There is a Chinese proverb about a red thread of fate that connects us. I felt that red thread pull me to my ancestral villages in China, and through the veil that separates most folks from the spirit world. It played such a huge part in my life even before I knew anything about anything. So, naturally, it graces the cover of my book that I just released on Amazon. I hope you’ll check it out.
Until my father died, I did not know where he was born. No matter how many times I had asked him when he was alive, he evaded my question. Consequently, the only think I knew about Dad’s life in China was that he was afraid of water because his father threw him into the river.
My Caucasian mother ran away from Dad when I was nine and took me, my younger brother and sister with her. We were raised in the South and the only Chinese words I remember from my childhood were多謝 duōxiè “Many thanks,” and some words that sounded like “ki doy” and “ki nui” that I thought meant “bad boy” and “bad girl.” I have not found the correct transliteration in any Chinese/English dictionary.
Even though my exposure to the Chinese culture was limited, I was drawn to all things Chinese. I look less Asian than my brother or sister, but I feel Chinese. I feel drawn to China by an inexplicable force.
After I reunited with Dad in 1969, he did not share his story – our roots. Everything changed in 1990 when Dad died, and his ghost stood at his tombstone and wondered “What happens next?” I was aware of him at his funeral but after years of blocking the ghosts I saw as a child, I could not see or hear him clearly until I learned how to meditate and studied metaphysics.
Long story short, through my conversations with my father’s ghost, I began to piece together a crazy quilt about him, about his life in China and his life in the United States. I began to understand why he was so secretive. And I discovered the name and location of his village along the Pearl River. There’s just one hitch. It took twenty-six years to draw his story out. He would be one hundred six if he were still alive. I will be lucky to find anyone in the village who remembers the 华侨 wah que, the young man who went overseas. It doesn’t matter because now Dad knows that I was sincere about wanting to know our history and that I will go back to the village to honor my ancestors, and then I will write his story, our story.
The take-away is this: if at all possible, do not wait too long to learn your family’s story. Gently pry open those shells to find the pearls of your family’s story. Sometimes the shell will be empty, but when you find a pearl, it will be precious. Like the grain of sand inside the oyster, some aspects of our lives are irritating and yet can develop into something quite beautiful.
Being a rooter is akin to an archaeologist, searching for signs about one’s history by studying the remains, looking for clues wherever they can be found. Instead of bones and artifacts excavated out of the ground, I am digging through archival files of my ancestors who traveled between China and the U.S. On one hand, the way they were treated seems inhuman. However, on the other hand, the pages of interrogations and witness’ statements paint a picture for me of what my ancestors experienced as sojourners to the Gold Mountain (the Chinese name for the U.S.)
Pouring over the files from the National Archives feels like Louis Leaky picking through bone fragments. One piece, although incomplete, sheds light on the history of mankind, or at least several generations of my ancestors. For instance, there is a phrase indicating a business established in San Francisco in 1865, the year the Civil War ended on the other side of the country.
Then, there is the witness statement from G.T. Marsh, which when you do the math meant that he knew my great-grandfather when they were both in their twenties. Further digging showed the extent both men were affected by the 1906 earthquake. Marsh & Co., housed in the Palace Hotel on Market Street, was demolished. Fung Sang Lung & Co., located on Bush Street, near Van Ness and Post, fared somewhat better than the stores in Chinatown. By 1909, the store’s name was changed to Wah Sang Lung & Co. and relocated to the corner of Dupont (now, Grant Avenue) and Sacramento Streets.
Photos of the shop on Dupont back-in-the-day show horse drawn carriages and pig-tailed men clad in pajama-looking clothes going about their business. My great-grandfather and grandfather’s photos show their shaved foreheads and hair pulled back into queues in obeisance for the Qing emperors of their times. Letter clues (TC for Tung Chee/Tongzhi, KS for Kwong Sui/Guangxu, ST for Sun Tung/Xuantong), showed me three different emperors during generations from my great-grandfather to my father, who was born during the reign of the last emperor of China.
For the Chinese, dress codes were mandatory, whether they were in a foreign country or not, and disobedience to the two-hundred-year-old rule of Manchu hairstyle and chángshān; literally: “long shirt,” could result in execution. The high-collared silk chángshāns may have looked like pajamas to San Francisco’s Caucasians, but to the Chinese they indicated merchant class sojourners “going out” to create a better life for his families back home.
When I gleaned a list of my great-grandfather’s twelve trips between the U.S. and China from the files, I discovered that he had a cabin in 1906. It was probably the last voyage of the first SS Doric, a White Star Line steel ship, which was known for carrying a large cargo of opium as well as tea. He traveled as a Merchant, which made him exempt from discrimination by the Exclusion Act of 1882. He probably traveled in second class accommodations, which may not be as luxurious as first class, but was a far cry from the steerage conditions of so many immigrant travelers. My ancestors did not consider themselves immigrants but rather sojourners.
