Selling Jamaica To ‘Mr Chin’

mr-chin-marqueeFor many black Jamaicans, ‘Chin’ is still the generic name for all Chinese people. It doesn’t seem to matter that Chinese Jamaicans have many other names such as Chang, Chuck, Chung, Fong, Kim, Kong, Lee, Leong, Lim, Lue, Mock, Shim, Tenn, Yap, Yee, Yen and Yeong.

I think it’s completely disrespectful to clap the label ‘Chin’ on all Chinese. And I like to ask perpetrators how they would feel if Chinese people called all of us Miss, Mr and Mrs Black. They usually laugh. A no nutten! Most Africans born in Jamaica were forced to give up our ancestral names. So, perhaps, we have no investment in the foreign names we were arbitrarily assigned.

And many Chinese seem to be quite philosophical about being addressed as ‘Chin’. They just answer to the name. It doesn’t appear to bother them that their fellow citizens stubbornly refuse to learn their true-true names. I wonder if it’s because they don’t take us seriously. Perhaps, it doesn’t matter what we call them. As long as we continue to do business with them!

RACIAL STEREOTYPES

512SDQF910L._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_In 1998, the University of the West Indies Press published a book by the Trinidadian historian, Walton Look Lai, on The Chinese in the West Indies. It covers the period 1806-1995 and pulls together a whole set of fascinating documents.

There’s an 1803 letter from Kenneth McQueen to John Sullivan, undersecretary of state, outlining the arguments to be used in inveigling Chinese to come to the Caribbean as indentured labourers. Racial stereotypes are presented as hard facts.

McQueen proposes: “The most desirable accommodation to a Chinaman is good eating, especially solid animal food, as beef or pork … and a liberal supply of that article is more likely than anything else to reconcile them to their new situation.” As it turns out, ‘solid animal food’ was not enough to keep indentured Chinese labourers on the plantation.

As soon as their five-year contract was up, many abandoned agricultural work. In an account of ‘Chinese entrepreneurs in Jamaica in the 1940s and 1950s’, Look Lai lists the following businesses: “grocery stores, bakeries, aerated water factories, ice cream parlours, restaurants, laundries, Chinese grocery stores, hardware stores, dry-goods stores, bars and taverns, haberdasheries, wholesale groceries, agencies and others”.

REVENGE FOR EMANCIPATION

In Jamaica, the Chinese still control the distribution of imported food. Whoever owns the keys to the grocery store rules the nation. Our British colonisers knew this all too well. I speculate that they enabled the Chinese to take over this sector as an act of revenge for the emancipation of enslaved African-Jamaicans. After all, they did conceive the Chinese as a barrier. An obstacle to black empowerment!

Before Emancipation, blacks controlled local food production and distribution at weekly markets. Plantation owners who wanted to lower operating costs allowed them to cultivate provision grounds to feed themselves. Surplus food was owned by these farmers and they made good money selling it locally and even exporting to other islands.

Screen-Shot-2012-11-05-at-12.19.51-PMAfter Emancipation, instead of allowing blacks to extend our management of the business of food distribution to include the import trade, the British colonisers deliberately allowed the Chinese to clip our wings. Given a chance, black people would have been able to build food empires high and low, generally taking control of this sovereign sector.

On my morning walk a few days ago, I had an informative conversation with a Chinese senior citizen named Mr Chin. Yes, a real Mr Chin. He told me that in the early years of shopkeeping, the profit margin was very low. The British colonisers controlled the import trade. Mr Chin said that on a case of condensed milk, for example, the profit was one tin! But things have certainly changed. The trade in imported food is a highly profitable business.

NEW COLONISERS

There’s a new wave of Chinese immigrants in Jamaica who are certainly not indentured labourers. They are our new colonisers. Mr Chin told me that these recent arrivals even have contempt for the earlier Chinese immigrants. The new Chinese claim that the old Chinese are unpatriotic because they did not return to China after indentureship. And these arrogant new Chinese have a sense of entitlement that is alarming.

images-1I recently heard that a long-time resident of Hope Pastures was driving home when he was stopped by the police for a spot check. He was told that the Chinese had been complaining about strange people driving through Hope Pastures. A lot of new Chinese have been buying houses there. I have no issue with that. But to assume that black people are trespassers in their own community is pure impudence.

Even worse, in supposedly independent Jamaica, politicians are selling off the birthright of the people to our new colonisers. If we’re not careful, they will soon own the best of this country. Unscrupulous politicians are now behind the counter. And the new Chinese are the customers. They’re not buying salt fish, mackerel, rice, flour and cornmeal.

They want the Goat Islands and Roaring River and Cockpit Country. And the politicians are ‘trusting’ away our heritage. In the old-time Chinese shops, there would be a spike on which the names and goods of ‘trusters’ would be placed. I don’t suppose our politicians are even keeping any records. It’s a straight sell-out.

