Read Your Way Through Kingston, Jamaica

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Kerry Young’s “Pao.”

Don’t be surprised if you didn’t know that Kingston once had a Chinatown: Chances are your Jamaican friends have never heard of it either. In the mid-1800s, hundreds of Chinese immigrants were shipped to Jamaica to make up for the post-emancipation labor shortage, and, as happened everywhere they landed, they built their own neighborhood to survive. The novel opens in 1938, 100 years after the abolition of slavery but decades before independence, in a Jamaica nobody would recognize today. Pao, the book’s namesake, flees the Chinese Civil War to land in Kingston and faces no prospects and little future. Quick as a stray thought, he turns to small-time racketeering and petty crime, eventually rising to become the Godfather of Kingston’s Chinatown. But Pao is no ordinary gangster, and the humanity he shows doesn’t fit with the brutality he needs. Kingston is no ordinary city either, throwing off its colonial past but hurtling toward an uncertain future — what is the place of a Chinese man in this new order? There’s very little trace of this Chinatown in the city that survives, but the novel takes the reader back to when it was both tumultuously and thrillingly alive.

Kingston is always changing. Kingston is stubbornly the same. To know this city is to realize that both statements are always true.

“Summer Lightning and Other Stories,” Olive Senior

“Heartease,” Lorna Goodison

“The Pagoda,” Patricia Powell

“Brother Man,” Roger Mais

“The Marvelous Equations of the Dread,” Marcia Douglas

“Wide Sargasso Sea,” Jean Rhys

“The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament,” Orlando Patterson

“Augustown,” Kei Miller

“Here Comes the Sun,” Nicole Dennis-Benn

“Pao,” Kerry Young

Marlon James is the author of five novels, including “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” about politically tinged gang violence in Jamaica, which won the 2015 Booker Prize, and “The Book of Night Women,” about an enslaved woman on a sugar plantation in 18th-century Jamaica, which was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award, among other accolades.


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