It must just be a self-romanticized thought, but I have always felt an indirect connection between Jamaican and Hong Kong – both were British colonies, and both are islands with extremely hot and humid weather. Yes the connections are superficial, but for a Chinese teenager to make a reggae connection, that was more than enough.
Of course, before I knew it, Chinese immigrants in Jamaica actually had much to do with propelling Jamaican music and culture.
Let’s start with Byron Lee, who was from Kowloon, Hong Kong. Kowloon is a peninsula attached to the Mainland China, but it’s part of Hong Kong’s territory. Although saying one is from “Kowloon, Hong Kong” strikes me as a bit odd (it’s like telling someone you are from Pittsford, Rochester), but if he did move to Jamaica when he was 8 to 9 years old (as Wikipedia says), that means he must speak Cantonese? Anyhow, I wonder how “playing Chinese” actually helped his career – his band was called Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, with a debut single in 1959 is called “Dumplins“. His music does not sound Chinese at all, but we can learn and sound like them. Give us a job, and we will deliver. Just listen to the music with your eyes closed? And I have only learned this years later: Byron Lee and the Dragonaire appeared in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No. Pretty cool?
As usual, let me digress to an anecdote. When I was attending IU, I was really into scratching and DJing. Not having the money and space, I befriended a few fellow buusiness majors who DJ on the weekends and carried gears for them. I remember one early morning, after packing and cleaning up for a party, we sat down on a couch and watched VH1. A music vdeo of 2 Live Crew’s Me So Horny came up, and suddenly, one of my DJ friends yelled: “what the F is this fat Chinese dude doing?” Little did we know, one of the MCs of 2 Live Crew, Fresh Kid Ice, was of Asian descent. And guess what? Although he was born in Trindad and Tobago, his family was from Hong Kong. I didn’t confront my friend at the time, as I assumed he menat no disrespect, but why can’t Chinese people be an MC? I must thank him though, as that might have pushed me to learn music that is not of “my culture.”
During the pandemic, I found out about Stephen Cheng when I tried to learn more about Chinese-Jamaican musical connection. Born in Shanghai in 1923 (or 1921?), Cheng moved to Hawaii in 1948, then moved to New York and attended Columbia, and then studied singing at Juilliard. Being able to sing in multiple languages got him a gig in Trindad and Tobago, and when he visited Jamaica, he recorded Always Together – an odd rendition of a “Taiwanese folk song” Girl from Ali Shan, sung in Chinese operatic style, but backed with a rocksteady beat provided none other than Byron Lee. The song is now a cult reggae classic, but apparently Cheng had a rough musical career, being suspected as a spy.
(Where do I find the tape where he sang Yesterday????)
2 thoughts on “#56 Why reggae – episode #3a”
I worked with Stephen Chen in Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song” on Broadway but never knew his musical background.
I wasn’t sure if it was him until I saw his picture.
The last time I saw him was at the show’s 50th year reunion party in NY city.
This is fascinating! I wish I had a chance to meet him and learn more about his eclectic musical taste!