Getting ‘Bun’ In the Chinese Grocery

confucious_institute1

Confucius Institute, UWI, Mona

The Confucius Institute at the University of the West Indies, Mona, hosted its first conference in June. The theme was ‘Dragons in the Archipelago – the Chinese-Caribbean Experience’. This ‘experience’ wasn’t just about the Chinese. It also included their encounters with other racial groups in the Caribbean.

The history of the relationship between Africans and Chinese in Jamaica is quite troubling. And it’s all the fault of the British. In those long ago days when Britannia ruled the waves, the British assumed the right to move people across the seas as they saw fit. Chinese were exported to the Caribbean as indentured workers in the 19th century.

Dr Victor Chang, a retired senior lecturer who taught literature at the University of the West Indies, Mona, gave an excellent talk on the Chinese riots that took place in Jamaica almost a century ago. Dr Chang quoted an excerpt from Colonial Office correspondence between Attorney General Gloster and Marryat, sent from Trinidad and dated April 3, 1807.

Writing about the immigration of Chinese workers into Trinidad, Gloster states: “For my part, I think it is one of the best schemes; and if followed up with larger importation, and with women, that it will give this colony a strength far beyond what the other colonies possess. It will be a barrier between us and the negroes, with whom they do not associate; and consequently to whom they will always offer a formidable opposition.”

CHINESE SEX DRIVE

imagesSo it was a set-up from the very beginning. The newly arrived Chinese were supposed to be permanently at war with black people. But what shortsighted cynics like Gloster did not anticipate is the fact that some barriers can be easily overturned, given the right motivation. The sex drive is a powerful social leveller.

The 1918 Chinese riots in Jamaica were a direct result of the lack of Chinese women. Dr Chang quotes the account of events given by the Jamaican historian Howard Johnson: “Fong Sue, the Chinese grocer, had left his shop on Sunday, 7 July, in charge of his paramour, a Creole woman, Caroline Lindo. He was not expected to return that night.

“Acting Corporal McDonald, who was in charge of the Ewarton Police Station, took advantage of Fong Sue’s absence to sleep with his paramour. Fong Sue returned that same night unexpectedly, at about 11 o’clock, to find McDonald in an intimate embrace with Lindo and, as one contemporary police report delicately noted, ‘in plain clothes’.

“McDonald was given a beating by Fong Sue, with the help of a few Chinese friends, and then made good his escape. He did not return to the police station but remained hidden in the bushes for two days. He eventually reappeared at the police station on the night of Tuesday, 9 July, to resume his duties.”

In less academic language: Fong Sue get bun inna im owna shop. And I wonder about Miss Lindo. Was she just using Fong Sue to get a regular supply of groceries? Trading salt fish for salt fish! And as for acting Corporal McDonald! He seemed to be doing a very good job of acting for Fong Sue. Until Fong Sue, acting like a real Jamaican, beat up his you know what.

I doubt very much that McDonald was wearing plain clothes when he was surprised by Fong Sue. Most likely, he wasn’t wearing any clothes at all. And he certainly wasn’t on official duty – unless Ms Lindo had summoned him to report a robbery in progress. Or to offer herself to be carried away!

VICTIMS AND VILLAINS

So how did this unfortunate episode of Fong Sue getting bun turn into a race riot? Both men and women get bun in Jamaica all the time. Yu either tek yu lickle bun and eat it quietly. Or yu mek up whole heap of noise an carry on bad. But it doesn’t become national news. Unless yu head tek yu an yu decide to act like a mad man or woman and commit murder.

HappySabbathFaceSo what made this particular bun so hot? Well, a rumour started that acting Corporal McDonald had actually been murdered by Fong Sue. And The Gleaner is partly to blame. Dr Chang reports that, “The Gleaner of July 8 provides a more sinister and innuendo-filled account which ignores the sexual aspect altogether.”

Chang elaborates: “It claims that McDonald, ‘on whom a savage act is alleged to have been committed by the Chinese, is now missing … a decent, intelligent young man, and a strict disciplinarian had spoken to the Chinese about violating the law of the land by selling on the Sabbath’.” So Fong Sue is now a villain, not a victim.

How does an allegedly ‘strict disciplinarian’ like acting Corporal McDonald end up in Fong Sue’s shop at 11 p.m. locked down with Ms Lindo? And what’s the mysterious ‘savage act’ that Fong Sue is supposed to have perpetrated? It was rumoured that he had pickled McDonald, possibly for sale as salt meat.

That’s the kind of idiocy that results from using people as barriers. Ignorance breeds distrust and starts riots. Even after McDonald turned up very much alive, if not well, the rioting continued and spread across four parishes! Chinese shops were burnt to the ground. A very high price to pay for one ‘bun’!

