Patience and perseverance. That’s what one needs to unlock the information stored at NARA, the National Archives & Records Administration. I filed a request on-line, but I had better luck on the telephone. Start earlier than later and be persistent.
When I finally got through to an archivist and had my appointment, I felt a sense of anticipation. The day arrived, forms filled out, orientation completed, researcher card in hand, I was ready to enter the reading room, where I went through a second training, this time for the reading room rules. At last, I was prepared to dig into the three files the archivist pulled for me: one for my dad, one for my uncle Don, and one for someone named Louie Mow.
Chinese use the surname乳名 rŭming first, which caused confusion for some Chinese immigrants. For instance, Lisa See’s great-grandfather’s name was Fong See. In the Chinese tradition, he was Mr. Fong, with a given name See, however, in the Western tradition, he was labeled Mr. See, with a given name Fong. (On Gold Mountain: The One-hundred-year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, Lisa See, 1965)
I set the Louie Mow file aside and began reading Dad’s file only to discover that Louie Mow was my grandfather, and then I found out about another Chinese tradition. The Chinese use a ruming乳名 (a birth name also called a milk name until a certain age) about twenty years old. Then, they are given a courtesy name or style name zi 字,which becomes their adult name. Sometimes, they are also given an honorific name.
Louie Mow was my grandfather’s birth name. He entered the United States when he was eighteen years old. Louie Hong Wai, the name I knew for my grandfather, was his adult name.
Louie Hung On was my father’s birth name. Louie Hung On became Louie Jia Jin/Louie Gar Gin and also James On Louie. Dad assumed an American name, James, which he attached to his second character “On.” Did I mention the different dialects? There are eleven main dialects (language particular to a region), but there may be as many as two hundred dialects in China. Therefore, Louie Jia Jin in Putonghua, aka modern Chinese, and Louie Gar Gin in Cantonese, at least my father’s version of Cantonese or Taishanese. Since I do not speak, read or write Chinese, the website MDBG has been helpful to me (www.mdbg.net), but my roots guides recommend Pleco (http://www.pleco.com).
And then, there is a generational name. My grandfather’s brothers (Louie Fon and Louie Kaow) did not share a generational name, at least, as far I know. However, my father’s brothers (Louie Hung Don, Louie Hung Him, Louie Hung Hor, and Louie Hung Hay) shared the generational name, Hung. The generational name usually comes from a generation poem. I have not discovered our generational poem yet, or why my grandfather’s generation did not conform to that tradition. If there is a family poem, I hope that I will find it in China.
Keeping track of who is who is a challenge, especially when a person spells his name one way on one paper and another way on another paper. Additionally, many words sound the same but have different meanings in the Chinese language. For instance, 馬 mǎ (horse) versus 媽 mā (ma / mom / mother). Thank goodness for my friends at Roots who are helping me sort all of this out and for the apps to help me write the words properly. Even though I do not speak, read, or write Chinese, this process is helping me learn the language.
Thank goodness that I’m organized. Organization. Add that trait to the list of how to unlock the secrets, I mean information, at NARA. One of the clues to discerning whether you have the correct Chinese name or not is to know the way it is written in Chinese calligraphy.
Back to the files: out poured dates, indicating many trips back and forth to China, to carry on their import businesses going back to 1865. 1865! The year the Civil War ended. Holy Mackerel! I had no idea our family traveled to the Gold Mountain, what Chinese people called the United States, that long ago. Could my family have come in search of gold? Chinese love gold! Me too! And if so, did they find enough gold to finance the first store and create a pathway for the future members of the Louie clan by establishing a multi-partnered business and circumnavigating the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers?
Reading through my grandfather’s file, I discovered another name. This time, it was my grandfather’s father. My great-grandfather, Louie Fat. OMG! I requested his file for my next trip to NARA and my ancestors’ lives unfolded for me. If the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 had not destroyed old files, I would have found Louie Fat’s father’s file. I hope the business partners file will tell me more, but reading through the records of the hearings, I found evidence that my ancestors had a menagerie of Caucasian friends to vouch for them and the gumption to hire a lawyer to state their case. One such man was G.T. Marsh, who fell in love with all things Oriental and opened one of the first Asian art galleries in the United States. Marsh owned a shop in the Palace Hotel on Market Street and bought and sold Chinese and Japanese merchandise from Louie Fat for many years. I can imagine them traveling together on buying expeditions and meeting for tea to discuss their marketing strategies.
Undaunted by the many papers in many files, I plowed through them to glean whatever I could about my family’s history. The images of my family are appearing in my mind and tugging at my heart. Don’t be discouraged. You can wrap your mind around the data. Here are three more tips to help you when you go to NARA:
- Look for anything that gives you case file numbers. One person’s file might have a wealth of information about other members of the family. For instance, a “Reference Sheet” for my great-grandfather listed ten other relatives with their case numbers. Yeah! More files to dig into on my next trip to NARA.
- Take a flash drive with a large memory capacity to store the file(s), otherwise, you can spend a fortune on copying the pages. The archivists at NARA will copy the files for you for a fee. The flash drive makes it easier for you to download the whole file and then go back and peruse the pages that you want to focus on. It also makes it easier if you want to share the files with other family members.
- One of the rules about going into the research room is that anything you take into the reading room must be checked and stamped by an archivist. So, if you do not want your papers messed up by the awkward placement of the stamp, leave them in the locker or bring a copy to work on. I will treasure my stamped papers as evidence of my initiation into researching my roots at NARA.
Don’t forget: patience, perseverance, persistence, and organization. Any maybe a little help from your ancestors. One last thing, bring tissues. What you will find just might make you “cry for happy.”
Kāi xīn! 开心 Have a great time!