Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mass Basil, the Shopkeeper

Basil Waine Kong

In Jamaica, Chinese people developed the tradition of "The Shop" or the "Chiney Shop," where customers could buy small amounts of grocery items. This convenience certainly helped and at the same time exploited families on limited incomes and perpetuated the tradition of only buying what was absolutely necessary for each meal---a few ounces of sugar, a quarter pound of flour, a half a pound of rice, a quarter pound of salt fish and even a slice of bread or a bulla (soft molasses cookie). So, the Chinese became culturally and affectionately known as the "Shopkeepers". While my father was one of these Shopkeepers, his departure out of our life when I was four years old was the last vestige of Chinese influence imprinted on me. I have visited China twice, had occasional relationships with people of Chinese heritage but no substantial oriental influence other than through reading. While I am aware that I look "Chinese," I have had an entirely "Black" experience and always worked for Black organizations and lived in Black communities. So, when I get "happy" as a Deacon in my Baptist church, it is something to behold. Not withstanding the lack of Chinese influence, I nevertheless became a "Shop Keeper".

Woodlands District, St. Elizabeth where my brother and I were raised by my Grandmother is a 100% Black community except for two half Chiney Pickney who felt loved and cared for by all the people. Even now, they treat me with the same affection whenever I visit. The entire village raised us. I often say that during my childhood years, even though there were no police or any semblance of law enforcement, I never knew anyone who wanted to harm me or to be even impolite. There was absolutely no crime. Yes, I had four fist fights during my childhood, probably for being called "Chiney Nyam dawg," but we were the best of friends a day later. I do not believe there is a better place in the universe to raise children than in a community in which every child has "mothers, fathers, cousins, aunties and uncles" throughout the community who were not blood relatives. "Good mawnin Mass Bertie. Respect to you sah."

Each generation of Chinese were able to obtain loans that were not available to other Jamicans to start a Chinese Shop in another village after serving as apprentices in their father's shop and continue to expand their business. They could never run out of villages to exploit. As there were no Chinese in Woodlands, someone had to keep shop. So, it fell to Uncle Claudie, the "Big Man" of our community. He started a small shop that became and remained successful throughout his lifetime. It died when his sons and daughters migrated to 'merica and rented the shop space.

Based on the Jamaican Chinese model, this one storey building had a main shop with three counters with a window at the end of each counter. The one to the right sold salt pork, salt fish, red herring and salt mackerel. The centre sold asham (parched ground corn and sugar) sugar, salt, flour, bread, crackers, bullas, canned and other baked goods with the scale in the middle. The left counter sold dry goods. This included shoes, cloth, needles, threads and buttons.

In addition to selling grocery, we also bought pimento (cloves), coffee, corn and beans that we would sell to buyers who came by in trucks. The public space was reserved for dominoes, all fours (a card game) and talking politics and how Cleve Lewis, their representative to Parliament was stealing the eye out of their heads. I learned to play all these games and enjoyed them. If someone wanted a drink, he would visit the rumshop next door where a mento or rumba band played music on Saturday nights and where Mass Claudie would put out salted snacks to make people thirsty so they would buy more beer and white rum with water that was referred to as just: "waters". After each customer, I would wash the glass in a pail of soapy water,rinse, wipe them with a towel and turn it upside down on one of several wooden pegs on a tray.

I was working in Uncle Claudie's shop buying, selling and making change by the time I was ten years old. It was a unique experience making change with pounds, shilling and pence. The smallest denomination was a farthing (one quarter of a penny that could buy an ounce of salt). A quatie was one and a half pence and could buy a slice of bread or a bulla and a shilling could buy a loaf of bread with a bulla as a bratta (a little incentive). It was a good education. I felt very privileged and "Big up" working behind the counter. I developed great relationships with people like Bradda Ashley Black, who taught me to drink gin and and explored the great questions of life with people who just hung around the shop---truly the lifeblood of a small community.

Occasionally, the "Iceman" who was also known as "Spirit" would bring blocks of ice from the ice factory in Santa Cruz (20 miles away), transporting it in hampers covered with sawdust and walked with his donkey back to Woodlands. He then converted it into ice cream (either run and raisin or grape nut), fresco (milk shake) as well as snow cones (shaved ice with strawberry syrup). These were wonderful treats and very refreshing!