Patwa Gold Chain Inna Fashion Show

Two spelling systems are used for the Jamaican language below. The first, which I call ‘chaka-chaka’, is based on English spelling. The second, ‘prapa-prapa’, is the specialist phonetic system designed by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy. It has been updated by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona. After the two Jamaican versions, there’s an English translation.

http://www.medicaldaily.com/pulse/bilingualism-and-brain-health-learning-second-language-boosts-cognitive-function-even-343132

CHAKA-CHAKA SPELLING

It sweet mi so til! Patwa step up inna life an a bling pon gold chain. Di Friday night a Caribbean Fashion Week (CFW), mi buck up one journalist mi know long time. Im name Rob Kenner an im fly een from New York fi CFW. Im run Boomshots.com an im av one TV show pon Youtube an one Internet radio show. Im deh all bout.

Rob did a wear one chain hitch on pon one piece a plastic. Mi aks im a wa dat. Wen mi look good mi see seh di plastic did cut out fi show writin. An guess weh it a seh? TUN UP. Rob tell mi seh a one a im fren mek di chain an she deh pon di fashion show dat deh night. Im ha fi represent.

ReshmaB-chains-CFW2015-selfie-BOOMSHOTSDi designer name Reshma B. She a music journalist an she call herself Reggae Girl About Town (RGAT). Fi her website a bawl out. Reshma born a London an from she a pikni she a listen reggae music. An she love Jamaica culture an fi wi language. One a di first gold chain she mek a REGGAE GAL.

Everywhere Reshma go, people a aks ar bout di chain dem. So she mek up her mind fi launch di line last year an she call it Reshma B chains. Rob do one interview wid her weh come out inna April inna Vibe magazine. Hear weh she seh: “I’m inspired by the street slang in my travels from London to Brooklyn to Kingston”.

Some a di Jamaican liriks pon di chain dem a DASH OUT, BRUCK OUT, SLAP WEH, BENZ PUNANY an MAAD. Some a di other word dem a TRILL, WAVY, FADED, RATCHET, SWAG an NANG. An Reshma just put out some new chain wid so-so ganja leaf.

PATWA WID ENGLISH ACCENT

Out a di whole a di chain dem, di one weh sell off nof nof a WAH GWAN. Mi did ha fi tell Reshma seh WAH GWAN no spell right. She lef off one a di A inna GWAAN. An she shuda put one next A inna di miggle a WAH an GWAAN. Dat naa stop di chain dem from sell.

An wen mi tink bout it, mi see seh same way wi fix up English fi suit wi, a di said same way English people a fix up fi wi language fi suit dem. Dem a chat patwa wid English accent. So ‘wa a gwaan’ turn inna ‘wa gwan’. An wi dis ha fi lou dem. Wi cyaan chain up fi wi language. It change up wen it go a foreign. Same like reggae music.

chain2Reshma B du special chain fi all kind a cebrelity. Popcaan did love WAH GWAN chruu Worl Boss did av one liriks weh im aks, “Wa a gwaan Papcaan?” So im link Reshma an she mek a chain fi im an im Unruly Crew: TR8. Dat stan fi “Straight”. Popcaan seh, “Real thugs never figet di dump land or weh we come fram”.

An lickle before Reshma come a Caribbean Fashion Week, she mek up one special order fi Madonna fi ar “Rebel Heart” tour. Seet deh! Mi av nof rispek fi Reshma B. Shi done know bout ‘total fashion’, as mi breda, Kingsley, seh inna di ad fi CFW.

An talking bout cebrelity, all a unu weh did read mi column two week aback, “Celebrity Wedding at UWI Chapel”, an did a aks mi fi picture a Erica Reid an Nardo Currie, unu better buy Gleaner. Dem inna Flair magazine. TUN UP!

PRAPA-PRAPA SPELIN

It swiit mi so til! Patwa step op ina laif an a bling pan guol chien. Di Fraide nait a Caribbean Fashion Week (CFW), mi bok op wan jornalis mi nuo lang taim. Im niem Rob Kenner an im flai iin fram New York fi CFW. Im ron Boomshots.com an im av wan TV shuo pan Yuuchuub an wan Intanet riedyo shuo. Im de aal bout.

Rob did a wier wan chien ich aan pan wan piis a plastik. Mi aks im a wa dat. Wen mi luk gud mi si se di plastik did kot out fi shuo raitn. An ges we it a se? TUN UP. Rob tel mi se a wan a im fren mek di chien an shi de pan di fashan shuo dat de nait. Im a fi reprizent.

ReshmaB-chains-CFW2015-13Di dizaina niem Reshma B. Shi a myuuzik jornalis an shi kaal arself Reggae Girl About Town (RGAT). Fi ar websait a baal out. Reshma baan a London an fram shi a pikni shi a lisn rege myuuzik. An shi lov Jamieka kolcha an fi wi langgwij. Wan a di fos guol chien shi mek a REGGAE GAL.

