Author Hannah Lowe talks Windrush and her Jamaican-Chinese heritage
A man cradles his infant son in his arms and smiles for the camera in a photograph taken of them both sitting on what appears to be a rooftop in Hampstead, London, 1954. It is Hannah Lowe’s father with his son Rob, which now forms the cover of her début book under the title Chick (2013, BloodAxe Books), derived from his gambling nickname.
The work recaptures memories of her father of Chinese extract whose life journey is tightly woven into the black Caribbean experience in the UK. It would pique her interest in how both cultures came together to form the backdrop of her own life and prompt questions about the absence of some ethnic groups from the Windrush story.
Lowe’s début poetry collection - Long Time No See - takes readers on a journey centred on her black Chinese-Jamaican father’s migration to the UK from Jamaica pre-Windrush. It details her personal recollections of him, which became even more vivid after his death.
“My dad had quite a nomadic childhood, moving from shop to shop with his father, who was a gambler and didn’t have a very stable existence. He was born in Yallahs Bay, St Thomas, and also lived at different times in Mocho and Thompson Town in Clarendon. His mother had family in Above Rocks and Golden River,” Lowe told The Weekly Gleaner.
She continued: “I have no memory of my father’s parents as they both died before I was born. But I do know that my grandmother, who was Afro-Caribbean, had my father when she was very young, and I think she probably worked for his Chinese father, who was a shopkeeper. My grandmother didn’t raise my dad although they did know each other. I think there was a lot of shame around having a child so young and out of wedlock, and she often mentioned my father not as her son, but as a nephew who had sailed away to England.”
Often the history of the black Chinese-Jamaican remains an anomaly, something that Lowe, through her research and work, hopes to change.
“I didn’t know much as a child except for the fact I had a Chinese grandfather who had lived in Jamaica. Everything I now know about this history I learned after my father’s death. Some of it I learned through a notebook, which he had kept about his childhood in which he says that his father arrived to Jamaica from Canton (ow Guangdong) around 1918 or 1920.
“From this I was able to ascertain that my grandfather arrived as part of a second wave of Chinese migration (from) China and that the history of the Chinese in Jamaica begins with the British indenture of Chinese labour,” Lowe said.
She continued: “I made myself a kind of historian of this migratory movement, also learning about the Chinese involvement in the grocery trade and in reggae music. If you’re from the Caribbean, you know how plural Caribbean society is in terms of ethnicity and race, but in the UK, the Caribbean is commonly viewed as African Caribbean – there is little knowledge of its ethnic multiplicity. Still now if I mention that my father is Afro-Chinese, people will often be surprised to know there are Chinese in Jamaica. I’ve probably written so much about this history precisely because of this anomaly, to answer the question I’ve heard asked over and over again.”
While much is written about the migration of Jamaicans among other Caribbean islanders aboard the SS Empire Windrush bound for the UK in 1948, very little is recorded of those who, like Lowe’s father, had set sail to the UK before this, a point of exploration in Lowe’s pamphlet, Ormonde (Hercules Editions, 2014) and family memoir, Long Time, No See (Periscope, 2015).
“My PhD is on the history of the Windrush or more specifically how the Windrush became known as the first ship to bring postal Caribbean migrants. And how that moment came to mark or memorialise the beginnings of a multiethnic Britain,” Lowe said.
“The genesis of my interest in this is that I knew my father had come on a ship before. He arrived on the SS Ormonde in 1947, and this common omission of the Ormonde and the SS Almanzora, which also arrived in ’47, got me thinking about how history is made and narrated. I do think Windrush has an important unifying symbol around which migrant communities can gather, but I’m fascinated by the process of how history is written and who is writing it,” she continued.
Just as those who made the journey from the Caribbean to the UK on board the SS Empire Windrush had an interesting story to tell, so, too, did those who had travelled before this, as was the case with Lowe’s father.
“My dad arrived in Liverpool in 1947 and made his way to London, in the company of two boxers who he had befriended on the ship. I believe he worked for a time as a shunter on the railways but was probably involved in the world of gambling and betting from the early 1950s onwards, which at that time would have been illegal. He was a ‘cardsharp’, playing it both ‘straight’ and ‘crooked.’”
Lowe added: “He didn’t talk much about his occupation, probably because he was ashamed of it. He was a very clever man, self-educated and a committed socialist. He didn’t talk about any racism he experienced in Britain though I can’t imagine he wasn’t a victim of it. His silence about his experiences is probably one of the reasons I’ve written so much about him.”
FASCINATION WITH HISTORY
Lowe, 46, who writes mainly poetry and memoirs, lives and works in London teaching creative writing at Brunel University while also freelancing for other writing organisations such as Arvon and The Poetry School. Her fascination with history and creative writing runs strongly throughout her work, and such has been its impact that among her most recent accolades is being the recipient of both the Costa Book Award for Poetry and the overall Costa Book of the Year Award in 2021 for her poetry collection – The Kids(Bloodaxe Books, 2021).
“I was delighted to win the Costa Book Award for Poetry and absolutely astounded to win the overall Costa Book of the Year for The Kids. I had a sense that poetry didn’t usually win the overall award so was fully expecting the novel to take the prize. It meant a great deal to me that the prize went to a poetry collection, and I think the poetry community in general were happy to see a poetry collection win.”
A teacher and professor of creative writing at both the secondary school and now university levels, Lowe has the following advice for those wanting to pursue a career in writing:“Read, read, read and write, write, write. Take classes, take workshops, find yourself a mentor whose work you admire and who is sympathetic to your writing concerns and development. Someone many years ago told me it takes at least five years to become a poet, and that turned out to be completely true. This said, I’m still learning now!”
She shared details of her new project.“My most recent trip to Jamaica was in 2019 to research a book that I’m currently writing about my dad’s half-sister, Nelsa Lowe, who used to run a well-known restaurant in downtown Kingston called the Moby Dick in the 1960s and ‘70s. We have one photograph of her, which has always been interesting to me because in it she is wearing a traditional Chinese dress. My dad never identified as Chinese, so I was curious to know about Nelsa’s self-representation. I did lots of research, but I certainly don’t know all of her story. If any reader remembers Nelsa Lowe, please get in touch!”