The Emergence of Caribbean Chinese Diasporic Anglophone Literature
The Emergence of Caribbean Chinese Diasporic Anglophone Literature
When Stuart Hall described himself, memorably, as “twice diasporized,” in his 1995 lecture “Negotiating Caribbean Identities,” he signaled the ways many diasporic people do not simply navigate the rupture of one diaspora but navigate multiple diasporas.1 Building on Hall’s formulation, I want to propose being ”thrice diasporized” as a framework for understanding the positioning of those shaped by the experiences of the African diaspora, the Asian diaspora, and the Caribbean diaspora, a relatively recent diaspora made up of people who mostly migrated to the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada after World War II.
Since the mid 1980s—a time when Caribbean disaporic people were coming of age—a “thrice diasporized” field of literature has been gradually emerging that I am naming Caribbean Chinese diasporic literature.2 The works in this field explore the lives of Chinese migrants and their creolized descendants. Six authors who identify as being of Chinese descent—Meiling Jin, Jan Lowe Shinebourne, Easton Lee, Staceyann Chin, Kerry Young, and Hannah Lowe—present a variety of portraits of Caribbean Chinese life. Their literary production—prose, poems, short stories, novels, and memoirs—represents the heterogeneity of the Chinese experience in the English-speaking Caribbean. Perhaps because so many Caribbean Chinese people emigrated in the 1960s and 1970s, the literary voice emerging from the diaspora is vibrant.
These writings stand in contrast to the way the Chinese have typically been represented in the Caribbean. The figure of the transatlantic Chinese “coolie” entered the British colonial imaginary in 1803 as part of the Trinidad Experiment, a plan to import Chinese laborers to the Caribbean in order to foster a transition from slavery to indentureship.3 Chinese labor was imagined as a solution, as an experiment, but little was imagined of the quotidian experience of these Asian diasporic laborers in the Caribbean and what their futures would hold. After the failure of this dark British colonial experiment, what remained was an Asian diasporic subject who emerged and thrived in the Caribbean, leading to many undisciplined intimacies. After indentureship, many more generations of Chinese laborers settled in the Caribbean, opening up circuits and channels of transnational labor. The fact that Chinese men were recruited in far greater numbers than Chinese women led to many Chinese men developing relationships with non-Chinese women in the Caribbean, birthing a new generation, the product of “global intimacies.”4 Caribbean Chinese diasporic literature reflects the legacy of these interracial intimacies in the Caribbean and abroad. It represents the afterlife of indenture and of the transatlantic Chinese “coolie.”
Although the population of Caribbean people of Chinese descent is relatively small compared to that of Caribbeans of African or Indian descent, the trope of the Chinese shopkeeper is omnipresent in the region’s literature. Many indentured workers returned home to southern China, some fled plantations before their contracts were complete, and others stayed and set up small grocery shops. Thus Mr. Chin, the quintessential shopkeeper in the Caribbean, became a familiar figure. One of the most well-known works of contemporary literature to explore the Caribbean Chinese experience is Patricia Powell’s 1998 novel The Pagoda, which looks at the fluidity of race and sexuality in the milieu of postemancipation rural Jamaica. Lowe, the main character, leaves China as a young girl by stowing away on a ship disguised as a boy and is forced by a white Jamaican man, who rapes him, to assume the role of a male shopkeeper in Jamaica. While Powell’s representation does important work to trouble the trope of Mr. Chin, the new emergent field of Caribbean Chinese diasporic literature moves beyond the trope of the Chinese shopkeeper, crucially decentering Mr. Chin to explore other Caribbean Chinese characters. What of Mr. Chin’s daughter, his wife, his grandchildren? And what of the less “industrious” characters—the gangsters and the gamblers?
The crisis of assimilation is an overarching theme in many of these narratives. The thrice diasporized authors also negotiate the tension between Chinese exclusion on the macro level of the nation and the micro level of the family. Though the Chinese were excluded as “alien” outsiders, they were also excluded within their Caribbean Chinese community based on who was viewed as “authentically Chinese.” The nature of being a diasporic subject, being removed from China, dilutes “authentic” Chineseness; in addition, racial hybridity threatens it. The specter of miscegenation looms, threatening the disappearance of the Chinese in the Caribbean. Often mixed-race Chinese children were called derogatory names such as “half-past eleven,” signifying that they were not complete, not twelve o’clock. Another slur used, ban rao shee, means “half brain.”5 These complex narratives of racial and cultural authenticity are inextricable from questions about history, cultural memory, and futurity.
