This is me standing beside my grandfather’s grave at the Chinese Cemetery in Whitfield, Kingston. I didn’t even know there was a Chinese Cemetery until this visit, and had no idea my grandfather was buried there. Thanks to David Chang and Robert Hew working with the Chinese Benevolent Association who traced the grave in minutes of knowing my grandfather’s name, Lowe Shu On. This morning, I went down with those two and other members of the CBA who are attempting to clean up the graves and record the names of who is buried there. Vandals have stolen most of the marble headstones so many graves are unmarked.
Whitfield is notorious for gang violence, with the Stinger and Rat Back gangs based on either side of the cemetery, making the grounds the sight of gang battles and shoot-outs. We were there at 9.30am with security and what I thought was a car backfiring turned out to be gunshots not too far away. There’s a huge contrast between the cemetery with its white graves covered in a pink bindweed called “Rice n Peas”, and the ghettoes that lie just beyond its walls.
These gangs are involved in all kinds of crime, from gun and drug running to robberies to turf protection. Apparently the Rat Back laid down arms a year ago, but some think they are still deeply involved in crime and violence.
There are currently 87 boys living at the Alpha Boys home, where my second cousin Joe Harriott grew up in the 1940s after his mother died. It was here that Joe learnt to play the sax, and an astonishing number of musicians came up through Alpha, including Don Drummond, Dizzy Reece and Harold McNair.
Some of the current Alpha boys are orphans; some are at risk from abuse; others have witnessed gang-related crime and have had to come to Alpha for protection. Most often, they’ve seen a parent or protector murdered. The youngest boy here is 10. Alpha still runs it’s band with twice daily rehearsals, but the nuns and staff there are trying to bring Alpha into the 21st Century. There are plans afoot to build a recording studio where the boys can learn studio skills and get to know the ropes of the music industry. The aim is to equip them with skills for employment where the leave the home at 18.
The 50 acres of land at Alpha seem like a peaceful sanctuary from the brutalities of gang existence, reflected in the murals around the place.
Alpha need money to see the vision through. A recent logo competition resulted in this rather lovely T shirt – they’ve got them in all colours and sizes, just in case you fancy one. Contact Alpha here
I’m leaving Kingston tomorrow, heading for the wilds of Treasure Beach to reflect on all I’ve seen and done this week, and maybe have a drink or two at the intriguing off-shore Pelican Bar…