George Yap – 150 years of Chinese immigration to Jamaica

When you read about the achievements of George Yap, your first instinct could be and should be to admire the man. That was my reaction when first asked to interview him for the celebration of 150 years of Chinese presence in Jamaica series. I quickly sought information about his company LEASA. While the information about both the company and the man at the helm speaks to success in achieving the American dream, it would be wrong to assess George Yap just on that level. Talking with him, is a revelation into what makes a man successful, and more so, who and what makes someone Jamaican and an admirable human being.

Jamaicans like to think of themselves as being hardworking, resilient, loyal and the list goes on. We also like to think that only the African slaves had a hard time of it upon reaching the shores of the island. We like to think a lot of things when it comes to the other ethnic groups who found their way to the island, and not all of it is complimentary. The very things that we abhor being done to us, we do to others. We are celebrating 150 years of Chinese immigration to our fair isle and I wonder how much we, the non-Chinese population really know about this group of our fellow Jamaicans. During the conversation with Mr. Yap, it occurred to me, that despite studying West Indian History in school, there was not much I could remember being attributed to the Chinese in the many books I had had to read. There were the facts that they came as indentured workers and that they eventually thrived in the commercial sector. Full stop! Sadly and gladly, it took a conversation with a man I have never met save the technology of a cell phone to make me admit to this inadequacy in my education and make me realize that the celebration of the Chinese-Jamaican, is in fact a reason to celebrate yet another aspect of Jamaican triumph. Yes ! Jamaican, because they, the Chinese are Jamaican patriots in many, many, hereto, unrecognized and unheralded ways.

George Yap was born to Chinese immigrants who fled mainland China for a better life abroad. They were not necessarily seeking great riches, merely an existence above the poverty that was their lot at the lowest strata of Chinese society. One of eight children, he saw first hand the hardships his parents found, not the least of which was bigotry. While a student at Gaynstead High School, he helped in the family business of patty making and before long, had his own customers to supply with this staple of island lunches. Opting out of school at age 14, he started on his way to great success in business. However, that success did not come without hardships and heartaches. He remembers having his first patty warmer repossessed by the store from which he credited it, and even had a vehicle he had purchased go the same way. That is when he found his way into supplying the gambling machines favoured by the corner bars and clubs and hotels that dot the island.

I had to take the opportunity to ask him why it is/was, that the Chinese had no seeming fear in establishing businesses in some of the worst economic areas of Jamaica. His answer was simple. All they sought were the opportunities to work and provide for their families and the surroundings were no worse than they had endured back in their ancestral land. The success that he found helped him to help his fellow Jamaicans, in the form of the jobs he was able to provide. As his father had done before him with his factory and bakery, Mr. Yap provided various services to the community with his many successful ventures, in that they provided for his family and the families of him workers.

I took the opportunity to question him of some of the practices I had know of being peculiar to the Chinese community. I had grown up knowing of some who had been sent back to the mainland prior to its going communist, ostensibly to learn the language and customs of their forefathers. He laughed as he gently disavowed me of this misconception. He explained that the children born into what was considered a better life, in view of the fact that their parents were now owners of shops, bakeries etc, however small these were, were enjoying much more than had been available to their parents and grandparents. Whenever any child seemed to be abusing the fruits of hard labour and showed signs of going down the proverbial wrong path, the decision was always made to send them back to the provinces of their antecedents so they could see firsthand, deprivation and stark want. This would usually bring them around to a greater appreciation of the sacrifices that had been made for them to have what they were now taking for granted.

While most Chinese are never seen as active participants in the politics of the island, Mr. Yap was a good friend of the Jamaica Labour Party. His brother, in fact, was a tireless worker within the party, and this would lead to Mr. Yap’s departure from Jamaica. His brother was arrested and imprisoned under the State of Emergency invoked in the 80’s and much of what they owned was seized. Many have derided the Chinese-Jamaicans who subsequently left the island, saying they made their fortunes and left at the first sign of trouble, but this is not so. Remember, they had a history of abuse in their homeland long before Communism, and a history of abuse even in the land they came to. Many laws were on the books, dictating their treatment and participation in the new land. Due to the perceived and real success they had achieved via shopkeeping and other ventures, they were again targeted as being part of the problems which plagued their less successful brothers. The incidents cited are horrific, but this is an article of the success of the human spirit, one human spirit in particular, and he made the decision to leave with his family, to make a new start and to literally save his life.

