Thirty-one years ago, I started out on a similar journey. China re-opened its doors in the 1970s after over two decades. I was determined to learn more about my father’s homeland even though he would not answer my questions about his life in China prior to his immigration to the U.S. I was clueless of the circumstances that brought him to the Gold Mountain – gam saan (Cantonese), jīn shān (Mandarin) 金山. I was equally ignorant of the trials and tribulations that forced the sojourner to become an immigrant.
In 1985, I took advantage of China’s cultural exchange program and joined a group of interior from the American Society of Interior Design. We did the grand tour from the Forbidden city in Beijing to the terra-cotta soldiers in Xian, to the canals and famed embroidery shops of Suzhou. I did not know at the time that we were only eighty-four miles from my father’s village when we were in Guangzhou. I discovered the difficulty of doing research in China because I did not speak, read, or write Chinese. The first clue was when I asked “Do you know anyone name Louie?” Finally, I figured out that I needed to write the character 雷.
“Ah, ha,” my guide said, “Yes. Lei.”
Thinking she misunderstood me, I repeated “Louie. Lou-ee,” as if sounding out the word would bridge the gap between her understanding and mine.
“Lei. Mandarin dialect. Maybe Louie different dialect.” That was another clue that my quest was going to be a challenging one, but little-by-little, I’ve learned some words through my research efforts.
This time as I boarded the plane for the first leg of my journey from Virginia to California, a distance almost half the width of China, I did so with the knowledge that I would go to my father’s birthplace. Will I be able to enter the house where my grandmother, Lee Yuet Ping, became part of the Louie clan and gave birth to three of her six children? Louie Hung On, my father, was her first-born. What else will I find there?
In less than one day of travel time, I’ll make the journey that took my father over one month via the S.S. President Jackson. I will go through customs with my duly stamped Passport-Visa. Dad, who was seventeen on his first trip, was held for many days at Angel Island, an immigration center in San Francisco Bay. I am traveling as an American tourist. Young Louie Hung On traveled as a student and son of a merchant which in 1928 avoided being turned back due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law passed to restrict free immigration of all Chinese laborers. However, being a merchant’s son did not protect him from being culled out of the lot for health reasons, and if Dad had traveled a few years earlier, his case of clonorchiasis, Chinese liver fluke, would have sent him back across the Pacific. Four years earlier, it was discovered that clonorchiasis was easily treated, so Dad’s stay on Angel Island was extended a few days or weeks rather than months or years as was the case for many detainees.
Customs will probably ask me a few questions. My group leader said it will be easier to travel as a tourist even though my intention is also as a writer. It was not so easy for Louie Hung On, who traveled with clan members, but not his father or uncles, and who faced hours of interrogation alone. He was not a “paper son” who had to memorize information about another family, a scheme Chinese used to out-smart the Exclusion Art, but I imagine it was scary for him to arrive in a foreign land and sit in front of foreign interrogators in a strange over-crowded building full of countrymen searching for wealth and a way to help their families back home in their villages. Villages I look forward to seeing and where I hope to gain a greater understanding of my Gold Mountain father.