Jeanette Kong, a Chinese Jamaican filmmaker, is featured as part of PBS’s Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month (May). Kong discusses the importance of celebrating the month and the diversity of the Asian/Pacific American community, PBS is also making her documentary film “Finding Samuel Lowe” available online until June 13, 2017. Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month on PBS celebrates the variety of cultures on the Asian continent and the Pacific Islands/
We caught up with Jeanette, and she said, “I am honored to be a part of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month on PBS. Having the film I directed, “Finding Samuel Lowe,” featured on PBS means the history of the Chinese community in Jamaica will be shared with a wider audience. This is a segment of the population whose past is now being documented and recognized.”
Jeanette Kong was born in Jamaica and grew up in her family’s shop in Kingston. The family moved to Toronto when she was nine years old, but she said she retains “vivid memories” from her childhood in Jamaica. Jeanette studied journalism and work for a time in the publishing industry before moving on to television. She worked as a producer and director in arts broadcasting at a public broadcasting station until 2009, when she left to pursue a Master’s Degree in Media Production. Following her degree, she decided to make her own film “on the Chiney shop” for screening at an academic conference.
According to Jeanette, “’The Chiney Shop’ had the most impact on me as a Chinese-Jamaican. I wanted to do the film as a contrarian view as to how Chinese-Jamaicans were stereotyped and portrayed in mainstream Jamaican media. My impression growing up was that for the most part, my parents had very amiable relations with their customers. I think many shopkeepers had this kind of relationship with their customers. I also wanted to deconstruct the notion that these Chinese-owned businesses did not contribute to Jamaican society. Of course, I’m not dismissing the violent crime and the racism that we know exist, but I wanted to present another view that hadn’t really been explored before.”
She cited the “many great Jamaicans” that understood her focus, such as Joyce Gladwell, Olive Senior, Ray Chen, Alvin Curling, Carol Wong, Patrick Lee and Norman Hew Shue.
In discussing the focus of her films on the Chinese-Jamaican experience, Jeanette cited the fact that she grew up in the Chinese cultural group in Jamaica known as the Hakka, that comprises 99 percent of the Chinese immigrants to the island who came between 1854 and the 1970s. In the early 70s, many Chinese-Jamaicans moved abroad, and so her interest is documenting a past that no longer exists in many ways and to capture its history for the generations being born in places ever more distant from China and Jamaica. “I’m aging myself, but I have two great-nieces and two great-nephews. I want them, their children and great-grandchildren to know where they came from,” she said.
In her film “Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China,” she tells the story of a Chinese merchant who brought his children, including a mixed-race daughter, back to China. The daughter remained in China, married, and had children who have Jamaican/Caribbean heritage in their ancestral line. Jeanette said that making this film allowed her to reconnect to China, as the only time she had visited there was with her parents in 1996. When they died, she thought her link to China was broken and that she would never go back. However, making the documentary and meeting Paula Williams Madison, the person who commissioned her to produce and direct the documentary, let me deepen her connection to her own family in China and make new ties to her extended family. She has visited China four times since doing the film.