Leaving behind all he had accumulated, he arrived in Miami with the notorious “US$50” allowed at the time. Not an educated man, having left school at an early age, and despite his business acumen, he did not have the skills that would translate to the first world business community. While his wife worked at two jobs to maintain the family, he resorted to the ‘try a thing’ which had proved successful to him back home. He had sold patties back home and so he could do this. He also introduced Chinese vegetables by cutting them up and packaging them for sale to his faithful customers. In his trips to the market he came upon a man who had been trying his hand at a bean sprout farm, and had failed to make a go of it. Not knowing anything, himself about that business, he saw an opportunity and made the plunge. And did he take a bath.

Growing bean sprouts is a water intensive endeavour. His lack of knowledge had him using water too concentrated in chlorine, which spelled failure for his plants. So he took to the libraries and learned as he went along. He allowed, that even when his business was starting to get noticed to the extent that people from the United Nations would come to visit to see his hydro growing facility, he was learning from them as much as they were seeking to learn from him. He talks as a man who believes in the blessings of God and he has been blessed, and more importantly, he shares his blessings. As he did in Jamaica, his highly successful LEASA Co. is located in Liberty City, one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Miami. He employs former welfare mothers, recovering addicts, rehabilitated and rehabilitating criminals, a practice that has brought him honours from former President Bill Clinton, who visited the enterprise while in office. His accolades are many, as are the awards he has received. They are merited when you consider, he has gone from a gross of $5000.00 his first year of operation to the current $5m, and all this from an initial outlay of $700 hard-earned dollars.

Today the company known as LEASA Industries, is recognized as the largest grower of bean sprouts and alfalfa sprouts and the largest manufacturer of tofu in the state of Florida. LEASA employs over 65 workers from the surrounding area. What is unique about LEASA is now what the company manufactures, but the people who work for the company. The majority of the workforce is African-American and consists of mothers on welfare, food stamp collectors, school drops out and even ex-offenders. Each is given a second chance at life and a number of them have even turned out to be some of the best workers a company can hire. Mr. Yap’s policy is “If we are in a better position to help the less fortunate, then we should help the less fortunate then help ourselves. You will be blessed and our community will be a better place to live in.” He hires them off the street. Before people start to work for him, he tells them frankly, ‘What you did before, I am not interested . When you come through my door, you are clean as a sheet. I am not going to fire you. You are going to fire yourself if you don’t do the job.” Not only did his company provide the much needed employment opportunities in an area that most businesses tend to avoid or hesitate to get involved with, it also helped revitalize the riot-devastated Liberty City. Out of the fifty loans the City of Miami issued to minority businessmen after the 1980 riots, to date, only one of them has repaid the loan. It is George Yap of LEASA Industries.

And this millionaire, friend and acquaintance of the famous, is a treat to talk with, even if only on the telephone. No put on airs…no phony accents, just a pleasant, easily recognized Jamaican accent, peppered with patois, colloquialisms and a merriment we are always praised for having in our voices. His company’s name LEASA, is an acronym enjoining the first initials of his wife and children. Just as family played an important role in his community when he was growing up, when he started out on his own in Jamaica, it continues to play an important part in his new life. Yet, his connections to his old life have not all been cut.

Recognizing that he is intrinsically tied to the island of his birth, he shares his largesse with the efforts to maintain the standing legacies of his ancestors on the island. The maintenance of the Chinese Cemetery is one of the efforts he contributes towards. He encourages the involvement of those who remained, and those who are newly arrived, to become involved in politics so they will have a true voice in the running of their country. For when all is said and done, it is the country of the Chinese-Jamaican and after 150 years of being there, their roots are as deep as any other ethnic group.

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