The first Caribbean Chinese writings from the diaspora emerge in the mid-1980s from two British Guyanese Chinese authors—Meiling Jin and Jan Lowe Shinebourne. Their work represents the legacy of Chinese indentured laborers, who migrated to Guyana in much smaller numbers than Indians did. Jin and Shinebourne explore womanhood, sexuality, and the limitations of patriarchy. Jin was born in 1956 in Guyana to Chinese parents and migrated to England at the age of eight. In 1986, she published her first book of poetry, Gifts From My Grandmother, which explores her alterity, heritage, and sexual orientation. In the poem “Strangers in a hostile landscape,” Jin writes about Guyana, enslaved Africans, indentured Chinese, and her displacement moving from the Southern hemisphere where she was born to the hostile Northern hemisphere, England. In 1996, she published a collection of short stories, Song of the Boatwoman, a transnational portrait of female characters challenging patriarchal expectations. Jin has described the English language as a strait jacket and thus experiments with the Guyanese vernacular. One story in which she does this, “Victoria,” is set at the turn of the nineteenth century and looks at the oppression of arranged marriages and the power the “home Chinee,” born in China, have over the “creole Chinee,” born in the Caribbean. It ends with a young woman, Victoria Wong-a-tim, setting sail, leaving Guyana behind for Trinidad, to join her brothers in business.6
Also a native of Guyana, Jan Lowe Shinebourne, born in 1947, is of Chinese and Indian ancestry. She migrated to the United Kingdom in her early twenties. Her first books do not focus as much on the Chinese experience and rather look at the divide between the Indo-Guyanese and the Afro-Guyanese. In her 1986 novel Timepiece, the only reference to the Chinese experience is the main character’s name, Sandra Yansen. In her 1988 novel The Last English Plantation, there are characters of Indian and Chinese heritage, but the story does not explore this in great depth. It is not until the publication of The Godmother and Other Stories in 2004 that Shinebourne directly examines the Chinese experience in Guyana. In “London and New York,” she writes about the “thrice diasporized” nature of food and finding a sense of home in Chinatowns. Chinese waiters in London ask the narrator to repeat her order in Chinese three times and strain when they look at her because they cannot place her. Shinebourne’s most recent book, Chinese Women, published in 2010, is a post-9/11 novel about a Canadian, Indo-Guyanese Muslim man. He spends his life in pursuit of Chinese women because he is intrigued by the allure of their otherness as minorities in Guyananese society, occupying a liminal position between the Indian and the black majority.7
Across the Atlantic, in the United States, there are two notable Jamaican Chinese expatriate writers who explore the Afro-Jamaican Chinese experience—Easton Lee and Staceyann Chin. Both are performance poets whose writings transgress norms in different ways. The rural experience, Christianity, and Jamaican proverbs intimately shape Chin’s and Lee’s writings. Lee, an Anglican minister, was born in the early 1930s and migrated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida as a retiree. His view of the Jamaican countryside is nostalgic and romanticized. He transgresses the conventions of the English language by writing in patois, having been deeply influenced by Louise Bennett. The poem “China Town Story,” from his first book From Behind the Counter, published in 1998, describes a Chinese man interrogating Lee about his heritage and family name because he is mixed-race. Lee responds by detailing his family’s illustrious legacy in China, proving that his Chinese family embraces him. In another poem, “Language Class,” from his 2003 collection Encounters, Lee describes the intimacy of translation between his Afro-Jamaican mother, who learned the Hakka dialect, and his Chinese father, who struggled with English. While Lee focuses on the space of the Chiney shop, he subverts it by narrating from the mixed-race child’s perspective, beneath the shop counter where all the town gossip can be overheard.8
