The Chinese Jamaicans: Unlikely Pioneers of Reggae Music

Updated on November 2, 2017

Appreciation of music from the '60s and '70s is alive and well, judging from the success of stage musicals like Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys, and Bat Out of Hell.

There's something special about the music of this era—its timeless worldwide appeal has lasted over generations.

A small but significant part of that era was Jamaican reggae, now referred to as Early Reggae (late '60s to early '70s) and Roots Reggae ('70s to early-'80s).

A Little History About Jamaica

During British rule of Jamaica, African slaves were imported as laborers starting in the mid-1600s. Irish indentured workers were also used from the 17th to 18th century, the majority transported by force as political prisoners of war from Ireland.

After slavery was abolished, the British imported indentured servants from India and China to supplement the labor pool, as many freedmen resisted working on the plantations. A few hundred Germans were also recruited.

Eventually, Jewish and Lebanese immigrants seeking refuge from persecution also settled on the island.

Almost all the Chinese who arrived in Jamaica prior to 1980 were from the Hakka ethnic group and came from a cluster of villages within 20 miles of each other in the area now known as Shenzhen.

The 1943 census shows that the Chinese residing in Jamaica were divided into three categories: China-born, local-born, and Chinese colored, the latter referring to multiracial people of mixed African and Chinese descent.

After Jamaica gained independence from the British, this classification was abandoned and the group became locally known as "Jamaican Chinese".

By 1963, the Chinese had a 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 parlors.

Anti-Chinese violence and political unrest during the '60s and '70s led many islanders of Chinese descent to migrate to Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. University education and career prospects were attractive incentives to leave Jamaica permanently.

Unassuming Entrepreneurs

Early Chinese record producers were mostly behind-the-scenes guys, the technicians and distributors. In their heyday, they were virtual unknowns outside of Jamaica. However the music from the roots reggae era has continued to spread throughout the world.

Byron Lee and the Dragonaires
Byron Lee and the Dragonaires
The Dynamic Sounds label
The Dynamic Sounds label

Byron Lee

Byron Lee is known to have introduced the electric bass guitar to Jamaica in late 1959 or 1960. However, the reason Lee began to use the electric bass as opposed to the double bass had nothing to do with sound. Rather, it was a way for Lee to avoid carrying the large and heavy double bass to the truck to move from gig to gig. The bass guitar soon gained popularity throughout the country and soon became the standard. The electric bass's louder, clearer, and more in-your-face sound soon changed the entire sound of Jamaican music entirely.

Around 1950, along with his friend Carl Brady, he formed the first incarnation of his band the Dragonaires, named after the college football team that they played for, at that time concentrating on mento. The band turned professional in 1956 and went on to become one of Jamaica's leading ska bands, continuing since and taking in other genres such as calypso, Soca, and Mas.

Lee helped build the careers of dozens of vocalists, including Jimmy Cliff, The Maytals and The Blues Busters, and was instrumental in raising the profile of ska.

The Dragonaires appeared in the 1962 James Bond movie Dr. No which was partly filmed in Jamaica.

He later established Dynamic Sounds in 1969, then the best-equipped recording facility in the Caribbean, where excellent material was recorded by Bob Marley, The Melodians, Junior Byles and countless other Jamaican greats.

Lee staged Jamaican concerts with leading calypsonians and soul stars during the sixties and seventies, before swapping dancehall for soca in the mid-Eighties, and was also instrumental in bringing Carnival celebrations to Jamaica.

He died of bladder cancer in Kingston, Jamaica on November 4, 2008 at the age of 73.

One Cup of Coffee by Bob Marley
One Cup of Coffee by Bob Marley
Hugh Gentles (right) presents a West India Records Limited (WIRL) Award for producer of best-selling 45 single to Leslie Kong (second left) in 1971
Hugh Gentles (right) presents a West India Records Limited (WIRL) Award for producer of best-selling 45 single to Leslie Kong (second left) in 1971

Leslie Kong

Leslie Kong is known for being the first Jamaican record producer to get international hits. He produced groundbreaking songs by Bob Marley and The Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, Toots and The Maytals and Desmond Dekker.

'Do the Reggay' is a reggae song by The Maytals, the first popular song to use the word "reggae" and defined the developing genre by giving it its name. At that time, "reggay" had been the name of a passing dance fashion in Jamaica, but the song's connection of the word with the music itself led to its use for the style of music that developed from it. The record was produced by Leslie Kong and released on Beverly's Records in Jamaica and Pyramid Records in the UK in 1968.

