Egerton Chang, Contributor
I came across a very interesting article published November 7, 2012, titled 'Remembrance Day Special - Guarding Jamaica', by Herman Silochan of The Caribbean Camera from which I will quote extensively.
This past summer, at the World Hakka Chinese conference at York University, I came upon a remarkable black-and-white photo that opened up a new pathway in understanding Jamaican history. It is dated 1943, and shows an all-Chinese military unit on parade before the shadow of Wareika Hill, just outside of Kingston.
An all-Chinese military presence in Jamaica? Why? And what for?
First, there were three waves of early 19th-century Chinese settlers to Jamaica. The first from the original Panama Canal construction in 1854; the second from Trinidad and British Guiana to take up the labour shortage cutting sugar cane by 1864; the third, directly from China starting in 1884. By the first half of the 20th century, all their children and grandchildren had become solid citizens, loyal to the island and to the British Crown. Bear in mind as well that the total Chinese population did not exceed 10,000.
Yet, Chinese small enterprise had permeated the fabric of Jamaican society, especially in the form of village shopkeepers.
When World War II broke out in 1939, many Jamaicans and other Caribbean citizens felt it their duty to 'join up'. Young Hakka Chinese men volunteered willingly to the recently formed Home Guard. Their numbers dominated one unit, though the commanding officer was a requisite British senior.
You must also bear in mind those massive locks of the selfsame Panama Canal was the prize of German U-Boat captains. A couple of direct hits and the ensuing naval disaster would have been catastrophic. The ring of protective bases in the Caribbean was essential, not to mention fast possible German commando raids. Guarding the islands was a top priority.
I also found out that one of the surviving soldiers from this Jamaican Home Guard, Joe Young, is still alive and living in Toronto. He is now 91 and his memory is failing. All the same, Dr Keith Lowe, the distinguished Jamaica-born academic and historian, accompanied me to Joe Young's home where we were greeted by his wife Fay. Theirs is a devout Christian home.
We showed Joe Young the historic photo, and his eyes lit up, opening up distant memories, though he struggled to make coherent sentences. He will never forget his badge number, LNCA9966. His commanding officer, Peterson, treated his men well. Their unit did the best drilling. He recalled the names of a few in the photograph. One became his future brother-in-law. He recalls with a chuckle the camaraderie of the soldiers, many were family-related, and the mischief they got into. He repeats himself a lot.
His unit was shipped out to Italy, but was not allowed to see combat. "There were other Jamaican professional soldiers who fought." Instead, Young and his fellow soldiers shepherded prisoners of war to holding camps. He laughed when he said that once when they were camped out in the ashes of the hills of Mount Vesuvius, he was assigned guard duty against local thieves looking for military blankets.
As the war ended, they moved to Egypt, where they played a lot of basketball, then ultimately back to Jamaica for demobilisation. He received 50 British pounds for civilian clothes and returned to normal life.
"Why did you join the army?" I asked. "When you are young, you want to do something, and that was the right thing to do. Better yet, we all came out alive."
In fact, when I was quite young, I was going through my father's desk (being 'fass') and came across a small brown card (made much darker by the passage of time) folded in two, almost like the old Jamaican Learner's Licence, which stated that my grandfather, John Chin-Loy, who died long before I was born, had enlisted for some form of military duty during WWI. I have often wondered what motivated him to do so.
The actual photo showing this Jamaican Chinese WWII contingent was not of a quality to be printed in this newspaper but anyone so interested can email me and I will forward it to them.
My nine-year-old son, Ethan, recently exclaimed, "Daddy, you know the price of a patty at school gone to $140?" I said to him, "Then how much for a soda?" He said $100. I told him that when I was his age going to Campion Hall preparatory (in the very early 1960s), I paid six pence (five cents) for a patty. He looked at me like I had gone bananas (mad). He said, "You must mean $50?"
I said, "No, not $50. Not $15. Not even $5. No, not even $1. Five cents." I told him that a patty and a soda used to cost one shilling, which converted to 10 cents. He couldn't comprehend such small money, for he had never bought anything for less than $1. (At the same time, students' bus fare was just penny ha'penny, or a quattie or 11/2 pennies or the equivalent of 11/2 cents.)
Let's do some patty economics: $140 is 280,000 per cent greater than five cents. That is, the cost of a patty costs 2,800 times more today than in the early '60s.
In those days, US$1 was equal to seven shillings, which was later converted to J$0.70. While I have not done any extensive research, I would venture to say that the average wage in Jamaica in the early '60s was definitely over 10 shillings per week or almost US$1.50. All things being equal then, if the value of the Jamaican dollar was to inflate (gain in value) as much as the cost of a patty, the average wage in Jamaica would be US$4,200 (2,800 x US$1.50) per week.
Even if the average wage then was just seven shillings or US$1 per week, this would now gain in value, patty-wise, to US$2,800.
Converting at the current rate, say J$97 to US$1, this lower figure would amount to more than $250,000 per week.
This must be the best example of all things not being equal. Or is it a case of my going bananas over patties. After all, my son did say I was mad.
Egerton Chang is a businessman. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.