Evri we Reshma go, piipl a aks ar bout di chien dem. So shi mek op ar main fi laanch di lain laas ier an shi kaal it Reshma B chains. Rob du wan intavyuu wid ar we kom out ina Iepril ina Vibe magazine. Ier we shi se: “I’m inspired by the street slang in my travels from London to Brooklyn to Kingston”.

Som a di Jamaican liriks pan di chien dem a DASH OUT, BRUCK OUT, SLAP WEH, BENZ PUNANY an MAAD. Som a di ada word dem a TRILL, WAVY, FADED, RATCHET, SWAG an NANG. An Reshma jos put out som nyuu chien wid suoso gyanja liif.

PATWA WID INGGLISH AKSENT

Out a di uol a di chien dem, di wan we sel aaf nof nof a WAH GWAN. Mi did ha fi tel Reshma se WAH GWAN no spel rait. Shi lef aaf wan a di A ina GWAAN. An shi shuda put wan neks A ina di migl a WAH an GWAAN. Dat naa stap di chien dem fram sel.

reggae_RGATCHAINSwahgwanbigsmall1An wen mi tink bout it, mi si se siem wie wi fiks op Ingglish fi suut wi, a di sed siem wie Ingglish piipl a fiks op fi wi langgwij fi suut dem. Dem a chat patwa wid Ingglish aksent. So ‘wa a gwaan’ ton ina ‘wa gwan’. An wi dis a fi lou dem. Wi kyaahn chien op fi wi langgwij. It chienj op wen it go a farin. Siem laik rege myuuzik.

Reshma B du speshal chien fi aal kain a sibreliti. Popcaan did lov WAH GWAN chruu Worl Boss did av wan liriks we im aks, “Wa a gwaan Popcaan?” So im link Reshma an shi mek a chien fi im an im Unruly Crew: TR8. Dat stan fi “Straight”. Popcaan se, “Riil tugz neva figet di domp lan ar we wi kom fram”.

An likl bifuor Reshma kom a Caribbean Fashion Week, shi mek op wan speshal aada fi Madonna fi ar “Rebel Heart” tour. Siit de! Mi av nof rispek fi Reshma B. Shi don nuo bout ‘total fashion’, az mi breda, Kingsley, se ina di ad fi CFW.

An taakin bout sibreliti, aal a unu we did riid mi kalam tuu wiik abak, “Celebrity Wedding at UWI Chapel”, an did a aks mi fi pikcha a Erica Reid an Nardo Currie, unu beta bai Gleaner. Dem ina Flair magaziin. TUN UP!

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

I was really amused.  Patwa has gone upmarket and is blinging on gold chains. The Friday night of Caribbean Fashion Week (CFW), I ran into a journalist I’ve known for quite some time. He’s Rob Kenner and he flew in from New York for CFW. He runs Boomshots.com and he has a TV show on Youtube and an Internet radio show. So he’s large.

Rob was wearing a chain with a bit of plastic attached. I asked him about it. When I looked closely, I saw letters cut out of the plastic.   And guess what the word was? TUN UP. Rob told me that one of his friends had made the chain and she was on the fashion show that night. He had to represent.

11094513_953402994711747_1889982551_nThe designer was Reshma B. She’s a music journalist who goes by the name Reggae Girl About Town (RGAT).  Her website is hot. Reshma was born in London and she became a reggae fan quite early.   She loves Jamaican culture and our language.

Everywhere Reshma went, she was asked about the chains. So she decided to launch the line last year.  And she called it Reshma B chains. Rob did an interview with her that was published in April in Vibe magazine. Here’s what she said: “I’m inspired by the street slang in my travels from London to Brooklyn to Kingston”.

Some of the Jamaican expressions on the chains are DASH OUT, BRUCK OUT, SLAP WEH, BENZ PUNANY and MAAD.  There’s also TRILL, WAVY, FADED, RATCHET, SWAG and NANG. And Reshma just put out some new chains with a ganja leaf desgin.

PATWA WITH AN ENGLISH ACCENT

OF all the chains, the bestseller is WAH GWAN.  I had to tell Reshma that WAH GWAN wasn’t spelt correctly.  An A was left out of GWAAN. And she should have put another one between WAH and GWAAN. That’s not affecting sales at all.

And when I thought about it, it struck me that just as we adapt English to suit ourselves, English people adapt our language to suit themselves in exactly the same way. They speak patwa with an English accent. So ‘wa a gwaan’ becomes ‘wa gwan’. And we just have to let it be. We can’t chain our language. It changes when it goes abroad. Just like reggae music.

MASSIV-PopUpShop-KGN-JA-Dec-18-2014-ReshmaB-Chains-URL-TopReshma B does custom chains for all sorts of celebrities. Popcaan loved WAH GWAN because Worl Boss had a song in which he asked, “Wa a gwaan Popcaan?” So he got in touch with Reshma and she made a chain for him and his Unruly Crew: TR8. That’s “Straight”. As Popcaan says, “Real thugs never figet di dump land or weh we come fram” [Real thugs never forget the dumped up land or where we come from].

