Migrating between life worlds: Fieldwork moments among transnational Chinese migrants in Kingston, Jamaica

Around one year ago, I set out for my fieldwork in Jamaica. My PhD project seeks to understand how the Chinese community in Jamaica experiences and understands love. I see love both as an analytical category through which to catch a glimpse of individual and communal emotional life and as a methodological stance that prioritises an active interest in otherness.

In this blogpost, my focus is on the national and transnational aspects of thesentiment of ‘love’. The earliest Chinese migrants came in the 19th century as indentured labourers. Whilst the descendants of these early generations have assimilated into Jamaican society, the new migrants arriving after the 1980s mostly socialise among themselves. This phenomenon has led to local stereotyping of the group, yet also a sense of admiration from the locals, as some regard ‘the Chinese’ (a very broad term for the heterogeneous community in terms of their generational, geographical and ethnic differences) to be united – a quality they believe to be lacking in the ethnically diverse and individualist Jamaica. As Chinese small business owners continue to migrate for a better living across the globe to a faraway island country that prides itself on cultural openness, their attachment to China and its culture is nevertheless nourished with care, affection, and nostalgia. In a social world that epitomises globalisation and its many effects in the Global South (Wardle 2000), it is meaningful to study groups and individuals who try their best to adapt, preserve, and evolve, as well as to love across national boundaries.

The following passages depict two fieldwork scenarios that illustrate aspects of national and transnational love. The first one discusses the dinner gatherings on the weekends among Chinese migrant workers, while the second one illustrates a picture of a Chinese restaurant and its former owner.

At the weekend dinner table

During the summer of 2023, I lived and worked with a group of Chinese workers. I helped out in a supermarket in Spanish Town, commuting two hours everyday from Kingston with other Chinese shop managers. We all lived in a townhouse block, where most of our neighbours were also Chinese. My next-door neighbour, for example, ran a small fast-food Chinese restaurant in Spanish Town. We ate lunch boxes from them every working day. I knew a girl from that house before and was surprised to find that the restaurant owner was from the same origin, northeast China, as I was. They worked long hours in the restaurant and returned home late from Monday to Saturday. On Sunday, however, they would play mahjong, go out and, most importantly, prepare a grand meal. The meal consisted of around 8 to 10 dishes, making a collage of food from the northeast all the way to south China. They would invite their friends, mostly met through work and family connections and have a big gathering together. I was always invited,

‘You can come here whenever you like every Sunday,’ one girl from the group told me, ‘At least you can taste northeastern food here. Isn’t that nice to have a taste of home?’

It was nice, I thought to myself. What was even ‘nicer’ was all the drinking and teasing between one another. Everyone who could drink would join, and those who were reluctant would be seen as not caring enough to drink. The Chinese drinking culture was, along with the food, teleported to this table as well. Indeed, there was hierarchy and power play in the almost coercing act (Cochrane et al. 2003), especially since the work and life boundaries were heavily blurred as bosses and workers often lived under the same roof. Meanwhile, tension and pressure between individuals in the group accumulated in this almost claustrophobic style of life where everyone did the exact same thing and saw the exact same people every day. What was essential, then, is that in this practice of heavy drinking on the weekend, everyone was supposed to ‘be together’ completely, creating a sense of ‘we-ness’ amid which tension was released, dissolved and forgotten as one feels most at home even in a foreign country. Teasing about relationships, especially romantic rumours and affairs between one another accompanying the heavy drinking, was the direct way of expressing and relieving. The individual sentiment about love was submerged and transformed momentarily into a communal festivity that emphasised and recreated, more than anything, the deeply shared and missed Chinese culture. To an extent, the scene was representative of love in Chinese traditional culture, where the national overweighs the familial or communal, and the latter again overweighs the individual (see, for example, Wu 2022), only now in a transnational context.

