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陳客禮、艾羅湯森、奧古斯都斯帕布洛 Clive Chin, Errol Thompson & Augustus Pablo

​照片提供| 陳客禮 Photo provided by Clive Chin

Andrew F. Jones (Professor and Louis B. Agassiz Chair in Chinese, Faculty of East Asian Languages+Cultures, UC Berkeley)

            A mere coincidence, perhaps, or a foreshadowing of a new musical conjunction to come? In December 1957, the leading English-language magazine of the Chinese Jamaican community, The Pagoda 高塔, reprinted a short feature by an Egyptian scholar on the "strange and plaintive" music of "the Orient" entitled "Love Songs of the Nile."[1] This interest in climes and cultures far from the Caribbean was very much of the moment, for as the editorial introduction proclaims to The Pagoda's readers, the year 1957 had witnessed not only a worrying escalation of the Cold War, but also new victories for racial desegregation in the United States, independence for the newly decolonized nations of Ghana and Malaya, and a newfound economic buoyancy as a self-governed Jamaica looked forward to joining in the construction of a new Federation of the West Indies. The readers of The Pagoda, members of a mostly middle-class and mercantile community of roughly ten thousand Hakka Chinese migrants —— less than one percent of the island's majority Black population of 1.6 million  — were well positioned to contribute to Jamaica's forward march to a sovereign future.[2]

            The first Chinese migrants had arrived in Jamaica in 1854 as indentured laborers in a scheme to replenish the work force of the island's sugar plantation economy in the wake of the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807. Most of the Chinese, however, had arrived in Jamaica as voluntary settlers in search of new opportunity between in the first half of the twentieth century.[3] Almost all of them were Hakka people, hailing from the same three counties in Guangdong province in the vicinity of present-day Dongguan and Shenzhen. By 1946, more than half of these Jamaican Chinese were locally born, and many were of mixed ancestry. By 1957, this community was thriving: Chinese merchants had established themselves as shopkeepers and business owners across the island, and as is amply evidenced in The Pagoda's pages, taken full advantage of the educational opportunities available in Jamaica and abroad to advance their fortunes, and join the ranks of an ascendant "colored" urban middle class as tradespeople and white collar professionals. What was not yet apparent in 1957 is that a remarkable cohort of Hakka Chinese entrepreneurs, record producers, and studio musicians would go on to play an outsize role in shaping Jamaica's most important cultural export, reggae music. In fact, Jamaican-Chinese producers like Clive Chin not only recorded and marketed some of the first examples of the vastly influential and innovative genre of studio remixes known as "dub music," but also contributed to the rise of a new and historically plangent subgenre in reggae, the "far east sound." That sound, developed by the proprietor of Aquarius Records at Half Way Tree in Kingston, Herman Chin-Loy, in collaboration with an enigmatic Afro-Jamaican instrumentalist named Horace Swaby, working under the stage name Augustus Pablo, reached its apogee with the release of his haunting long-playing paean to postcolonial longing and liberation, "East of the River Nile" in 1977.

            How was it that these Hakka Chinese came to migrate from the Pearl River Delta "east to the River Nile," becoming instrumental in the articulation of what we usually hear as a predominately Afro-Jamaican musical form?  The involvement of Chinese migrants in local music was hardly a foregone conclusion. As in many other New World plantation economies throughout the Caribbean and Latin American, Chinese settlers occupied a precarious and often tension-ridden position between a largely poor Black majority, and a mostly white or near white colonial ruling class. In many urban neighborhoods and rural communities, Chinese shopkeepers were lightning rods for resentment, and in 1918 and 1938, local disputes flared into anti-Chinese riots across several rural parishes, fanned in part by a newspaper-driven "opium scare," resulting in the torching of a number of Chinese-run establishments.  A further round of arson and looting was occasioned in Kingston in 1965 by a violent disagreement between three Chinese brothers and their Black employee about a radio set purchased on the installment plan. Yet it was also precisely this sort of close economic proximity, quotidian contact, and assimilation into local populations that allowed Chinese Jamaicans to lend their skills to and make their mark on the making and marketing of Jamaican popular music starting from the 1950s.

            The beating heart of the new vernacular music in Jamaica in those years was the "sound system": a portable assemblage of amplifiers and speaker boxes that could serve as the anchor for outdoor dance parties at which the latest rhythm and blues records from American were played. Beginning in the 1950s, promoters eager to bring patrons to their rival "sounds," competed to construct the most powerful and sonorous public address systems. And the earliest of these systems, designed by a radio repairman named Headley Jones in 1947, was operated by a downtown Kingston hardware store owner named Thomas Wong, under the sobriquet "Tom the Great Sebastian." Local Jamaicans quickly capitalized on the sound systems pioneered by Wong and competitors like Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, recording and producing their own records for this outdoor dancehall circuit, and the bass-heavy sound of new genres like the ska of the early 1960s, the rocksteady of the late 1960s, and the reggae of the 1970s was crafted so as to succeed in the "sound clashes" between rival systems.

