A Broadway Star Seeks Her Chinese Roots

Broadway star Syndee Winters (Photo from Disney via World Journal)

Many people know the name of Syndee Winters from “The Lion King,” which after debuting in 1997 has become the third longest-running Broadway musical. The authentic African landscape and music in the show has impressed audiences over the years and helped it win six Tony Awards. Winters, who played Nala in the show in 2012, and returned this year, is a child of immigrants from Jamaica. But few know that she also has Chinese ancestry.

Despite her more popular stage name, Winters said her real family name is Chinese, phonetically pronounced Chin-Loy, which, she guessed, may have been evolved from the common Chinese last name Chin. Winters said her grandfather was a Chinese immigrant from Kowloon, Hong Kong, who moved to Jamaica in the 1940s. “He had many businesses in Jamaica and married a local woman,” Winters said.

Her grandfather later moved from Jamaica to Florida and then her father moved to New York. Winters herself was born in Flushing, Queens, and grew up in Miami. She came back to New York for college and enrolled in Five Towns College, a school on Long Island known for its music program. She majored in theater and was part of the Knicks City Dancers squad for the New York Knicks.

Winter’s theater dream achieved a breakthrough in 2010 when she was tapped to play Nala in “The Lion King.” Meanwhile, she also played Eliza Hamilton in another hit Broadway musical, “Hamilton.” Winters said she inherited her musical talents from her mother who loves music. Winters was immersed in rock and R&B when she was a child, and Broadway musicals were her favorite.

Winters said her father is Black and Chinese and her mother is Black. So she is a quarter Chinese. Her family doesn’t keep many Chinese traditions. Neither she nor her father speak Chinese. “Culturally, we are more Black,” said Winters. On the stage, all the roles she has played are Black or Hispanic. She never received any Asian roles.

But it was also her theater career that triggered her interest in the Chinese culture. She went to perform in Asia several times and from there, she started to search for her Chinese roots.

Winters said she read a lot of historical records about her grandfather’s generation of Chinese immigrants in Jamaica, and learned that in the 1900s there was a wave of Chinese laborers from Canton to Jamaica. “They formed a sizable Chinese community there,” Winters said.

She said in the recent years, China has been increasing its investment in Jamaica, and many Chinese are participating in the industrialization of Jamaica. A new wave of Chinese immigrants has taken shape. This further intrigues her. “After all, Chinese is an important part of my identity,” Winters said.

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