Kong was one of the original shareholders in Island Records along with Chris Blackwell and Australian engineer Graeme Goodall. Starting in 1963 Kong began licensing ska recordings to Blackwell for release in the UK on Island's Black Swan imprint. After Blackwell bought out Kong and Goodall's share in Island, in 1967 Kong formed a second partnership with Graeme Goodall, who created the Pyramid label in the UK for the successful release of Kong's rocksteady and early reggae productions. When Pyramid folded in 1969, the licensing successes continued with Trojan Records.

This is from an article in The Gleaner Company Ltd. newspaper of Jamaica:

In the early 1960s Kong operated a restaurant Beverley's Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlour along with his two brothers, Fats and Cecil.

Kong was introduced to the record business late 1961 when he received a visit from a teenaged boy named James Chambers (later known as Jimmy Cliff). The boy had traveled from his hometown of Somerton, St James, to Kingston in search of greener pastures. Seeing the restaurant, he thought that writing a song 'Dearest Beverley' about it would encourage the owners to sponsor him. This encounter led Kong to decide to launch his own record label, "Beverley's", and to record Cliff's first song thus launching Kong's career and building an illustrious reputation. At one point in 1962, Kong had seven of his productions in the top 10.

About a year before that, Kong had had the enviable distinction of producing Bob Marley's first three recordings 'Terror', 'Judge Not' and 'One Cup of Coffee'.

Another future star who debuted with Kong was the mellow-voiced 16-year-old John Holt, who recorded and released 'Forever I'll Stay' and ' I Cried a Tear' in early 1963.

Kong made inroads into the international pop market. Four of his productions were on the British charts between 1967 and 1970. Desmond Dekker and the Aces' '007 (Shanty Town)' reached the top 20. The group's 'A It Mek' got into the top 10. So did Dekker's solo version of Jimmy Cliff's 'You Can Get It If You Really Want'. Kong reached the zenith when Desmond Dekker and the Aces' 'Israelites' (1969) climbed to the top of the British charts.

The Maytals, who were turned down by Derrick Morgan in a 1961 audition at Beverley's, made a triumphant return on the Beverley's label in 1968 with the perennial hit '54-46 Was My Number'. In one poll, that recording was voted as the most popular reggae hit between 1967 and 1980.

Kong was on the verge of international stardom through his involvement with the then-upcoming movie The Harder They Come but did not see its release. He died of a heart attack in August 1971 at the age of only 38.

Pomps and Pride by Toots and the Maytals
Pomps and Pride by Toots and the Maytals
Warwick Lyn and wife Patsy
Warwick Lyn and wife Patsy

Warwick Lyn

In the Sixties Warwick Lyn got involved in the music business, working as a sound engineer and A&R (Artiste and Repertoire) man for Beverley's Records.

After Kong's death in 1971, Warwick Lyn became Toots & The Maytals' manager and is credited as co-producer for two of the group's well-known albums, 1973's 'Funky Kingston' and 'Reggae Got Soul', which was released three years later.

For most of the Seventies, Lyn worked with Tommy Cowan at Talent Corporation. They managed and produced acts like The Melodians, Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, Zap Pow, Inner Circle and Junior Tucker.

Lyn immigrated to the United States in the early Eighties where he operated a painting business. He and his wife, 1973 Miss Jamaica, Patsy Yuen, also ran the Miss Jamaica Miami beauty pageant.

He passed away on May 10, 2009 from a cancer-related illness in Miami. He was 64 years old.

Randy's record label
Randy's record label
Early photo of Patricia and Vincent Chin
Early photo of Patricia and Vincent Chin
Patricia Chin with a poster of her late husband Vincent (2014)
Patricia Chin with a poster of her late husband Vincent (2014)

Vincent and Patricia Chin

In 1958 the Chins opened their first record store in downtown Kingston, Randy's Record Mart -- named for Vincent's enthusiasm for the late night American radio program of that era, Randy's Record Shop (hosted by Randy Wood, founder of Dot Records).

By 1961 the store was operating from a new premises located at 17 North Parade in the heart of downtown Kingston. This establishment, which became the very popular Randy's Records, provided record collectors and music lovers with many hard-to-get records. By 1968, Vincent established a top-of-the-line studio above the same premises, Studio 17. He began recording local artists, becoming one of the first to issue locally recorded music on the island. Randy's biggest success as a producer in those early years came from the Trinidad-born singer, Kenrick Patrick, better known as Lord Creator. Other early hits included releases by Basil Gabbidon, Jackie Opel, John Holt, and the duo Alton & Eddie (Alton Ellis and Eddie Perkins).

