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Back to his roots: Chinese-Jamaican Leo Lee

Jamaican-born reggae producer Leo Lee remembers the bucolic Shenzhen countryside as he traces his Hakka heritage, writes Thomas Bird

 

Guanlan, a town in Shenzhen's Guangming New District, has doubtlessly profited from China's industrial revolution, at least in material terms. Its rice farmers turned factory landlords - Hakka mainly - now drive Japanese cars, yap into Korean smartphones and spend their leisure time frequenting the karaoke houses and massage parlours that are Guanlan's principle distractions - the town is actually closer to the infamously disreputable city of Dongguan than it is to downtown Shenzhen.

Yet economic prosperity has come at a cost. One of the few remaining green spaces in Guanlan is Qiuyulin Park, where Hakka locals still come for morning exercises and to practise kung fu. The park's hillside affords views of a chaotic sea of grubby factories strewn beneath a smog-filled sky. The stench of foul water in open sewers pervades the air and it is hard to imagine what life was like here before the world's fastest industrial revolution took its toll.

"When I first came here, in 1947, we drank from a well," says Leo Lee, surveying the panorama of his ancestral homeland from the park. "It's still there, next to the government office. In those days there was no electricity. You were lucky if you saw a bike, never mind a car. We all had to help out in some way. My thing was to take the water buffalo out to the field so that it could feed on the grass. I liked to sit on its back while it was eating. Now I feel like I'm in a glass jar and someone is slowly injecting poison. I don't dare take a deep breath."

Close to the park, hidden from the street by boxy tenements, stands a cluster of houses dating back to the Qing dynasty. Here rises an old watchtower. Ancestral shrines named after various clans dot the area.

"These buildings were here when I first came back [to go to school] in the 1940s," Lee explains, as we tour Laoyi Village - one of two remaining old villages in Niuhu, itself a hamlet in Guanlan. "You could sit in my family house and look out at farmland stretching as far as the eye can see. There were rice paddies and fruit plantations, a lot of trees - much more than there are now. They've even levelled some of the mountains. I suppose this is progress, in some ways good and in some ways bad."

Laoyi may be Lee's ancestral home but the 73-year-old began life on the other side of the world, in Jamaica.

"I was born in 1941 in the parish of Portland, in a place called Skebo, way down in the bush," Lee explains, in heavily lilted Jamaican-English, over coffee in his family home. "That's where my grandfather, James Lee, started his business. The ship that take him from Hong Kong go direct to Portland because the banana plantation was there. James Lee just wanted to go out in the world and make some money to feed his people [in Guanlan]. I don't think he have any idea what the hell was going on. He started as a coolie and eventually ended up owning a grocery shop selling food, pots and kerosene lamps."

Like many Hakka who boarded steamships in Hong Kong bound for Jamaica in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, James Lee would live the rest of his life abroad, never again setting eyes on the young bride he'd left behind in Niuhu. Yet he sent enough money home for his family to build a house, which is still standing.

From the outside, the 90-year-old building looks similar to other old houses in the village, with a sloping roof and thick wooden doors bearing images of angry menshen - door gods. Inside, however, the pungent aroma of coffee, the bright green and yellow painted walls and the rhythms of roots-reggae invoke the ambience of the Caribbean island Leo Lee still calls home.

"My father, Archong Lee, and his two siblings were born of a Jamaican mistress. The three of them came back here to be schooled by my grandmother. In those days, people were sent back to receive an education. I always say it was to make us become a real Chinese person. My father married May Lee, from a nearby village, and in the late 1930s, they went back to Jamaica."

James Lee's first-born son, Archong would take over the family business and begin a family of his own, Leo being the eldest son. Archong and May continued the tradition of sending children back to Guanlan to reacquaint them with their heritage.

"I came to China in 1947. My dad and sister came with us. Not every parent could afford to come with their kids so my father was watching out for a lot of children on the boat. There was a lot of Chinese [returning for school]. I think [the journey] take about a month."

Though Lee was a shy child, he says, he enjoyed his early years in Guanlan. "People were good to me. There's still a few [people] from those times who I hang out with."

Aged 10, Lee was sent back to Jamaica, a return journey that proved eventful.