And just before Reshma came to Caribbean Fashion Week, she did a special order for Madonna for her “Rebel Heart” tour. There you have it! I have a lot of respect for Reshma B. She understands ‘total fashion’, as my brother Kingsley, says in the ad for CFW.

And talking about celebrities, all of you who read my post, “Celebrity Wedding at UWI Chapel”, and were asking for pictures of Erica Reid and Nardo Currie, you must buy the Gleaner. They’re in Flair magazine. TUN UP

Sound Clash In Uptown Ghetto

There was a time when dancehall DJs lived in downtown ghettoes. And they knew their place. No moving uptown into supposedly exclusive neighbourhoods and bringing their blasted noise to upset nice and decent people.

e9e42f745308002e26eb68a124cd5e2b-1Bob Marley was not a DJ but he was one of the first concrete-jungle musicians to break the ‘sound’ barrier. In 1975 he moved from Trench Town to 56 Hope Road, thanks to Chris Blackwell’s marketing savvy. Bob Marley was a star and needed an appropriate address. But he never abandoned Trench Town.

Four decades ago, Kingston 6 was definitely uptown. It wasn’t Norbrook. But still. These days, Norbrook is the preferred address for dancehall DJs. Some, like Sean-Paul, were born uptown. Others, like Mavado, the Gully God, made the big move, both physical and psychological, from the gullyside to the hillside.n

There’s a picture of Mavado’s house on the Internet with this freestyle caption: “This is what you called hard work first thing I just want to say thanks to the true and living God for my blessings and thanks to all my fans and please to keep supporting my music Gullyside one love”.

One man’s divine blessing is another’s demonic curse. Just imagine the outrage: “Lord, mi dear! Yu don’t see who just move in up the road? Nuh that DJ from across the gully bank! Is where him get money to buy house up here? I just don’t want the children exposed to that mentality”. Never mind that the children already know every single line of the DJ’s lyrics.

TOWNHOUSE SYNDROME

Once upon a time, you could buy protection from unwanted neighbours. Not anymore. Bob Marley completely understood the dicey nature of the real estate market. In “Bad Card”, he declares lyrical war:

“Oh, man, you said I’m in your place

And then you draw bad card

Ah mek you draw bad card”.

Marley launches a full-scale sonic assault:

“I want to disturb my neighbour

Cause I’m feeling so right

I want to turn up my disco

Blow them to full watts tonight

Inna rub-a-dub style”.

images-2If Marley’s neighbours on Hope Road wanted him to go back to where he came from, it wouldn’t be Trench Town. His origins were the wide, open spaces of rural Jamaica where noise is usually less of a nuisance than in congested cities. The same is true for Usain Bolt. And though he’s not a DJ, he seems just as unwelcome in Norbrook. Townhouses, unlike country houses, don’t give neighbours much breathing space.

It was the formidable journalist, Mrs. Barbara Gloudon, who first made the point about the way in which language reinforces social divisions between uptown and downtown. High-density housing in the inner city is scornfully described as ‘tenement yards’. Uptown, these yards become ‘gated communities’.

Obviously, there are differences between uptown and downtown tenement yards. Many uptown units are owned by residents, not rented as is usually the case in downtown yards. And uptown income levels uare much higher than downtown. There’s also more space between units in uptown tenement yards than downtown.

But conflict between neighbours, even in upscale communities, is sometimes caused by overcrowding.  You see it all the time. A single-family house on a big piece of land is knocked down. Soon, ten townhouses spring up. And that’s a conservative estimate.

Instead of say five people living in one house, there are now sixty or more squeezed up on what has become a relatively small lot. Uptown tenement yard! Or, ghetto, if you prefer. I don’t know how we got caught in the townhouse trap. I suppose it was the need for ‘security’. Proverbial wisdom promises that there’s safety in numbers. But there’s also a lot of contention.

I must admit I do have some sympathy for Jodi Stewart-Henriques. She’s suffering from townhouse syndrome. It’s a condition brought on by living so close to your neighbours that every little sound starts to get louder and louder. It gradually gets on your nerves. Eventually, even the flush of a toilet enrages you. Let alone loud music and dirt bikes. And you end up making unfortunate statements on social media about who should go back to where they came from.

NIGHT WORK

Jodi and Sean-Paul Henriques

Jodi and Sean-Paul Henriques

Fun and joke aside, I really do sympathise with Jodi. One of the serious noise issues that we’re not addressing is all-night construction work in residential neighbourhoods.

A couple of years ago, a house quite close to where I live was being renovated. Twenty-four hours, non-stop! There was the constant noise of drilling and hammering right through the night. One morning, at about 1:00 a.m., I just couldn’t take any more. So I went to speak to the workmen.

