Jamaican Chinese find roots pre-dating BC

Family photo in 2012 with Paula Williams Madison and brother Howard Williams at center.
Photo courtesy of Madison Media Management

Jamaicans of Chinese ancestry are as prevalent throughout the immigrant population of Canada the UK and the U.S. as any. Among achievers from the island of Jamaica, they include the world’s top male and female supermodels Tyson Beckford and Naomi Campbell, Canadian billionaire Michael Lee Chin, CEOs of VP Records, Vincent and Pat Chin, Rockers TV reggae video pioneer Earl Chin, “The Voice” reality show winner Tessanne Chin, current Miss Jamaica World beauty queen, Laurie-Ann Chin and many others.

With musician Byron Lee and Roman Catholic priest Richard Holung, their names are indelibly inscribed in Jamaica’s history and culture.

But while there are those who can be immediately identified by their Chinese ancestry, perhaps an equal amount or more are forced to straddle the most dominant cultural appearance and more often than not it is African.

Recently a few of all persuasions packed into a Manhattan movie theater to see and support a documentary called “Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China.” Screened during the 18th annual Urbanworld Film Festival, the 59-minute documentary directed by Jeanette Jong united Jamaicans and bi-racial individuals and couples who identify with the topic of retracing the family roots and origins that bind them uniquely with ancestors and fellows.

For Jong, a Jamaican Chinese national and filmmaker, the topic was alluring to document. And familiar with the plight of many mixed race Jamaicans she embraced a mission to travel to Toronto, Canada, Mocho, Clarendon, St. Ann’s, and Kingston, Jamaican to spotlight a life-long mission of Paula Williams Madison. The pilgrimage actually started with Madison whose mother Nell Vera Lowe was born in Jamaica but migrated to Harlem, New York in 1945. Now residing in Los Angeles, California with her husband she currently is a partner in Williams Group Holdings LLC, a Chicago-based, family-owned company, which has majority share investments in The Africa Channel; the Los Angeles Sparks, a sports franchise of the WNBA as well as various real estate, consumer, financial and trading businesses. She is also a member of the WNBA Board of Governors. After 22 years she retired from an executive position at NBC Universal. At age 58, it was then she yearned most to fulfill a wish her mother Nell voiced centering around finding the roots of her migrant father Samuel Lowe (Luo in Chinese.)

Although Madison prospered as a successful media executive, like African American Alex Hayles she wanted to know the beginning of her ancestry. She thought she knew enough about the Jamaican beginning of her family tree but felt there was much more to its roots and even the branches and leaves that must have survived to find her and her sibling brothers with a single parent mother living in Harlem.

In her quest, Madison discovered the Hakka meetings in Toronto, Canada. There she met Chinese who gather from all over the globe in order to celebrate, validate and re-affirm their heritage and culture every four years. Inspired by the cultural ritual and the union of the race, Madison fully committed to a journey of exploration and discovery.

Both her brothers – Howard and Elrick — supported her endeavor.

Elrick recalled that although as a child he lived in perhaps the worst section of the Village of Harlem his mother Nell was very ambitious and determined to see her children achieve greatness. He said and his sister Paula endorsed that their migrant Jamaican mother had high standards and in no uncertain terms instilled that sense of purpose in their mindset.

A vivid recollection, Paula recounted was being told that her B-grade on a report card was unacceptable. The daughter recalled that her mother told her she had not left her Caribbean homeland to live here in order that her children achieve less than an A rating.

Nell’s make-up was of a Black mother and Chinese father.

Apparently Nell knew very little about her father, Samuel Lowe. Paula claims she said she remembered seeing him only once.

She died in 2006.

Shipping records states that the pioneering Lowe along with scores of Asians travelled to Jamaica seeking work in the booming sugar industry. Actually, it was revealed that Samuel Lowe actually left the SS Andresitas when it docked in 1933 after sailing from Hon Kong. Records show that Chinese immigrants were first to engage in retail trade on the island. Lowe allegedly established a local shop and quickly traded on the open market that demanded groceries and other products. According to film statements, Madison’s journey from Harlem to Jamaica uncovered a rich legacy left by the immigrant post-slavery odyssey from Asia. That Lowe established a thriving business was revealing to Madison. While on the Caribbean island, Madison realized her grandfather returned to his homeland with one of his daughters Adassa. Madison and Jong’s mission seemed to unfold in Jamaica and eventually they ended up in the ancestral village of the family in Shenzhen province with her brothers and 20 family members. While there, Madison learned that official documents record 151 generations of Luos there. She also found out that her lineage dates back 3,000 years to 1006 BC.

She wept after visiting cemeteries, temples and the 300-room village the Lowe (Luo) name claims to their heritage. That the Luos time on earth predated the era Jesus Christ walked the earth seemed overwhelming.

As the film rolled, Jamaicans of Chinese heritage dabbed away tears. Among them Francine Chin, a radio personality who specializes in promoting reggae music, family members of Vincent and Pat Chin, operators of VP Records, a company that distributes Jamaican music.

Sonia Chin, an administrative assistant at a Brooklyn hospital said she was emotionally moved by the familiar aspects of the film. “I felt so connected because we have such familiar stories about our Chinese family, Wow!” Sonia said.

Born in Jamaica to interracial parents Chin said the documentary relates to her in more ways than she can readily explain.

Two days after attending the public viewing she said “It is still in my head.”

Among the patrons in the audience was an individual who said she is now retracing her Jewish Jamaican roots.

It would not be surprising if one of the first multicultural societies in the world records all the nationals tracing the roots of Jamaicans with those of Syrians, Indians, Australians or Alaskans.

“Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China” is due to screen later this week in Trinidad & Tobago.

Jong’s hope is that Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) will obtain the rights to screen the document for television viewers. If this fails, look for the document on the Lowe family-owned Africa Channel.

Catch You On The Inside!

Sonia Chin and Paula Williams Madison.
Photo by Vinette K. Pryce

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