In spite of their strong ties to the homeland, Chinese immigrants did not establish a miniature replica of traditional Chinese society in America. They lived in an abnormal society full of young males, wandering Sojourners, whose dream was to put in a few years of hard labor and to return home wealthy and respected “Gold Mountain Guests.” This “sojourner’s mentality” had deep roots in Chinese cultural tradition. Nineteenth-century China was an unsophisticated agrarian society. The great majority of the Chinese people still embraced both Confucianism and Taoism, religious systems which, to a great extent, reflected the inspirations and aspirations of peasants.
Emigration was generally looked upon as banishment, a severe punishment next only to death. Out of these beliefs grew the concept of sojourning, an idea that stressed the temporary nature of one’s absence from home.
Every answer unearths another question, or a hundred. The question that pesters me now like a burr under my saddle is this: was my great-great-grandfather (whose name I do not know yet) the first Louie in my family to venture thirty-five hundred miles across the Pacific Ocean? Were there others before him? And, if so, how and why? Back to the digs, I mean files. This “archivalologist” found another clue.
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.”
Bet you are wondering what I came up with in this exercise! But first, a message from our sponsor. Just kidding! No ads here, a “shout out,” but no ads.
Your responses were fascinating. Do you think that someday we can all come to the watering hole in peace?
As I mentioned, there’s more to the exercise. So, here goes:
First, breathe in deeply and breathe out. Did you know that focusing on your breath like that relaxes your body, mind and spirit? Remember the animal you imagined for Hilary Clinton. Now, from that place within you that knows unconditional love. If that’s another tough climb, just do the best you can. Most people love their spouse, their children, a pet, their parents. Whatever connects you with love, even if it seems silly to someone else. It’s your key to the door of love. From that place within you that knows unconditional love, imagine a bridge of loving light to the animal. Again, observe without judgement and begin to notice if the animal changes and how it changes. Freeze frame the image.
Now, remember the animal you imagined for Donald Trump. Now, from that place within you that knows unconditional love. Do the best you can. Think of a loving spouse, your children, a pet, parents. Whatever connects you with love, whatever unlocks the door of love for you. From that place within you that knows unconditional love, imagine a bridge of loving light to the animal. Again, observe without judgement and begin to notice if the animal changes and how it changes. Now, freeze frame the image and take a deep bre.ath in and out, feel relaxed and calm and peaceful.
I know, some of you are saying, “Well, that was silly.” I also know that others are saying, “I imagined such and such. Where did that come from?” I’d love to hear back what happened in this part of the exercise. (If you don’t like the world to see your response, then send a message to my email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
BTW The exercise works beautifully with people that you like, too.
Here’s the deal: the imagery was not just about Hillary or Donald. It’s also about what they reflect back to you. Remember, that Jungian thing. Like it or not, you were also seeing some aspect of you, but more importantly, you were sending unconditionally love to Hillary, Donald and you in the best way you know how.
In fact, in my humble opinion, that’s what this exercise, the current political scene, and life on this planet are all about. Opportunities to love. LOVE – PASS IT ON & PAY IT FORWARD.
LOVE – PASS IT ON & PAY IT FORWARD.
Here’s the shout out to another great movie for young and old.
Happy Birthday, Dad, who was my first guide on the “other side.” He would have been 106! I am still working on the book,
I am still working on the book, Conversations with a Hungry Ghost: Memoir of a Reluctant Medium, which was inspired by the experiences I shared with him since 1990 when I sensed him at his funeral. I promise to finish it after my trip to Dad’s birthplace in China. Definitely, by the end of the year.
In the meantime, I finished a paranormal short story, The Not So Secret Life of Emily Elizabeth. So, I thought it only fitting to offer it for FREE to celebrate Dad and all the other ghosts who want to share their stories. CLICK HERE to pick up your copy. Enjoy!
If you like the story, please feel free to share this link with your friends and to write a review when you are finished.
As I begin my roots journey to my father’s homeland with the Roots Plus group, I am inspired by the Chinese adage “When you drink water, think of its source.”
It means to remember where and how the water came from. Don’t just be thankful for the water: be thankful for all the elements and processes (both past and present) that allowed you to enjoy that humble cup of water. In other words, remember where one’s happiness comes from. (Wiktionary
Meeting other Rooters at the Eat. Root. Love. Gala Saturday night felt like coming home. The sounds of Chinese chatter, plates being passed around, and lots and lots of laughter reminded me of family celebrations in Chinatown when I was a child. I feel I am going to learn a lot more about water . . . and about the source of my happiness.