemetery in Kingston.

The CBA has also mapped and photographed all the standing graves in the cemetery, so if you have relatives buried there, they will likely be able to find the tombstones. That’s how I found my grandfather’s grave. You’ll need to know your relative’s English and Chinese name, DOB or date of death.

I’ll e-mail you Anshan’s chapter on Chinese Jamaicans too.

Thanks again for your interest. I feel I should start a Facebook group connecting Chinese Jamaicans worldwide!

All the best,


Hi Lisa,
Thank you for the story on the Jamaican Chinese. I was in Kingston 2nd week of July 2009. I am a Hakka Chinese from the Indian Sub-Continent. My Great Great Grand Parents migrated to India over a 100 years ago. I made a point to visit the Chinese Cemetary in Kingston, It was getting dark and I did not go inside, It has a Chinese style roof at the gate and the cenetary seems well kept. I bought a copy of Ray Chen’s ” Shopkeepers” at the Airport and loved it. I also visited the Chinese Benovelent Society’s building, which is quite impressive.
I now live in America and travels quite often to Toronto which has a huge Jamaican Chinese population. I am involved with the Chinese Community in the DC Baltimore area. If there is anything I could do to help, please let me know. I have well connected people in May Pen.


[…] Your mom is Jamaican, and your family ties to Jamaica span three generations. Was it difficult to report these seemingly negative stories for Worldfocus? What did your family […]


Dear Lisa,
Thank you for the picture and comments. That is something we are in common. I realize how little I (or we) understand the history of the past generations and how humble we are before our ancestors. Now you are in U.S. and I am in China, we live as individuals but could contribute to the history of mankind, no matter how little the contribution could be. Do come to visit our campus once you are in Beijing.
Best regards from Anshan in Beijing.


Hello Joseph:

Thanks so much for your comment! It’s been fascinating to learn about the history of Chinese-Jamaicans and the “gypsies” of China.

The Hakka people were the poorest peasants and always in search of land. That’s what lead them from northern China to Guandong, and to Malaysia, Singapore…Jamaica…and elsewhere. As a group, they seem to be more adventurous than traditional Chinese. Hakka women never bound their feet and worked alongside men in the fields.

I’m researching the Hakka now and would be happy to share any information with you. I’m also cutting a short video of my visit to the Chinese cemetery in Kingston and will post that soon.

Though I’ve visited Jamaica many times growing up, I don’t think I realized how “Jamaican” my Chinese family was until I really spent time on the streets of Kingston or walked into garrison communities. Being Chinese-Jamaican is truly distinct from being Chinese or Jamaican.

There are some books worth taking a look at, including “The Shopkeepers” by Ray Chen. I can also e-mail you a PDF of Li Anshan’s chapter on Chinese Jamaicans in the book, “Chinese in the Caribbean.”

Thanks again and please let me know if you have additional questions,
Lisa Biagiotti


Thanks for short, informative, and poignant piece. As a second generation Jamaican, my grandmother immigrated to Britain in 1961, this gives me more insight into the history of my people. While I was not raised in Jamaica, I was raised in the Jamaican culture, something of which I have not appreciated for most of my life, but most recently, after a spiritual journey to Jamaica last year, have strongly embraced.

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