My favorite treat at the time was jell-O. I would give money to the the truck driver who took people to Town (Kingston) to bring me a pack of strawberry jell-O mix. I would then have to wait until "Spirit" had ice. I would then mix the jell-O in an ovaltine can (one cup boiling water and one cup cold water) and place the precious liquid on the side of the ice to jell. I would impatiently check it regularly until I could enjoy the cool jelly slide down my throat. When I went “farrin” (overseas), my mother found out that I loved jell-O and served it at every meal. Within a month, I could not stand to even see the stuff.

My most memorable character was "Brother Boogs," the town drunk. Brother Boogs' never got over the death of his beloved wife and he daily drowned his sorrows with rum. Each evening, he would stagger home in the moonlight singing songs he made up. My favorite was:

"When I am a dead dead man
Don't you bury me at all
Just lay my bones in alcohol
One bottle of beer
One to my head and one to my feet
And let the world them know
That my bones can cure."

His daughter dearly loved him and when she went off to “merica” and became a success as a nurse, she sent for Brother Boogs to live with her in New Jersey, but he lasted about a month. He begged to return to Jamaica and to Woodlands where he continued to drink, sing and live in a wonderful house his daughter built for him.

We all loved cricket. To this day, I vividly recall the thrill and every detail of hitting the one six I ever hit. I was fourteen years old. While our games and practice took place at "New Pond", all our club meetings took place at Mass Claudie's shop. Captain Mills was the wise leader of the Woodlands Cricket Club. During our weekly meeting at the shop, before and after the meeting, young and old would break out in song:

"Captain Mills sent and called us boys
We all must go (repeat)
He gave us the command so we must move to it;
Moving like soldier boy
Soldiers fit for war
We all must go."

Whenever we went to other villages (New Market, Black River, Darliston, Pisgha) for a cricket match and lost, we would be quiet. If, however, we were victorious, on our way home in the truck we would make a joyful noise and all sing:

"You were wrong to send and call us
You were wrong;
You know we are the warriors
You were wrong to send and call us."

Another gentleman, Busha Price, courted my Grandmother and was always giving me money and delighted in teaching me to write and recite poetry. He would finish each of his poems with: "Lord Cornwallis, knock'na dough, turtle a'back." I had no idea what it meant, but it had a rhythm to it and could be called a "scat."

One of the suppliers that came to the shop was "Mr. Lazarus." He drove a station wagon full of stuff: shoes, needles and thread, buttons, thimbles, knives, forks, spoons, tools, plates, cups, etc. Uncle Claudie would buy these items and sell them back to the customers. Mr. Lazarus was five feet tall and three hundred pounds. He would bet that the circumference of his waist was more than his height. Someone would always take the bet and lose. He is fond of saying: "I am not deep, but I am very wide. It takes a long time to walk around me."

Uncle Claudie's filing system was a long nail that kept all his bills and receipts in perfect sequential order except that they all had a hole in the middle. Over the years, I adopted the same filing system even in this age of electronic filing. My secretaries and assistants always marvelled that I could always find my messages and communications "filed" neatly on several message nails under my desk. No amount of encouragement on the part of my assistants or my wife could convince me to not use my trusty nail message holders. Old habits die hard.

In our downtime and after closing, we wrapped rice, corn meal, sugar, flour, poured coconut oil in “aerated wata” (soft drink) bottles. I enjoyed making the black pepper funnels. We would also stock the shelves, sweep the floor, wash the glasses and wipe off the counter. While I was not paid for my work, I could eat all the candy I wanted and drink champagne cola. I even occasionally got permission to eat a can of sardines, bully beef or salmon which were wonderful treats. For the thirsty, I would pick a sour orange from a tree at the back of the shop and make lemonade or just mix strawberry syrup and water or condensed milk and water. To make extra money, I would buy a pound of sugar, cut up a coconut into little squares, and boil them together with a little ginger and sell each of these as "coconut drops" for a penny. Each time I did this, I doubled my investment.

I learned about the dangers of drinking over-proof white rum first hand. Uncle Claudie always added water to the cast of overproof rum so that people would not kill themselves. Someone actually took a bet that he could drink an entire bottle. He passed out and slept for a long time after he drank about a half bottle. I don't think he was ever the same after that. He was a ruined man.