The End of an Era

I spent another couple of months helping out in an old Chinese restaurant called the Emerald Garden. Built in the 1980s, the restaurant was one of the first Chinese restaurants in Jamaica. They served mainly Cantonese and Hakka dishes at first since most early generations were Hakka origin (Hakka is the name of an ethnic group in China) from Guangdong. Newly arrived migrants (after 1980s until now), however, have a more diverse geographical background, such as Guangdong, Fujian, and even as far as northeastern China, where I came from. Therefore, the restaurant began to add a few dishes from other regions while maintaining its traditional Cantonese menu. The restaurant owner, whom people call Mr Lowe, originally came from Hong Kong. After almost forty years of doing business in Jamaica, he finally decided to sell the restaurant and returned to Hong Kong for retirement this year.

I have gotten many questions from Jamaicans about the authenticity of Chinese food in Jamaica. Compared to Chinese fast-food chains that lean more towards a fusion with Jamaican flavours, formal dining restaurants like the Garden brand itself in authenticity. However, Jamaican customers would still prefer ordering dishes that taste more Jamaican. ‘I would never order sweet and sour chicken in a Chinese restaurant,’ one of my interlocutors once told me, ‘But that is what Jamaicans like.’ Though a Cantonese dish, the sweet and sour chicken is certainly never as popular in China as with the Jamaican people, who much prefer the strong taste closer to their own heavily seasoned dishes in style. And as one might well imagine, some Jamaican ingredients are used instead of the original ones. The most noticeable example is the scotch bonnet (a common type of chili in the Caribbean) in the Chinese hot pepper sauce.

Authenticity in the Garden is complemented by its unique design. The place was designed like a traditional Chinese garden, with green being the central colour suitable to its name. It almost felt like walking in an ancient relic frozen in time, barely changing in the past decades and only showing some slight signs of wear and tear. The careful maintenance of the space was accompanied by its carefulness with the food quality. ‘We might not be the most delicious Chinese food you have ever tasted, but what is precious about us is that our flavour never changes,’ their current manager told me. The temporality, or rather the suspension of it, was also an indispensable factor in creating the experience of an authentic Chinese restaurant.

Indeed, Mr Lowe had worries regarding whether the restaurant could withstand the rapid changes in the current time. He criticised how the new cooks did not pay as much attention to the food. They only treat cooking as an assignment that should be left aside once accomplished. The affective tie formed between one and one’s food being made is being cut in modern times, long before people start to pay more attention to their phones. And so that loss was entangled with the loss of what it meant to be a Hong Konger. For Mr Lowe, Hong Kong people used to put more effort into creating TASTE – something of importance, delicacy, that is now lost in all the modern development.. This nostalgic critique conveys a loving connection between food and its people’s origins, as well as an attempt to preserve itself against the irresistible flow of movement in terms of time and space.

After his departure, the new owners planned to renovate the restaurant, changing it into a more ‘European’ style. A customer came by and asking for the previous owner, feeling very surprised that he left for Hong Kong. ‘How is he going to survive?’ He asked. ‘He always comes here every day to see through things. I can’t imagine him living without the restaurant’. 

It was truly the end of an era, of a person and a place that maintained a transnational tie, to the best of their ability.



BOYM, S. 1998. On Diasporic Intimacy: Ilya Kabakov’s Installations and Immigrant Homes. Critical Inquiry 24:2, 498–524.

COCHRANE J., H. Chen, K. M Conigrave. & W Hao. 2003. Alcohol use in China. Alcohol and Alcoholism 38:6, 537–42.

LUGONES, M. 1987. Playfulness, "World"-Travelling, and Loving Perception. Hypatia 2:2, 3-19.

SHIBATA, Y. 2005. Revisiting Chinese hybridity: negotiating categories and reconstructing ethnicity in contemporary Jamaica? -a Preliminary Report. Caribbean Quarterly 51:1, 53-75.

WARDLE, H. 2000. An ethnography of cosmopolitanism in Kingston, Jamaica. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press.

WU, G. 2022. An Anthropological Inquiry into Confucianism Ritual, Emotion, and Rational Principle. Lexington Books.


Yichi Zhang is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews, UK. Her research project focuses on love and emotional experiences among different generations of Chinese in Jamaica. She is interested in topics related to emotions, migration, and literary anthropology. She is currently the PhD representative of MITRA. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..




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