I got a good and proper tracing. One of them told me he was doing honest work and if he had come to beg me money I would have run him. He was right. He was an able-bodied man. I appealed to the architect, begging him to talk to the owners. They all acted as if they didn’t know night work was being done. And it continued without relief.

I complained to the police. That was a complete waste of time. Noise is a weapon that causes bodily harm. But that’s how it’s usually seen. We have to protect ourselves against invasive noise, no matter in which kind of tenement yard we live.

Celebrity Wedding At UWI Chapel

No, it was not the wedding of a superstar athlete or dancehall DJ. Or a politician. Or any of the usual ‘cebrelity’ types who regularly haunt the social pages of our newspapers. True, the marriage proposal had been made and accepted on air on Miss Kitty’s radio programme. Pure excitement!

But that’s not the reason the wedding was a celebrity affair. In my book, Erica Reid and Ricardo ‘Nardo’ Currie are a true power couple on the campus of the University of the West Indies, Mona. Their wedding, two Saturdays ago, was a celebration of old-time Jamaican values: hard work, discipline and commitment to family and friends. And the UWI community came out in strong support.

excelsior_case-1I can still remember Nardo, as a little boy, walking all over the campus after school with his box of icy mints and sweet biscuits and Cheese Krunchies – you know the usual snacks – selling to both students and staff. To clear my conscience, I would sometimes ask if he’d done his homework. And he would smile sweetly.

Those days, vending was illegal on the UWI campus. There used to be regular skirmishes between campus police and stubborn vendors. All of a sudden, the alarm would be sounded that the police were coming. The vendors would pick up their goods and make a run for it. It was a most undignified way to make an honest living.

Nardo’s mother and grandmother were both vendors. And it was this vending money, little as it may seem, that sent all their children to school. It gave women independence. You didn’t have to work for anybody but yourself. And you made more money from buying and selling than doing domestic work for people who had no respect for you.

A woman who used to sell fish in Papine Market told me why she stopped doing domestic work. One Sunday, she cooked a whole heap of dishes for a dinner party her employers were having. Roast beef, chicken, rice and peas and much more. And guess what she was given for dinner? Sardines.

It’s this kind of bad treatment that makes angry domestic workers hawk and spit in their employers’ food. That woman bawled the living eye water when she realised that those wicked people thought she wasn’t good enough to eat the high-class food she had cooked. She just walked off the job.

REWARDING INDISCIPLINE?

UWI eventually relaxed its rules on food vending. In addition to the traditional dining rooms in the halls of residence, ‘brand-name’ food establishments appeared on campus. But the struggling vendors were still illegal. I led a campaign to change things. The vendors were providing a very valuable service for students who couldn’t afford expensive meals.

images-1In a meeting of Academic Board, I vigorously argued that if KFC could be on campus, surely the small vendors ought to be free to earn a living. I was amazed when a self-righteous colleague objected. Legalising the vendors would be tantamount to rewarding indiscipline. Not resourcefulness!

Fortunately, sanity prevailed. It was agreed that the vendors could operate legally on campus. All of them were invited to submit applications to be licensed. And the university built small shops that were rented to the vendors. Nardo, now an enterprising adult, got one in the Faculty of Humanities and Education.

Nobody, even with an MBA, could run their business better than Nardo and Erica. In fact, students doing courses in entrepreneurship in the Faculty of Social Sciences have regularly interviewed Nardo about his business model. Customer satisfaction. Nardo’s One Stop even offers credit to students who can’t always pay as they eat. And he hosts regular customer appreciation days when there are giveaways for students. The small shop has outgrown its location.

A couple of months ago, Nardo was a guest on ‘Big Tingz a Gwaan’, the current affairs programme on NewsTalk radio that I co-host with Tyane Robinson. When I asked Nardo if he’d ever thought of going back to school, he gave a revealing answer. He didn’t want to steal his children’s future. He was investing his resources in them. It wasn’t his time now. And he said his biggest joy would be to see his son stepping through the gates of the campus as a student. And coming to his shop between classes to get a snack.

FOR RICHER OR POORER

ml-zQnWsRPUVNTgQoii_Osee7cDU8j4iv1PYt4f-YUnFvOor3eAXeI9mGKE0LDmZ9Ol_tnzis_2338uDbk4qkt6pRwQl6VTFataLEc9N-SSUKvB6pqymz670Y33iIhdK-HkFg9pCm-EgJogPNyG1tvyyFckakMi4fKRit2SE2NOH8ymJdcopx2Ee1mP97e4CYzIXmVttl2pbnVRo2C5AYBNardo and Erica’s wedding ceremony was full of joy and laughter. The Nexus choir was magnificent. A high note was the exchange of vows. Pastor Harris admitted that he got quite a surprise when he asked Nardo and Erica, in turn, to repeat after him the phrase, ‘for richer or poorer’. Much to the amusement of the congregation, they both said, “for richer and richer”.