Up to the mid to late Seventies, many of Bob Marley's classic recordings for producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry were still being done there.

As the Seventies progressed, the Chin family developed pressing facilities and expanded into distribution, and Randy's thus remained one of the most important centers of record production. In 1979 Vincent and Patricia moved to New York and opened the VP Records (the initials of Vincent and Patricia) store and label in the borough of Queens.

The VP label, officially launched in 1993 was named Billboard's number one reggae label in 1999. VP Records has received Billboard's "Best Independent Record Label" and the "Biggest Reggae Imprint Label" awards numerous times.

VP became the US's largest reggae record company, and later acquired Greensleeves Records, becoming the world's largest independent label and distributor of Caribbean music. In 2002, the label later formed a distribution/marketing partnership with Atlantic Records.

Vincent Chin moved to Miami before retiring, his health deteriorating due to diabetes. He died on February 2, 2003 at the age of 65.

Kenneth Hoo Kim
Kenneth Hoo Kim
Joseph "Jo Jo" and Ernest Hoo Kim with British recording artist Martin Campbell
Joseph "Jo Jo" and Ernest Hoo Kim with British recording artist Martin Campbell
Inside Channel One Studio
Inside Channel One Studio
Channel One Studio, Maxfield Avenue, West Kingston, Jamaica
Channel One Studio, Maxfield Avenue, West Kingston, Jamaica
I Need A Roof by Mighty Diamonds on an early Channel One label
I Need A Roof by Mighty Diamonds on an early Channel One label

Joseph (Jo Jo), Kenneth, Paul, and Ernest Hoo Kim

The Hoo Kim brothers had no music experience when they launched Channel One. Their parents owned a bar and an ice cream parlor. The brothers initially went into business for themselves owning and operating jukeboxes and one-armed bandits. In 1970, after the Jamaican government declared the gambling games illegal, Joseph and Ernest decided to turn to the music business and launched a sound-system named Channel One.

A visit to Dynamic Sounds with singer John Holt peaked Joseph's interest and he decided to open a studio in the Maxfield Avenue area, a political hotbed throughout the Seventies. He purchased an API console for $38,000 and promoted the facility by allowing producers to record there for free.

Joseph ran the studio and was credited as producer on many of the hit songs from the most fruitful period (1972-1977). Ernest acted as studio engineer and Paul ran the sound system associated with the studio. Kenneth began producing in the Eighties.

The studio was the heartbeat of roots reggae in Jamaica during the Seventies.

The Mighty Diamonds were arguably Channel One's biggest act. In 1975 as roots reggae took off internationally, the trio recorded 'The Right Time' album which yielded hits in the title song, 'I Need a Roof' and 'Africa'.

Other artists and hits recorded at Channel One during the period were Leroy Smart ('Ballistic Affair', 'Badness Nuh Pay'), The Wailing Souls ('Things and Time', 'Jah Jah Give Us Life'), The Meditations ('Woman Is Like a Shadow'), Ernest Wilson ('I Know Myself'), The Jays ('Queen Majesty') and The Revolutionaries ('MPLA').

Paul was shot to death during a robbery in nearby Greenwich Farm in 1977. His death influenced a gradual withdrawal from the music business by Joseph and Ernest. The studio closed in the early Nineties.

Kenneth passed away at his home in Portmore, St Catherine from lung cancer on October 6, 2013 at the age of 66.

After Paul was murdered, Joseph left Jamaica to escape gun violence and established himself professionally in New York. He gradually began to move his family's other music-related ventures to New York; he opened a division of Channel One there, and relocated the record pressing plant operation to Brooklyn. When dancehall music entered the digital era in the mid-Eighties he and his brothers withdrew from the Jamaican music business altogether. Joseph stayed in New York and retained control of the record pressing plant.

Left to right: Sean Paul, Tami Chynn, Mavado, Bounty Killer, Tessane Chin,  Wayne Marshall (2010)
Left to right: Sean Paul, Tami Chynn, Mavado, Bounty Killer, Tessane Chin, Wayne Marshall (2010)

Did you know?

Today's Jamaicans of Chinese descent in the music industry include The Voice winner Tessane Chin, her sister Tami Chynn, and Grammy Award dancehall superstar Sean Paul. Sean Paul Henriques' mother is of English and Chinese Jamaican descent.

© 2017 Tranquilheart


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Glynwears 2 days ago

      I enjoyed this article.

      The man on the far right in the Byron Lee photo is my father, Clarence Wears. So good to see something of his past.

    Show All Categories