"I travelled all the way from Singapore alone. It was fun but I caught chickenpox, and had to come off the boat in Osaka. I was quarantined. I was alone in this place call Japan. From there I had to wait a month before the next boat come. When we went through the Panama Canal, the captain put me at the front of the boat and said, 'You gonna enjoy this.' They treat me like a king."

By his own admission, Lee had only a piecemeal education in Jamaican English, learning basics such as the alphabet from a family tutor. During the 50s his family ran a bakery called Pomroy, where the teenaged Leo worked. Yet the sea voyages to and from China seemed to have planted in him nomadic seeds - aged 20, he set off again.

"After a while in Jamaica I decided to get away. I went on holiday to the UK. I was staying in a hostel in Coventry. It was cold and horrible. The air was almost as bad as Guanlan's is today. I thought there must be a better way to enjoy the UK so I went out walking and ended up applying for the air force and music college on the same day. I wanted to learn the guitar but somehow I ended up in the [Royal Air Force] instead."

Lee would serve almost six years with the RAF as a trade assistant (general), stationed in places as far flung as Pembrokeshire, in Wales, and Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates.

"It was fun and I got to see a lot. Sometimes it was just like big party, a holiday with pay," he adds, laughing.

In 1966, Lee returned to a newly independent Jamaica. These were heady times for the young country. The economy grew an average 6 per cent each year for the first decade after independence and, culturally, Jamaica was experiencing something of a revolution. Artists absorbed Caribbean musical influences, such as calypso, and combined them with American rhythm and blues, a hybrid initially known as ska.

Lee went back to work with his family, who now owned a department store in the capital, Kingston, but he couldn't ignore the musical explosion that was happening around him.

"Many of the musicians lived nearby our business and would have to come by to catch the bus. You'd see Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs and Jacob Miller around. They would play in small venues even after they get famous. I would go to the sessions and hang out after work."

An avid amateur photographer, Lee took hundreds of pictures during the 60s and 70s. He talks me through a few notable photographs: "That's Bob Marley at the Peace Concert just after he got shot. This one is [former Miss World] Cindy Breakspeare and her son Damian Marley [son of Bob] socialising in my Kingston home.

"I don't know how I got into music, it just happened. In 66, I threw a party in the Chinese Athletics Club - it was basically a cricket club - and I booked The Skatalites." (The band, who released the seminal Guns of Navarone in 1965, are still touring, and will play at this year's Fuji Rock Festival, in Japan, on July 27).

"I never got to learn music but I can hear how it flow when it's playing." This, combined with his knack for business, enabled him to produce and manage up-and-coming acts throughout the 60s and 70s. But it wasn't until 1978 that Lee hit the musical big time, when he became the manager and producer of roots-reggae pioneers The Gladiators.

The band, along with the Wailers and The Upsetters, helped bring reggae music to the world. A steady stream of Gladiators hits recorded at the infamous Studio One in Kingston and produced by Coxsone Dodd, notably Hello Carol, attracted British-based record company Virgin.

"That's how I got to meet Richard Branson. He came in my home to discuss me taking over the management of the band. I still have an open invitation to stay in his home in London. Richard is cool, very down to earth."

The Gladiators' first album, 1976's Trenchtown Mix Up, was essentially a collection of revised hits. Proverbial Reggae followed in 1978. Both albums were received well at home and abroad. By the time it came to recording 1979's Sweet So Till album, The Gladiators' relationship with their original management had become strained and they began to work with Lee.

"I started the Sweet So Till LP but they were still under contract with another producer. I was doing everything but I got no credit. The track Holiday Ride was my independent production. I work at night, close the store and go in the studio at eight o'clock. My family think I'm a crazy person."

Lee would get full credit for producing 1982's Back To Roots and Symbol of Reality albums and managed the band's tours of Europe and the United States in the early 80s. In Guanlan, Lee keeps an archive of cuttings and press releases from his days with The Gladiators.

One American concert review from 1983 reads, "The gears meshed instantaneously as monster bassman Clinton Fearon laid down the amorphous sound of crawling Jamaican night beat and the band eased ever-so-gently into a slow hypnotic groove … When they dug out their 1968 hit Hello Carol, complete with full harmonies and the bouncing lope of Coxsone's Studio One Riddem, it was a revival of the original reggae that is all too rapidly disappearing."