Staceyann Chin’s relationship to Chineseness stands in sharp contrast to Lee’s. The Chinese man Chin believes is her father refuses to claim her, and her Afro-Jamaican mother abandons her at a young age. So her maternal grandmother and other family members raise Chin. She is thus disconnected from what it means to be Chinese in Jamaica, even though people identify her as such. Born in Jamaica in 1972, Chin migrated to the United States in the 1990s and is now based in Brooklyn, New York. She is primarily known as a performance poet and a lesbian and gay rights activist. Like Meiling Jin, Chin wrestles with questions of sexuality and race in her poetry. In “Chosen Exile,” Chin talks about her father’s “Oriental lips” rejecting her. She expounds on these themes of exclusion, abjection, and paternity in her 2009 memoir, The Other Side of Paradise, a coming-of-age narrative. Living in poverty she is rejected not only by her mother but also by her mother country, Jamaica, for transgressing sexual norms because she is a lesbian. While Lee emphasizes the cross-cultural harmony of his nuclear family and his inclusion in the Jamaican Chinese community, Chin is looking in from the outside.9
Recently, two bold, new literary voices have emerged that completely decenter the tropes of Mr. Chin and the Chiney shop. British Jamaican Chinese authors Kerry Young and Hannah Lowe published their first works in 2011, reflecting the stories of the second generation of Chinese migration to Jamaica of Hakka merchants in the early twentieth century and their descendants. Young and Lowe explore the seedy underworld of criminality and gambling within the Jamaican Chinese community. Young was born in Jamaica in the 1950s to a Chinese father and an Afro-Chinese mother. Her family migrated to England when she was ten. She has written two novels, part of a trilogy, loosely based on her father’s life from the 1930s to 1960s in Jamaica. Her debut, Pao, is told in the first person from the point-of-view of the eponymous character, a Chinese man who arrives in Jamaica in 1938 as a political refugee, inherits a protection business, and becomes the “uncle of Chinatown” in Kingston, a “Godfather” figure. The novel looks at his life through Jamaican independence and anti-Chinese violence. He fathers children with two women, his wife Fay Wong, the Afro-Jamaican Chinese daughter of a wealthy merchant, and his lover Gloria Campbell, a black woman who is a sex worker. The second book, Gloria, published in 2013, tells the same story from the lover’s perspective. The forthcoming third installment, “Fay,” is to tell the story of Pao’s wife, who abandons him in Jamaica, taking their children with her to England. A television dramatization is said to be in the works in Britain. After meditating on his failed marriage and his “inside” and “outside” children, Pao, ultimately, embraces Jamaica as his new home. He sees the future in his and Gloria’s grandchild who is of African, Chinese, and Indian heritage.10
While Young paints an intimate portrait of midcentury Kingston, Hannah Lowe’s milieux are Ilford and Brixton. Born in 1976 in Britain to an Afro-Jamaican Chinese father and a white English mother, Lowe is the only author in this group who was not born in the Caribbean, thus her positioning as thrice diasporized is even more pronounced and distant from China and the Caribbean. Her first book, Chick, published in 2013, is an elegiac collection that attempts to understand more about her mysterious father, who migrated to London in the 1950s and spent much of his time gambling in London’s East End. While those in Western culture often view gambling as a vice, Lowe considers it an important legacy, and she describes the intimacy of this cultural practice that she inherited from her father and grandfather. In “Five Ways to Load a Dice,” she imagines her father being taught the trickery of gambling by his father in Shanghai. She crafts a haunted imaginary in the poems “Grandmother” and “1918,” in which she engages with her paternal Jamaican grandparents, though she never actually met them. “Three Treasures” perfectly captures the “thrice diasporized” perspective in a house with three levels, representing her Jamaican heritage, her Chinese heritage, and her Englishness. In Lowe’s poetry, as in many of the other Caribbean Chinese diasporic narratives, culture is translated and transmitted through food (wonton skins and ackee and saltfish) as well as language (Cantonese and Hakka and Jamaican patois). Lowe’s forthcoming experimental memoir, “Long Time No See,” will blend fact and fiction to examine the Jamaican Chinese story.11
In the same way that Lisa Lowe asks us to consider the heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity of the Asian American experience, I suggest that these six authors help us view the Caribbean Chinese beyond the monolithic mold of Mr. Chin.12 The narratives wrestle with the politics of inclusion and exclusion, whether it is inside or outside the nation, inside or outside the Chinese family, or inside or outside of history.
