“Kung Hee Fatt Chow” say the Chinese on February 5 - “Happy New Year”. Which is a good time to note how well the Chinese in Jamaica have integrated. Nothing gives a better indication of this than their influence on reggae. No other ethnic minority has played a greater role in the development of Jamaican music. Indeed, with the possible exception of American Jews and rhythm and blues, the role of Chinese Jamaicans in reggae has few parallels anywhere. The first real sound system, the first live ska band, the first Jamaican produced international reggae hit, the first reggae station, and the first locally written history of reggae were all the products of Jamaicans of Chinese descent. As some wag half joked “We can’t sing, so we had to contribute to the music in other ways!”


The first Chinese Jamaican music pioneer was downtown hardware merchant Thomas Wong, better known by his nom de music ‘Tom The Great Sebastien’. He is generally credited with developing the first real dancehall sound system in the early 1950s. As Count Machukie, the first deejay toaster, put it


“There were other sets playing about the place, but Tom was the first sound with an amplifier properly balanced for the dancehall.”


Other sounds like Duke Reid The Trojan and Sir Coxsone Dodd’s Downbeat began giving Tom competition. Turned off by the often violent rivalry  downtown, he opened the Silver Slipper Club at Cross Roads. Things went sour and he reportedly committed suicide by gassing himself in his car. Shortly after Silver Slipper burnt to the ground.


Another trailblazer was the indestructible Byron Lee. A product of the great town of Christiana, Byron was a Manning Cup star at St. George’s College during the 1950s rock and roll and rhythm and blues craze. (His nickname among the girls was ‘baby legs’. Winston Chung Fah says fellow ballers called Byron ‘sowie’ because he hogged the ball!). The school emblem featured St. George and the dragon, and so the longest lived band in Jamaican history was dubbed Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. Their ‘Dumplings’, produced by Eddie Seaga, was the seventh local song to make the JBC Record Charts in 1960.


Lee played a leading role as bandleader and promoter in transforming ska from a west Kingston sound into a national and later internationally renowned musical form.


“At about independence Eddie Seaga encouraged me to go to West Kingston and listen to this music called ska. It was a rough sound at the time but very powerful. Nothing about ska was known outside of west Kingston then, and there were almost no live ska shows. It was mainly played on sound systems and juke boxes. I met guys like Jimmy Cliff and The Maytals and we decided to put on a show at Glass Bucket called ‘Ska Goes Uptown’. Some high toned people criticized us for putting on such low class music, but it was a big success. Radio picked up on the sound and middle class Jamaican started buying ska records.


I would never try to take credit for being one of ska’s creators. But we helped to shape it as a music and were primarily responsible for spreading it around the island on live shows. People forget now, but ska really went further than just music. Before this Jamaicans looked down on anything local and only respected something if it was foreign. But when ska became popular people started to respect other things Jamaican. The music really gave us national pride”.


Lee continues to be a major influence on Jamaican music, this time as the king of Soca. Almost single-handedly he created what is now the country’s most important annual music event, Jamaica Carnival. While in the early days he brought ska from downtown to uptown, with soca he has reversed the process. Carnival here was once an ‘uptown white and light brown thing’. But as the hundreds of thousands who now line the streets to dance and watch the bands gleefully attest, Byron has brought it to the masses


Leslie Kong was another giant. Brother of Father Ernest Kong, he originally owned a combination ice cream parlour and record shop called Beverly’s with his brothers. He got interested in the music business and not only gave legends like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff their start, but produced some of the finest songs in Jamaican history, including ‘54-46’, ‘Shanty Town’ and ‘Rivers of Babylon’. Some consider him the greatest producer in reggae history.


Kong also produced Desmond Dekker and the Aces’ ‘Poor Me Israelite’, the first record made in Jamaican to go gold, and the first to hit the top ten in Britain and America. “Israelite” topped the British Charts in April 1969 and went to number 9 on the American charts in July 1969, eventually selling over 2 million copies. Many have followed since, but this was the song that proved to anxious Jamaicans that reggae really could make it abroad. Leslie Kong died of a heart attack at 37 in August 1971.


The many other seminal Chinese Jamaican contributors to reggae include Justin and Duke Yap who produced some of Don Drummond and the Skatalites greatest works; Kes Chin and The Vikings, once voted Jamaica’s most popular ska band; Vincent ‘Randy’ Chin who opened Randy’s Record Shop at North Parade in the early 1960s, produced hits for people like Lord Creator, John Holt and Alton Ellis, and whose family currently runs VP Records in New York, one of the world’s biggest reggae companies; Winston Lowe, producer of the Uniques and others; Warrick Lyn, Leslie Kong’s successor and also a producer of great records; Herman Chin-Loy, Leslie Kong’s cousin, who with Clive and Leonard Chin helped create some of Augustus Pablo’s great songs; Ernest and Jo Jo Hookim, owners of the 1970s hit factory Channel One Studios; Jeffrey and Mikey Chung of Now Generation Band – Mikey also produced Maxi Priest’s gold album ‘Bonafide’; Phillip Chen, guitarist for Tommy James and the Vagabonds who went on to play for Rod Stewart and was voted one of world’s top three guitarists by Guitar Player; Neville Lee of Sonic Sounds, one of Jamaica’s biggest record distributors; Karl Young, proprietor of IRIE FM - “the world’s number one reggae station”; Brian Chung and Chris Cargill, owner of the island’s biggest night clubs, Cactus and Asylum. Of course there are probably others who those in the business will remember but escape the mind right now. And we can’t forget Keith Lyn, vocalist on 1963’s second biggest song, ‘Empty Chair’, and many other hits. Who say chiney man caan sing?


(Kevin O’Brien Chang is author of Reggae Routes : The Story of Jamaican Music)

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