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Super Plus matriarch, held as down-to-earth leader, passes

Published:Monday | January 10, 2022 | 12:09 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer -
In this October 20, 2008, Gleaner photograph, Hyacinth Gloria Chen interacts with sons Wayne Chen (left) and Michael Lee-Chin at a reception.
In this October 20, 2008, Gleaner photograph, Hyacinth Gloria Chen interacts with sons Wayne Chen (left) and Michael Lee-Chin at a reception.

The late Hyacinth Chen, matriarch of the family-owned Super Plus Food Stores supermarket chain and mother of billionaire businessman Michael Lee-Chin, has been lauded as “a voice of wisdom” and a pioneer who made an “inestimable contribution” to Jamaica’s development.

She died on Saturday aged 89.

Chen was born in 1932 in Montego Bay, St James, to a Jamaican mother and a Chinese father. She was adopted very young after the passing of her mother.

The late businesswoman’s rise to the helm of a supermarket and wholesale empire was the zenith of an entrepreneurial career that might have been unlikely after becoming a single mother early in her life.

Chen later tied the knot with Vincent, with whom she shared a marriage for 64 years and together raised nine children. She is survived by the children and her widower.

Vincent and Hyacinth Chen 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 Chen was a university student and had expressed a desire to remain in Jamaica.

The Chens bought a supermarket in Mandeville, Manchester, in 1980 after taking a two-year hiatus from operating another outlet in Christiania that they had purchased in 1973.

“Super Plus was a consolidation of the family businesses in 1992 when we brought five family-owned businesses together. We expanded it over the years, and at its peak, it was easily Jamaica’s largest retailer,” said Wayne Chen, 63, who is CEO of the now-pared-down brand.

“We employed about 2,600 people and were involved in retail, remittances, money exchange, logistics, and manufacturing,” he added.

Humility and an appetite to seize educational opportunities were the biggest lessons Wayne said he learnt from his mother.

“She was a light presence all my life. She had a good sense of humour, she gave sound advice, she had a kind heart and was always welcoming. Even when she was ailing and visitors came by, she would insist that they sit down and have something to eat,” said Wayne Chen, who is also chairman of the Southern Regional Health Authority.

Hyacinth Gloria Chen attended St George’s Girls in Kingston and ended formal education when she was about 14. She moved to work in Port Antonio shortly after.

Michael Lee-Chin was her first son.

The matriarch started her first business, Chens, a dry goods store on West Street in Port Antonio in 1964. At the time, her husband worked as a sewing machine salesman for Singer.

Chen gave up the business in 1967 when her husband was transferred to St Ann as the regional manager for furniture and appliance store Singer. The family moved and lived there for a year before relocating to Manchester in 1968.

“My mom started a new business in Mandeville: the Humpty Dumpty Toy and Baby Store. My dad left Singer in 1970 and joined her in that business,” Wayne recalled, adding that the business was successful, but they sold it in 1973 when Jamaica began restricting imports on many of the items they sold.

Director of Fontana Pharmacy, Kevin O’Brien Chang, told The Gleaner on Saturday that Chen is among the few people for whom he has high admiration.

“Just her story alone is incredible. With the success that her children have enjoyed, she must have been a remarkable mother. She was a delightful person and someone I respected tremendously,” Chang said, adding that she was down to earth.

Chang said he admired that despite the successes of her children, she remained down to earth.

“I enjoyed her company. She was a voice of wisdom. Though she was not one to brag, when you look at all that she went through, I am sure that she felt proud of herself and her family. She had a fulfilling life,” Chang remarked.

Communications outfit PROComm founder and executive chairman, Jean Lowrie-Chin, said she met Chen when the courtyard at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada was being dedicated to her.

“She was a warm and humble woman. She was a supportive matriarch, an entrepreneur, and a visionary,” said Lowrie-Chin.

“She is a giant of a lady who has inspired several generations and has made an inestimable contribution to the development of her country through the family that she raised.”

Quick Facts:

* In 2008, son and billionaire businessman Michael Lee-Chin established the Hyacinth Chen School of Nursing at Northern Caribbean University’s main campus in Manchester.

* The Hyacinth Gloria Chen Crystal Court at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada is named in her honour.

* Chen and her sister operated a travel agency in the 1980s, which was previously owned by the Seaga family.