            "Dub" music itself developed out of the sound system culture, as record producers strove to produce ever more innovative and exciting studio mixes of the hottest dance rhythms, called "dubplates," for the exclusive use of deejays in the dancehall. These reworked instrumental "versions" of popular songs could then serve as a harmonic platforms for deejays to "chat" with their audiences over the rhythms — a musical practice that many scholars see as the origin not only of Jamaican "toasting," but also of rap music and hip-hop culture in the United States.  Record shop and studio owner and Herman Chin-Loy was one of the first to note the commercial and artistic possibilities of the dubplate, and released what is widely credited as the first all "dub" long-playing record in 1972, "Aquarius Dub." It was followed soon after by the release of another monument in Jamaican music, the "Java Java Java Java" album, a classic collection of dub versions produced by a young man named Clive Chin at another innovative Kingston recording studio, Randy's Record Mart.

            Randy's had been established by Vincent Chin, a Chinese-Jamaican who had secured employment in the 1950s with a jukebox company. His job was to travel the island, switching out older records for the newest hits, but he quickly realized that rather than disposing of the discs, he could resell them, and parlay the profit toward his own retail outfit. By the 1970s, Randys, run by Chin's wife Pat Chin, had emerged as one of the dominant forces in the Jamaican music industry, not only retailing but also recording a newly self-confident and politically conscious popular music from their headquarters at 17 North Parade, in the commercial heart of Kingston.[4] The Chins competed in those years with other Chinese families like that of Leslie Kong, a young and dynamic promoter whose claim to fame is to have produced some of the earliest recordings of the now internationally known reggae icon, Bob Marley, and is said to have elicited his ire in a financial dispute over record royalties, before his untimely death by heart attack in 1971 — a death sometimes apocryphally attributed to Marley's imprecations against him. Kong, who ran his Beverleys Records outfit along with his two brothers, also recorded and marketed early luminaries like Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals to audiences in the United Kingdom.

            Indeed, alongside figures like the white Jamaican producer Chris Blackwell, whose London-based Island Records made Marley into a global star, Hakka entrepreneurs did much to bring reggae music to the world. In 1972, the socialist leader of the People's National Party, Michael Manley, was elected on a platform of popular empowerment and economic betterment for the predominantly Black working classes. The ensuing years, in part because of a covert program of destabilization carried out by the United States, were a time of rising political violence and economic uncertainty. Much of the moneyed Jamaican middle class left the island for what was perceived as safe haven in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, including thousands of Chinese-Jamaicans. The Chin family was among this exodus of nearly half of the Chinese-Jamaican population, as Pat Chin rebuilt the Randys Record Mart business in Brooklyn, New York into what remains one of most important global distributors of Jamaican music, VP Records.

            It would be a mistake, though, to understand the story of Chinese-Jamaican involvement in the music merely as a matter of commerce. Chinese-Jamaicans have also shaped the aesthetics of the music, both as musicians, arbiters of taste, and through their work in the recording studio. Record producers like Clive Chin and Herman Loy-Chin are a case in point. Their work at the studio console helped to expand the sonic palette of a nascent dub music in the early 1970s. And it was Chin-Loy in particular who discovered Horace Swaby/Augustus Pablo, and thus championed what came to be called an "Eastern" sound in the music. The story goes that Swaby walked one day in 1971 into Chin-Loy's Aquarius Records shop in Half Way Tree, and played some figures for him on a plastic melodica. Rather than dismissing the toy instrument's reedy and otherworldly sound as a gimmick, Chin-Loy immediately booked studio time for the young musician.[5] The recordings that emerged, with titles that harked to remote locales like "Middle East Skank," "The Red Sea," "The River Nile," "Addis Ababa," and "Song of the East" seemed to echo the "strange and plaintive" sounds alluded to years earlier in The Pagoda. Characterized by brooding minor-key harmonies, rootsy pentatonic melodies, and Chin-Loy's reverb-laden and echoic production style, Augustus Pablo's dreamy sound evoked both cavernous inner spaces, and the vastness of Afro-Jamaican yearnings — embodied by the Rastafarian religion — for repatriation to an imagined African homeland. The music creates a realm unto itself, a geographically indistinct zone of displacement that is neither here in Jamaica nor there. East of the River Nile is the isthmus where a distant African continent comes into contiguity with the Far East of Chin-Loy's forebears, and a doubly diasporic music is born.


[1] Mohamed Said El-Safti, "Love Songs of the Nile," The Pagoda, December 28, 1957. The article seems to have been reprinted from a UNESCO publication.

[2] See "Editorial: New Year Looms in View," The Pagoda, December 28, 1957.

[3] For the history of the Chinese-Jamaican population, see Walton Look Lai, ed., Essays on the Chinese Diapora in the Caribbean, (Trinidad and Tobago: History Department, University of West Indies, 2006), and Walton Look Lai, The Chinese in the West Indies, 1806-1995: A Documentary History (Trinidad and Tobago: University of West Indies Press, 1998).

[4] See Timothy Chin, "Notes on Reggae Music, Diaspora Aesthetics, and Chinese-Jamaican Transmigrancy: The Case of VP Records," in Social and Economic Studies, Volume 55, No. 1/2 (March- June 2006): 92-114.

[5] See Harry Hawke, liner notes to Aquarius Rock: The Hip Reggae World of Herman Chin-Loy, Pressure Sounds PSLP 45, 2004.

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