The observation that roots-reggae was in decline was correct. In the 80s and 90s traditional bands were being supplanted by commercial ragga artists and electronic dancehall. Although the group soldiered on for decades, the changing musical landscape made it difficult for outfits such as The Gladiators to turn a profit.

"When the DJ thing came in, degrading women and all, well, that just wasn't for me. I like good songs, with good lyrics," says Lee.

It wasn't only Jamaica's pioneering musicians who had run into trouble. After its dynamic first decade, the nation's economy, burdened with International Monetary Fund loans, was in dire straits. Society was becoming violent as class divisions grew. Well-to-do Jamaicans started migrating, eventually creating a diaspora almost as widespread as that of the Chinese.

"Michael Manley became prime minister in 1972. I think what he was preaching was for the people. Even though we were independent before this guy, it was like we weren't independent. Him come in and say, 'It doesn't matter where this kid is from as long as he can qualify to enter any school, he should [be allowed to study].' He stop a lot of imports so local farmers can make more money selling their produce. His idea was socialism but outside forces were saying this was communism. People with money got scared. They think Mr Manley gonna take everything you have and give it to the poor."

Most of Lee's family migrated to the US and Canada. Lee remained at the family department store until 1984 but the troubles Jamaica was experiencing and his intention to raise a family eventually led him to give up the country he loved. After a stint in the US, Lee made Haren, a municipality in the Dutch city of Groningen, his home for the next 20 years.

IN THE EVENING, Lee takes me to a neighbouring house to drink tea. The building has a courtyard overshadowed by a sacred banyan tree. Here, some Hakka practise kung fu under the watchful gaze of Master Wei Guang. It's a scene out of the history books, or at least a Hong Kong movie, exemplifying how rapid change has been here and how much tradition still resonates.

One of the younger martial artists is another Jamaican returnee. I ask him why his family sent him back to China.

"Too many guns," he replies, underlining Jamaica's decline.

Returning to Lee's home for a nightcap, a glass of Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum, it's difficult not to be overcome with a sense of the past haunting the present. A wooden placard bears the characters " boai - universal love", the dictum of another son of Guangdong: Sun Yat-sen. From the walls hang portraits of Lee's ancestors going back to his great-grandparents, for whom he makes an offering of tea each day - despite being a Blue Mountain coffee drinker himself.

Notwithstanding the fact that Lee clearly identifies most strongly with his Jamaican heritage, his father felt a lifelong bond with his Hakka roots in Guanlan. "He retired here. You know he was very proud. He loved it here."

Archong Lee paid for the traditional arch that welcomes people into Niuhu. The welcome sign credits Archong by his Chinese name: "Donated by Li Guangchang in 1996."

"I started coming back to Shenzhen in 1996," Leo Lee explains. "And regularly since 2002. Someone has to take care of the family home and I'm the only one [of my brothers and sisters] who speaks Hakka."

In 2010, he opened a business.

"I was staying here and I needed a reason to get up in the morning, somewhere to chill, so I opened the Reggae Café. It was great to hang out with the artists from the Printmaking Base [an arts centre in Guanlan housed across two fabulously restored ancient villages. The Reggae Café was part of the centre]. They call my place 'the embassy'. I took them out for dinner and to get foot massages."

The Chinese have a saying, "Though a tree grows high, the falling leaves return to the root." The implication is that no matter how successful he is or how far he travels, a filial son should one day return to his ancestral home. This accounts for why many Chinese emigrants return home in their twilight years. Archong Lee did that and it looked as though Leo, with his Reggae Café, would follow suit. But the younger Lee hasn't managed to suppress his wanderlust just yet.

In 2012, he closed the café and, although he still returns to Guanlan for the Tomb Sweeping Festival each spring from wherever he finds himself in the world, the septuagenarian is making plans.

"I'm thinking about buying some land in Kenya," he says. "I have a Dutch friend who's been trying to get me to go there for years. I've been out there twice checking it out. Kenya is almost like Jamaica was in the old days. They speak English and it's warm. There are blue skies and lots of wildlife. Plus it's in a big continent - I can run around.

"I'm a gypsy. My life's been one long adventure," he says. "I guess Kenya is the last move. When my time comes, I don't want to be left in a jar in the Lee family temple.

"They can put me in the ground in Africa, man."

 

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