I don’t suppose many people get married with the expectation that things will get worse. But the traditional wedding vows are a reminder that we have to be prepared for the worst. There’s a cynical Jamaican proverb that warns, ‘marriage have teeth an bite hot’.

In the case of Erica and Nardo, I hope their marriage won’t bite. After the ceremony, there were tears of joy in Nardo’s eyes. And you should have seen his face when Erica met him at the altar. She was absolutely beautiful. I know the couple will get richer and richer. And not just financially.

Jamaican Art Disappears In Cuba

In May, on my way home from Havana, I ran into Ebony Patterson at the airport. She was one of the international artists invited to exhibit in the Havana Biennial. And the only Jamaican! On Saturday afternoon, I had happily wandered around Old Havana with my sister, Donnette, and our friend, Ifeona, trying to find Ebony’s three installations.

Ebony.CubaWe managed to track down one of them. It was a typically complex image, both alarming and strangely beautiful: A mutilated male body lying in a bed of flowers. Dread reality transformed by the artist into a seemingly pretty picture. The body was carefully camouflaged, dressed in flowers that blended with the background.  The underwear was visible, bearing the K-Mart/Sears brand, Joe Boxer.

This is how the brand is described on its website: “Joe Boxer was founded in 1985, with the very simple idea of taking the most basic elements in men’s clothing and remaking it to reflect humour, fashion and popular trends. Because the product is based around the idea of having fun, it gives consumers a chance to identify with, and be a part of the brand.”

Ebony takes all the fun out of Joe Boxer. On the waistband of the underwear, she subversively inserts the word ‘Joeker’ between the repeated brand name. The joke is quite serious. Ebony explained that the work is one of a series focusing on murder, masculinity and consumerism. There are signs of other trendy accessories: fashionable sunglasses and mismatched shoes.

I don’t suppose the owners of the Joe Boxer brand would be too pleased with Ebony’s deadly refashioning of the product line. But they can’t determine exactly how consumers “identify with” their brand. Artistic licence permits Ebony to turn Joe Boxer into a vulnerable male model for so many youth who end up dead, just trying to have some sort of fun.

WHOSE IDEA AND EXPERIENCE?

The theme of this year’s Havana Biennial is ‘Between the Idea and the Experience’. And the curators took the decision to move some of the art out of conventional exhibition spaces into the street. They wanted people to experience art as they were going about their everyday business. Along the busy Malecon, the seawall that protects Havana, installations kept popping up.

inti-balance-2Right outside our hotel there was a grouping of beautiful rocking chairs, titled ‘Balance Cubano’. But some of the chairs were joined in such a way that you couldn’t actually sit in them. As the artist, Inti Hernandez, put it in the exhibition guide, “Furniture that could very well comfort a person and interact with the surrounding community becomes a rigid and unpleasant object.”

I must confess I thought the installation a waste of perfectly functional furniture. But Hernandez, who lives and works between Cuba and the Netherlands, wanted to make an intriguing point about a society in transition: “I dedicate these works to Cuba and its present interesting situation, aware of the many opportunities and yet also faced with challenges.”

One of Ebony’s pieces was installed on the Malecon. On Sunday morning, when she went to photograph it, she was amused to see that it had disappeared. She did admit that when she was installing it she had overheard some entertaining reviews from onlookers. They said the work would make excellent bedspreads and curtains. Not the design; the actual object! They, obviously, didn’t see the dead body. Only the flowers.

The curators’ rather ambitious concept of the biennial seems to be a far cry from the basic needs of ordinary Cubans. There appears to be a big gap between the curators’ ‘idea’ and the people’s ‘experience’. Art taken out of the ‘protected’ space of the gallery and put on the street for mass consumption assumes new functions.

THE ART OF DEAD BODIES

So it looks as if somebody decided that Ebony’s installation, like those rocking chairs, was a waste of useful material and simply repurposed it. And that’s why the installation disappeared. The fate of Ebony’s artwork made me think about the value and cost of art in societies like ours where people are literally dying of hunger. How do we justify the seeming excess that is art? Does public art, for example, make the life of the poor more bearable? Or is it a luxury we simply cannot afford?

Stop-ED-image-300x284In countries with erratic governance structures, ‘disappearance’ is often a destabilising fact of life. Just think of those 43 male students in Mexico who disappeared last September on their way to protest at a conference put on by the wife of the mayor of Iguala. Disappearance is often a code word for murder, plain and simple. The victim is abducted, often tortured, then killed and the body disposed of so there is no evidence.

The disappearance of art is clearly not comparable. Quite the contrary! Unlike so many human beings, the disappeared object is certainly not violated. It is preserved because it is highly valued. So somebody, somewhere in Havana, is enjoying Ebony’s public installation in private. Perhaps, it hasn’t been turned into home furnishings. It may have been captured by a collector who knows that it’s really ‘art’, meant for a wall.