While the literature I have described is emerging from the diaspora and critically represents a thrice diasporized voice, it is important to note there are a few authors based in Trinidad and Jamaica who have contributed to Caribbean Chinese literature. Trinidadian businessman and visual artist Willi Chen published a number of short stories beginning in the late 1980s; however, they do not center as much on the Chinese. University of West Indies lecturer Victor Chang has also published a number of short stories over the years on the Jamaican Chinese experience. In 2012, Jamaican Chinese writer Ann-Margaret Lim published The Festival of the Wild Orchid, a new book of poetry that explores Afro-Asian hybridity.
In addition to this literary production, there are thrice diasporized artists employing film to represent this experience. Public intellectual and filmmaker Richard Fung produced The Way to My Father’s Village (1988) and My Mother’s Place (1990), two cinematic journeys through Canada, Trinidad, and China, spliced together from home videos and interviews that trouble family secrets. Natalie Wei, another Canadian filmmaker who is also of Trinidadian Chinese background, interrogates the politics of gender and mixed-race identity in her film Chinee Girl (2011). Canadian Jamaican Chinese filmmaker Jeanette Kong produced two recent shorts, The Chiney Shop (2012) and Half: The Story of a Chinese-Jamaican Son (2013), that explore the intimacies of the Hakka community in Jamaica.
Whether in film or literature, these cultural imaginaries create a space to explore what will never be known about the history of the Chinese in the Caribbean. Out of hybrids of fact and fiction, family lore, and archival documents emerges a story of interracial intimacies and a history from the middle, between black and white. This new language, this thrice diasporized literature, liberates the transatlantic Chinese “coolie” from the binding reductive language of indenture contracts, the colonial archive, and the stereotype of Mr. Chin by imagining new futures. Meiling Jin, Jan Lowe Shinebourne, Easton Lee, Staceyann Chin, Kerry Young, and Hannah Lowe have made important contributions to the multiplicity of Caribbean, overseas Chinese, and African diasporic narratives. I expect we will hear many more new voices in the years to come. These disaporic narratives are part of a larger narrative of global intimacies in the New World and the intimacies of four continents represented in one people, a thrice diasporized people.
A PhD candidate in American studies at Yale University, Tao Leigh Goffe was born and raised in South London. Her dissertation looks at Afro-Asian intimacies in the Americas through the lens of photography and literature. From Islamic hip-hop to yellowface and postcolonial theory, her research explores the intersections between black and Asian subcultures in Britain, the Caribbean, and the United States.
1 Stuart Hall, “Negotiating Caribbean Identities,” New Left Review, no. 209 (January–February 1995): 6.
2 I place Caribbean before Chinese to reflect the order of the layering of the diasporic experiences for these writers.
3 See Lisa Lowe, “Autobiography Out of Empire,” Small Axe, no. 28 (March 2009): 99.
4 See Lisa Lowe, “The Intimacies of Four Continents,” in Ann Laura Stoler, ed., Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
5 Yoshiko Shibata, “Revisiting Chinese Hybridity: Negotiating Categories and Re-constructing Ethnicity in Contemporary Jamaica—A Preliminary Report,” Caribbean Quarterly 51, no. 1 (2005): 53–75.
6 Meiling Jin, Gifts of My Grandmother (London: Sheba Feminist, 1986); and Song of the Boatwoman (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 1996).
7 Jan Lowe Shinebourne, Timepiece (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 1986); The Last English Plantation (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 1988); The Godmother and Other Stories (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2004); and Chinese Women (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2010).
8 Easton Lee, From Behind the Counter: Poem from a Rural Jamaican Experience (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1998); and Encounters: Voices and Echoes (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2003). See also Heritage Call: Ballad for Children of the Dragon (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2001).
9 Staceyann Chin, “Chosen Exile,” trikster.net/3/chin/6.html; and The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir (New York: Scribner, 2009).
10 Kerry Young, Pao (London: Bloomsbury, 2011); and Gloria (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).
11 Hannah Lowe, The Hitcher, pamphlet (London: Rialto, 2011); Chick (London: Bloodaxe Books, 2013); interview with the author, 8 September 2013, London.
12 See Lisa Lowe, “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differences,” in Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).