Jamaican childhood

“I was born in Kingston, Jamaica on the 11th August 1926.  At the age of five I attended the Chinese School in Kingston, where I stayed for three years, from 1932 to 1935.  From 1935 to 1942 I attended St. Ann’s Elementary School, Kingston and from 1942 to 1944 I was at the Kingston Technical School, where I was taking a course in Electrical Engineering until I volunteered to join the RAF in 1944.”  George’s cv.

 

 

Pow Un Chun / Richard Pow

 

Richard Pow, George’s father, was Cantonese.  He migrated to Jamaica with two brothers.  Nobody in the family now knows when they arrived there.  I asked the daughter of his brother Roy, Elaine McMasters, living in Jamaica, to send me information about the family.  She talked with George’s sister, Bibby, the last person who knew Richard.  Unfortunately her memory was somewhat blurred, as she was, at the time, approaching her ninety-sixth birthday.

 

Peaches (pet name of Elaine) sent me this extremely old and faded photograph featuring Richard Pow and one of his Chinese brothers.  She named the man on the left as Pow Un Chun.  This information struck a chord with me, as George told me years ago that when he was young he had a Chinese name, which I remembered as being something like 'Pow Chun Hun'.  It seems reasonable to conclude that his Chinese name was actually Pow Un Chun and that he was named after his father.

 

 

Pow Un Chun and one of his brothers

 

 

Richard Pow was described on George’s birth certificate as a grocer, and on our marriage certificate in 1982 as a 'proprietor, (grocery store)', born in Hong Kong.  Because he could speak, read and write in both English and Cantonese, in the early days he took responsibility for recording the stock for other shopkeepers.  Family members in Jamaica also remember Richard as a conjuror, although it is unclear as to whether he ever earned income from this.  It is thought that some of his 'magical paraphernalia' may be hidden in a cupboard somewhere on the island.  Richard died in 1931, as stated on George’s British citizenship certificate.

 

George had told me about the Chinese indented labourers who were sent to Jamaica, but explained that his father had migrated there by choice.  From the information in the article below, it seems likely that they travelled to Jamaica in the 1890s or early 1900s as 'free voluntary migrants', becoming members of the 'middlemen minority' group.

 

 

Changing identities of the Chinese in the Anglophone Caribbean

 

"Chinese arrival in the Anglophone Caribbean consists mainly of three stages: first, as indentured laborers between the mid-1850s and the late 1870s; second, as voluntary migrants between the 1890s and 1940s; and lastly, as voluntary migrants from the late 1970s or 1980s until today.  The majority came from Southeast China, especially from Guangdong."

 

(Extract:  Changing identities of the Chinese in the Anglophone Caribbean: a focus on Jamaica - Routledge Handbook of the Chinese Diaspora)

 

 

The Family

 

 

An interesting issue raised by this birth certificate is that he is named as 'George Pow'.  Every other document throughout his life names him as 'Oswald George Powe'.  He gave an explanation of this in a note written in 1982, two days before we moved into our house in Nottingham.

 

 

This explains the omission on the birth certificate of 'Oswald', but it is somewhat unusual to include a baptismal name on personal and official documents. As the first appearance of 'Powe' is on his RAF records, I think it is more likely that the incorrect spelling was introduced by an RAF officer, during recruitment, assuming anglicisation was necessary, and that this convention was carried on in later life.  (See also Life in Nottingham page.)

 

His birth certificate shows that his father married Leonora Sinclair.  Her family came from Portland on the east coast of Jamaica in the area of or near Golden Grove.  She died in the mid-1960s, when George was living in England. Because of his political activity, including membership of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, he was unable to travel to Jamaica for her funeral.  This was the case until some years later. I cannot remember if he was banned by the Jamaican or British Government. 

 

Richard and Leonora’s children were Madeleine, Veronica (always known as Bibby), born on February 26 1923, George and Daphne, twins, born on August 11 1926, and Roy, born in 1929.  Madeleine went to live in Panama as an adult. Bibby became a teacher, and eventually a head teacher at a school in Port Henderson.  She married Leonard Johnstone (Lenny), who was a highly-skilled carpenter.  Daphne died in her teens, following surgery for appendicitis. Roy was eventually responsible for catering in the island’s prison service. 


George attended the Chinese School in Kingston for three years from 1932.  From 1935 to 1942 he went to the St. Ann’s Elementary School in Kingston, and then to the Kingston Technical School to study electrical engineering. 

 

He told me that his father took the family to Chinese festivals, and that he particularly remembered one which almost coincided with Christmas.  This must have been the Dongzhi festival, which occurs in December.  Another aspect of Chinese culture which Richard instilled in his children was the concept of ancestor worship.

 

It was at that time common practice for the oldest male child of Chinese parentage born in Jamaica to be sent to China for the main period of their education, and this was the intention for George.  This did not happen, probably because his father died around the time that George first went to the Chinese School, and the Roman Catholic ethos of his mother’s side of the family prevailed from then on.  Sometime in the 1960s I met, on a visit to Manchester (England), a childhood friend of George’s, Vincent Chin, who had been sent to China for his education.

 

Of all five children of Richard and Leonora, George and Bibby lived longest.  Daphne died in childhood, and Madeleine and Roy in the 1990s. George was 87 when he died in September 2013, and Bibby died at the age of 97 in May 2020.