The shop also sold kerosene oil (aile)to feed all the "Home Sweet Home" lamps in every household. Every so often, someone would knock one over and their entire house would go up in flames as the broken lamp would become a Molotov cocktail.

One Saturday night when everyone was happy, I was dancing and someone picked me up and put me on the counter so everyone could see how the Chiney Pickney could “wine up im waist”. They all stopped dancing and I was the centre of attention. They then had a good laugh, applauded and gave me money. I was a professional dancer!!!

The store was open six days per week but only the side window was open on Sunday morning because there was not supposed to be any work or business activity on our day of rest. Everyone (except Uncle Claudie) went to church. I don't think Uncle Claudie ever knew what the inside of the church looked like until he was being burried.

For several years, The McDonalds'living quarters was in the back of the shop with a separate building for the kitchen and a latrine further away. I lived with my granny up the hill. As Mass Claudie amassed his fortune, he built a fine house on the hill overlooking the shop.

When politicians and religious leaders came by to give sermons and speeches, they would always meet in front of Mas' Claudie's shop with a Tilly lamp that he hung in front whenever it was needed. That lamp with its special blue fuel actually lit up the place.

I worked in Uncle Claudie's shop after school and week-ends for four years taking part in adult conversations, making change and having a drink from time to time with the men. There was no restriction on children buying and drinking alcohol. Even at seven years old, Granny would send me with sixpence to buy brandy. She needed a little nip from time to time.

When I was twelve years old, Uncle Claudie decided to leave Aunt Myra and Uncle Ronnie (The Jew Boy)in charge of the shop in Woodlands and expand his operations to Springfield, about five miles away. He took this step even though Harry Chen-See ran a much larger shop up the street and Mr. Lynn Salmon and Miss. Zippy owned a similar shop on the other end of the village. The Chen Sees even had a gasoline pump where they would measure out each gallon in a glass container on top of the pump before transferring it to the car. Miss. Ada and Miss. Gloria (mother and daughter) were particularly kind to me and even invited me to spend time with them behind the counter. I loved going to the bakery and fashioning animals with the bread dough and was delighted to take these hand made breads to Granny and my brother. I also remember that the Chen Sees raised turtles for turtle soup. The post office was upstairs and across the street where I went to collect the boxes of "breguede" (goodies) that my mother frequently sent.

I was asked to go live with Uncle Claudie at this new location for six days per week to help with the shop and keep his company. After we closed the shop on Saturday evening at 9:00 pm, we would get on his high horse and ride the five miles back to Woodlands with all his money in a bag. On other occasions I loved riding Uncle Claudie's horse and even had a donkey that I sometimes rode to school.

Eventually, Uncle Claudie sold the Springfield shop and consolidated his business back to Woodlands, building a new shop that included space for the District postal agency.

On one of my trips to the big city of New Market, I asked Mr. Cummings, the Chinese owner of "Cummings Dry Goods" to give me a job as I now had plenty of experience as a shopkeeper. He immediately hired me. On Saturdays and holidays, I either took the "Champion Bus" or walked the five miles to and from work and earned real spending money. While in New Market, I made friends with Miss Maudie, a single Chinese lady, who owned a similar shop across the street.

Starting in 1957, the word went out that jobs were available in England and anyone who got there would get a job paying ten times their current earnings. So, people sold their land and all they owned to Uncle Claudie (who made huge profits from these desperation sales) as just about all the able bodied men and women went off to England, along with our mento band, our cricket club, the dominoes club, and our ping pong club. This mass migration took the life out of the community. Suddenly, we had a hard time just getting four men together to play dominoes. The shoemaker, the carpenter, the barber, the tailor and most regrettably, all the members of the "Herbie Arnold Rumba Band" and the church organist left to find gold in London. There was no more live music, no cricket matches, lively Saturday dances---only grandparents and children were left behind. On balance, they sent a lot of money back for their families.

I left on April 5, 1959 and returned May 5, 2009, fifty years later to discover my beloved island all over again. I continue to believe in the old values and will continue to support the country of my birth and the people who nurtured me in my youth. All of my children have been provided some of these rich experiences and I encourage them all to allow our grandchildren to live here and be educated here. This is "home" to my soul as I continue my Jamaica Chapter, hopefully participating in it's past, present and future.