How a Beijing-based Jamaican promotes China-Jamaica ties
By Li Xiaoyang  ·  2023-02-10  ·   Source: NO.7 FEBRUARY 16, 2023
An employee in traditional Chinese clothing hanfu offers tea to Victoria Elizabeth Cann at a fair in Beijing on January 15 (ZHANG WEI)

Though you wouldn't immediately tell by looking at her, Victoria Elizabeth Cann, a Jamaican living and working in Beijing, actually has some Chinese roots. Jamaica, an island country situated in the Caribbean Sea and famous for its natural scenery, Blue Mountain Coffee, Reggae music and some of the world's fastest athletes, is far from China. However, in the 19th century, some people from China's coastal regions went to work in Jamaica and eventually settled down on the island. Cann's great-grandfathers were among them.

"My great-grandfathers on both my mother's and father's side were Chinese. They were from Guangdong Province in south China," Cann told Beijing Review.

Cann first came to China in 2015 to pursue her Ph.D. at the Communication University of China (CUC). She went on to teach at CUC from 2018 to 2021 and later at a dual-degree program between the University of Colorado, Denver, the U.S. and China Agricultural University. She is also an active member of the Jamaican expat community in China and often assists her embassy with events and media-related affairs.

"Since coming to Beijing, I have been impressed with the fast-paced lifestyle, the high-quality services, amenities, convenience and the employment prospects the city has to offer. My life here has been fantastic!" she said.

Cann's maternal great-grandfather (center) and his children (COURTESY PHOTO)

Fresh perspectives 

But it's not just the capital that appeals to Cann; in her eyes, China on the whole comes with a myriad of enchanting aspects. "I'm interested in learning more about traditional Chinese festivals, which showcase different facets of China's rich cultural heritage," she said. She just celebrated her eighth Spring Festival, which fell on January 22 this year, in China. In the lead-up to the festival, she visited a Beijing fair and got lots of handmade Chinese New Year goodies—the ancient style accessories being among her favorites.

Aside from her daily exchanges with Chinese students and colleagues, she has been traveling across China to learn more about the country. In the past two years, for example, she went on two trips hosted by the Global Young Leaders Dialogue (GYLD), a program jointly initiated by the Center for China and Globalization and the Academy of Contemporary China and World Studies in 2020. The program, among other events, regularly takes international participants on visits to different regions of China to gain a more in-depth understanding of the country.

During her two GYLD tours, Cann traveled to Shaanxi Province and Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture in the southwestern province of Yunnan. Given her undergraduate history major, she thoroughly enjoyed the visits to museums and historical sites in the two regions. The local traditions and cultures she observed, including the regular outdoor performances by the people of the Bai and Hui ethnic groups in Dali, deeply impressed her.

"Even if you have lived in China for 20 years, it will still be difficult to see all of the country's 5,000 years of history. These trips gave me an authentic taste of Chinese culture," she elaborated.

Since arriving in the country, Cann has witnessed its rapid growth. From her perspective, what China has been able to achieve within the past few decades is unprecedented. China has opened its doors, bringing opportunities both to its own people and to others. The country is taking on a greater role in global affairs and shouldering more international responsibilities in fields such as carbon emission control.

"China is also a leader in terms of mobile payment services and e-commerce. We can see how efficient China's e-commerce platforms are," she said.

She added China's strong e-commerce services have proved quite helpful. "If you order something within the same city, you may get it within the hour. I don't think many countries have been able to catch up with China in terms of its entire e-commerce industry and the technology that supports it," she explained.

Cann hasn't left China in three years—not since COVID-19 erupted in early 2020. "Most of the time I don't worry about the virus at all. The Chinese Government has worked hard to ensure people have access to free vaccines and treatment when needed," she said.

Now that China has reopened its borders, many people are once again beginning to travel into and out of the country. "You can see people are getting back to normal life. Things are looking up and I'm confident the situation will continue to improve," she said.

Victoria Elizabeth Cann (left, front) with her family  (COURTESY PHOTO)

Spanning a gap 

As demonstrated by Cann's own great-grandfathers, China and Jamaica developed ties that go as far back as the mid-1800s. "Over the past few decades, many people with Chinese roots have been working in Jamaica as businesspersons. They have contributed much to our local economic growth," she said. According to the Embassy of China in Jamaica, the number of people with Chinese roots in Jamaica exceeded 70,000 as of last year, which also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. As Cann introduced, China had been a mysterious and unknown country for many around the world, before the import of Chinese products and the overseas operation of Chinese enterprises increased the overall awareness of China. Many Chinese enterprises, like China Harbor Engineering Co., where Cann used to work as a public relations officer, have been operating in Jamaica and driving local economic growth and employment. Data from the Embassy of China in Jamaica show that Chinese enterprises had invested over $2.1 billion in Jamaica as of 2022, creating over 35,000 local jobs.

The island country now expects to expand the presence of its products in the Chinese market. Jamaican enterprises have participated in the China International Import Expo since its inception in 2018. During 2021, China's imports from Jamaica were $6 million, according to the General Administration of Customs of China. These included iron, steel, seafood (lobster, fish), aluminum, coffee, tea, spices and more.

Cann also suggested that people-to-people exchanges need to be further bolstered to improve China-Jamaica ties. For example, people in both countries share an interest in Reggae music. In the 20th century, Chinese-Jamaican record producers like Clive Chin recorded and marketed demos of a new music genre known as dub music and contributed to the rise of a subgenre in Reggae called the "Far East sound." Byron Lee is another well-known Chinese Jamaican who founded a renowned band called Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. Their music included Jamaican Ska, Reggae, Soca and Calypso. Lee is often credited with popularizing Caribbean music all over the world.

"Jamaica's cultural elements like Reggae music will help promote more exchanges between the people of China and Jamaica, especially the youth," Cann said.

According to her, the two countries should also expand language learning programs. In recent years, China has attracted many international students to study and live in the country. Its education programs have promoted cooperation between developing countries.

"Jamaican students now get opportunities to learn more about China, and Chinese students can hone their English skills in Jamaica," she said.

With the waning impact of COVID-19, China resumed outbound group travel services on February 6. Cann for one hopes China and Jamaica will improve their transportation connectivity through the introduction of direct flights. "I'm hoping, since the borders are now open again, that more Chinese people will go and visit Jamaica," she said.  

(Print Edition Title: Bonds Beyond Borders) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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