I suppose we won’t ever know the fate of Ebony’s installation. We can only be philosophical about its disappearance. Ebony’s startling artwork about dead bodies ends up like a corpse in an unmarked grave. That’s the terrifying appeal of Jamaican culture.

The High Cost Of Development

casaamI recently visited Grand Cayman for the first time. I was on my way to Havana for a conference on cultural diversity in the Caribbean, hosted by that distinguished Cuban institution, Casa de las Américas.

One of the highlights was a symposium titled ‘Bob Marley, Time Will Tell’. Professor Horace Campbell, author of the classic, Rasta and Resistance, gave the opening lecture on ‘Bob Marley and the Resistance to War’. All the speakers acknowledged the power of Marley’s music as a political force, urging the oppressed across the globe to rebel against systems of injustice.

The struggle against colonialism is a recurring theme in Marley’s lyrics. But, from what I could see of Cayman, colonialism didn’t look like such a bad thing. Cayman is still a colony of Britain. And Grand Cayman does seem to be rather grand. First World. I kept wondering what was hidden beneath the surface. Offshore banking has been a source of great wealth. But the obvious material prosperity of the Cayman Islands wasn’t the whole story.

My sister, Donnette, noticed that there didn’t seem to be too many ‘local’ people around. At the hotel on the island’s famous seven-mile beach where we overnighted, most of the employees were not Caymanian. The majority of the waiters in the main dining-room appeared to be Filipino or South Asian. The housekeeping staff on our floor were Jamaican. We went into town for dinner and the waiter who served us was from Santo Domingo.

Where were the Caymanians? The female taxi driver who took us back to the airport on Sunday gave us the answer. She described herself as one of a dying breed. Soon, Cayman will be almost completely overrun by foreigners. They will be the primary beneficiaries of development. For Caymanians, the price of ‘development’ will be loss. Loss of land, loss of social place, loss of identity.

BRAND-NEW SECOND-HAND

In Cuba, I was immediately struck by the ‘retro’ development of the communist state. Even on the website where we booked our boutique hotel, Terral, we were warned that the neighbourhood wasn’t so hot. So we were prepared for the crumbling buildings. Very few seemed as if they could be salvaged. But Terral was a bright spot. And the building next door was being renovated.

The decades of embargo imposed by the US, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union, have forced the Cuban people to be extremely creative. Recycling is both an art and a science. The antique American automobiles are legendary. They are more than mere cars. They are symbols of the resilience of the Cuban people who take pride in craftsmanship, demonstrating their capacity to transform ‘old bruck’ into ‘brand-new second-hand’. I hope that with the lifting of the embargo, these glorious antique cars will not be sold for a song to greedy collectors. Surely, the owners must know their worth.

MacklinCreativity takes many forms. At the main craft market in Central Havana, I met Arturo Macklin, an elderly gentleman who was born in Cuba of Jamaican parents. He approached my sister, asking if she was Jamaican. He’s 86 years old and his walking stick was a marvel. It was made from empty deodorant containers, placed over a stick and joined, like sausages, by being heated! At the top was an umbrella handle. Mr Macklin stylishly twirled his home-made walking stick as if it were pure ebony from the finest of gentleman outfitters. And he posed for the camera with an athletic ‘to the world’ gesture, worthy of Usain Bolt.

LOOKING FOR JAMAICAN FAMILY

At the conference, a Cuban woman with Jamaican roots gave me a list of names and asked me to help her find her family. Her name is Belkis O’Connor Jones. At the top of the list was Archibald Edinazer O’Connor, who was born in Westmoreland in the 1870s. Belkis didn’t know the district. Next was Anna Gardener. But there was no information about her birth. Then there was Albertha Adeline Gregory, who was born in Port Antonio in May 1895. And Lois Alexander Jones, who was born in St Ann in the 1890s. I promised to try my best to see if I could find any record of these births and, if possible, any descendants. But I wasn’t hopeful.

G-best-genealogy-sitesSo many Jamaicans went to Cuba to work on the sugar estates and did not return. They made life in their adopted homeland. But their grandchildren now want to reclaim their Jamaican culture. Mr Macklin spoke longingly about wanting to eat ackee and salt fish. His ackee tree in the country was blown down in Hurricane Flora! I promised to check with the Cuban embassy to see if I could send him some canned ackee. Not the same as fresh from the tree. But better than nothing.

There is so much that we share across the Caribbean. A common history of ‘discovery’, genocide, squatting, enforced mass migration, enslavement, resistance, emancipation, colonisation, flag independence and economic colonisation all over again. But there are still cultural differences that make us claim particular places as home. Even when we don’t always feel at home. Like that woman in Cayman who sees herself as an endangered species. And Belkis, who is not completely at home in Cuba, wanting to find her distant relatives in Jamaica.