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Chinese blacks in the Americas

The United States

Chinese first started migrating to the United States in the mid-19th century. They came first for the Gold Rush, and later, as the Gold Rush waned, many Chinese continued to enter the United States as manual laborers, notably as workers on the Transcontinental railroad. The highest concentration of Chinese labor was found in the American West, with some laborers in the South. Most of the early Chinese immigrants were men.

After the Emancipation (1863), some white plantation owners in the South hired Chinese coolies to replace black slave labor. As the Reconstruction (1866-1877) came to an end, the Chinese faced racial prejudice and discrimination as did the Southern blacks. Many Chinese men married local non-Chinese women, including black American women. For example, the tenth census of Louisiana showed, among the 489 Chinese in the state, 28 had spouses present. Only 3 of those had China-born wives. Of the remaining, 4 married mulatto women, 12 married Negro women, 8 married white women, and 1 married an American-born Chinese.1

Lucy M. Cohen's book Chinese in the Post-Civil War South - A People Without A History contains a number of 20th century photographs of the Chinese/Black descendants of these 19th century immigrants.

The West Indies

In the 1860s, planters in the British West Indies imported about 18,000 Chinese to work as indentured laborers in Guiana, Trinidad and Jamaica. Intermarriage with locals (Black and coloured) was not uncommon as male Chinese immigrants far outnumbered their female counterparts. By the 1946 Census (1943 in Jamaica), the Chinese numbered 12,394 in Jamaica: 2,818 China-born, 4,061 local born, 5,515 Chinese coloured (one Chinese parent). In Trinidad, there were 9,314: 2,366 China-born, 2,926 local born, 349 born abroad (from other colonies), 3,673 Chinese coloured.2

The most famous Black/Chinese Jamaican today is probably Michael Lee-Chin, the billionaire boss of Jamaica's National Commercial Bank and the CEO of AIC.

Another well-known Chinese/Black of West Indian origin is the Trinidad-born Chris Wong Won of the rap group 2 Live Crew.

Latin America

In Latin America, as in previously mentioned regions of the Americas, significant numbers of Chinese first started arriving in the mid 19th century as part of the coolie trade.3 By the mid 20th century, Cuba and Peru had the largest Chinese populations 4 By the end of WWII, there were considerable numbers of Latin American descended from Chinese fathers and non-Chinese mothers.5 One of the most famous of these is the Chinese-Afro-Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam, known as the Cuban Picasso.6

Born in 1902 to a Chinese immigrant Yam Lam and an Afro-Cuban mother Ana Serafina Lam, Wilfredo was the youngest of 9 children.7 His mother Ana was the daughter of a Congolese ex-slave woman and a Cuban mulatto father.8

Wilfredo Lam attended the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Havana, and later moved to Spain to further his studies.9 He fought against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War and later fled to France, where Picasso took him under his wing.10 Lam went on to become the most celebrated Cuban artist of the 20th century.11 In 1964, he received the Guggenheim International Award.12 His native Cuba honors him with the Wilfredo Lam Centre of Contemporary Art.13 Like Picasso's works, Lam's works are among the most forged.14

For more on Lam's work, see:

  1. Lucy M. Cohen, Chinese in the Post-Civil War South - A People Without A History, p.147
  2. The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas, p.254
  3. The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas, p.258
  4. The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas, p.258