Matriarch of Chen empire leaves legacy of love
The late matriarch of the Chen family, Hyacinth Gloria Chen, was praised for her resilience, entrepreneurial drive and a heart of love, as relatives paid tribute to her enduring legacy during a small thanksgiving ceremony at the St Paul of the Cross Cathedral, in Mandeville on Thursday.
The mother of billionaire businessman Michael Lee-Chin and chairman of the Southern Regional Health Authority and CEO of the Super Plus Food Store, Wayne Chen, passed on Saturday, January 8, at the age of 89.
In his tribute, Wayne explained that his mother did not know her biological parents, as her mother died shortly after giving birth in 1932, just before entrusting her to the wife of a traditional Chinese doctor in Darliston, Westmoreland. Her father neglected his role.
Despite these unfavourable early events in her life, Wayne said his mother, while under the care of her adoptive parents, was relocated to Kingston, where she sat the Common Entrance Exam and earned a place at Wolmer’s High School for Girls.
But unfortunately, she was not allowed to start her secondary education, as her adoptive mother indicated that it was a waste of money to educate a girl in the 1940s, with the culture of traditional gender roles playing a heavy hand.
Hyacinth Chen soon found work at a grocer as a teen in Port Antonio with her adoptive brother, but ended up losing that job when she became pregnant with her first of eight biological children, Michael.
“Undeterred with young Michael as a baby, she eventually got back another job at the Sang Hing Supermarket in Port Antonio. In another story that she would tell me years later, when Hurricane Charlie came in 1952, she walked with her shoes in her hand because it was the only good pair of shoes she owned, through the rain, to make sure Mike [Michael] was OK,” Chen revealed as he chronicled a story of triumph over trials.
Hyacinth later met and married husband Vincent, and the two moved to Priory, St Ann, for a short stint before moving to Mandeville permanently, where they continued their entrepreneurial activities.
The two made plans for the family to relocate to the United States in the late 1970s, but the couple had a change of heart because son Wayne was a university student and had expressed a desire to remain in Jamaica.
The Chens bought a supermarket in Mandeville in 1980 after taking a two-year hiatus from operating another outlet in Christiania that they had purchased in 1973.
Years later, a consolidation of several family-own businesses allowed the family to head what was considered one of the largest retailers in Jamaica, Super Plus Foods.
“… But mom wouldn’t want us to talk about her business success, business acumen or entrepreneurial skills. Several years ago, she refined what she believed and what she wanted to leave with us and this was something she collated into a few thoughts,” Wayne stated.
“She said be honest, because your name and reputation is everything; be humble, be hardworking, make every day count, be helpful, look out for others and share what you have, never compromise your standards and, be hopeful.
Despite cynicism sometimes, she was the eternal optimist. She always felt no matter what was happening, no matter how dark the cloud, there is always a silver lining,” he added.
Atop the list of things she cherished was family, according to Wayne, who expressed that his mother’s wish was for the only family of blood relatives she had, the one she created, to stay together and be unified.
Hyacinth, who leaves to mourn her widower, nine children, 29 grandchildren and two great grandchildren, is not only remembered as a successful mogul, but as one who gave selflessly to various causes.
“Mom wanted us to have a legacy of love, love for each other, for our fellow citizens and people and she embodied that and exemplified that. She would want her greatest achievement, her family, to love each other and live in harmony, because love is the greatest legacy that she could have.”
In 2008, her son Michael established the Hyacinth Chen School of Nursing at Northern Caribbean University’s main campus in Manchester, in her honour.
The Hyacinth Gloria Chen Crystal Court at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada has also been named in her honour.