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.
Coming home: I knew today would be miraculous, but I have no idea how exactly it would play out. The trick is to get out of my own way.
Today was the first day we hit a road block in the village, Sam Dor, where my father and two uncles were born. Only two elderly women in their eighties, and their memories were fuzzy. I knew the chances were slim because my father was born 106 years ago.
I set out on my own following a hunch, sure that I would be able to “feel” the energy of the house. Elsie followed at a safe distance. Down a lane where an empty lot stood between newer houses. Two tractors stood guard on the lot. Suddenly, I was pushed from the front and also from the back at the same time, squeezed by two bookends of an invisible force. Unafraid, I stood and took a deep breath. Chills coursed through my body showing me that I was on the right track. As a medium, I listened for the message which clearly said to go to Gong Ye.
However, we headed to the next village which was very close by. It was where my great-grandfather was born, but we did not find a structure to go to or close enough relatives to give me clues about this cosmic puzzle I’ve been working on. Instead, the village chief showed us where my great-grandfather’s house once was. What we found were piles of rubble and yet, I stayed open to what was meant to be.
So, I performed the ritual on the overgrown plot where my great-grandfather was born in Hong May Village. It was an organic ritual, less ceremonious than the previous ones. It was perfect! I chose the spot and knelt on the ground where I placed my uncle Don’s poem on the ground to create a makeshift altar. Next, I placed three pieces of incense into a crack formed by a stack of rocks. I bowed three times to honor all my male ancestors as I said a Buddhist prayer and read my Uncle Don’s poem. I felt his hand on my shoulder as if to confirm my mission on this trip and the story I am writing.
Then, as if a movie played in my mind’s eye, I saw the walls of the house form around me like a 3-D printer. I heard sounds of joy and knew it was my great-grandfather’s naming day. I knew that he was fated for success as a sojourner, that he would have many sons and a good life. (The records I found a NARA confirmed that he was a handsome man and was indeed successful at the shops in San Francisco owned by the Louie clan.)
I created another alter in the opposite direction but this one was for all my female ancestors, especially the ones who stayed behind when the men “went out” to the Gold Mountain. I felt them standing around me, tears flowing down their cheeked for being honored. I felt a special connection with my great-great-grandmother, who had bound feet.
Several more altars and the mission was complete. Then, as if to affirm the new beginnings I saw a su gum (squash) at the last place where I put incense. More was growing in another corner of the plot. It’s blossoms dotted the space with bright yellow. I picked one of the blossoms. A village lady wanted me to take one home with me so I would have the seeds. I found a fragment of roof tile to remind me of the next part I want to explore when I come back again: the Lei (putanghua for Louie) family architects, as well as the town of Gong Ye, where my family settled after they moved from Sam Dor.
Village women brought some wonderful pastries to us which were being made for a wedding to take place in three days. We joined the ladies in the community building where I passed out red baskets that I had crocheted to each of the villagers. The red baskets represent the ancient Chinese belief: An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet; regardless of time, place or circumstances. The thread may stretch or twist, but it will never break.” I gave lucky lai see to the bride-to-be and also to the chief of the village, who I hope to see again on my next trip because I know this was just the beginning, and I will be back again.
As if to say, “Now, go and share your gift with others,” I was guided to give a reading to the village chief, to our local guide, and to one of our guides from the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Vocational School. With each reading, the message was clear “We are not meant to do everything ourselves. Be open to help from others, and magic happens.”
I am grateful to our Friends of Roots guides and my fellow Rooters, our guides from the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Vocational School, to the local guides and the people of the villages, and to my ancestors who guided me home to the source.
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.”
Pigs are known for their rooting skills, and since I was born in the year of the pig (Chinese calendar), I ‘m sure I have a nose for rooting. I’m not looking for truffles, but I am searching for something precious, at least to me. My ancestors.
This year, I joined a Roots group, an offshoot (pun intended) of Friends of Roots: Him Mark Lai History Project (http://www.friendsofroots.org). They specialize in researching sojourners from the Guangdong Province of China. Where will my Roots adventure take me? My destination is a village in Taishan in the Guangdong Province of Southern China, but I have a feeling that the trip to China is just one step in my quest. A very important step. Like any quest, there have been obstacles to overcome and fears to face along the way, and for me, that meant facing my life-long fear of ghosts.
My father, like so many of his generation, was secretive, and he carried his secrets to his grave. When he was alive, I did not know why he would not tell me about my Chinese heritage. When I asked him about China, he’d wave his hand at me and say, “Be American.” Everything changed after he died in 1990. I sat at his funeral and went through the rituals like a dutiful daughter, but I sensed his presence.
Although I was aware of ghosts all my life, I had blocked them and told them to go away. But when my father’s ghost appeared, I knew I had to find a way to communicate with him. I first saw my father in the Tenth Hell of the Buddha, where I saw that he had to atone for his misdeeds, and there were many, but as I researched the teachings of reincarnation, I helped him see another way beyond the issues he left unresolved and unfinished. I honored his beliefs through rituals that were meaningful to him. As my understanding about reincarnation grew, I saw where we had known each other in another life and why we chose to reincarnate in this one. It wasn’t easy, but after more than twenty years of conversations with my father’s ghost, of rooting for truth, I am headed to China where I hope to honor my ancestors. If the journey there is anything like the past twenty-six years, I know it will be quite an adventure.
If any of you have family who immigrated from China, I encourage you to talk to them as much as you can about their story. Even though my father was not as open about his story as I would have wished him to be, digging through the records at NARA (The National Archives & Records Administration) was revealing about my family’s long history in the U.S. since the mid-1800s. I am still deciphering what I discovered at NARA, and I am in a quandary about what I will learn in China. I can imagine the house in the village from the descriptions from the immigration interrogation, but I am not certain yet if it is still there. The Roots team is helping me do the research with a team in Guangdong, and I feel as if my ancestors are guiding me.
(Left photo: Louie Fat, my great grandfather; Right photo: Louie Mow, my grandfather)
Even though I may not learn the whole story, I have learned that love does not die, and every answer leads me to a hundred more questions in this never-ending journey.
I am writing a book about the experience, Conversations with a Hungry Ghost: Memoir of a Reluctant Medium. Until the book is published, I invite you to join me as I root for truth.
As I’ve said before but I’ll say it again, “I am a perpetual student.” In fact, I love it when I can say that I learn something new every day. So, today I’d like to give a shout out to Lazlo Montgomery, creator of The China History Podcast.
Montgomery’s interest in China’s vast history covers everything from the emperors to current leaders to China’s wealthiest man, and oracle bones to a historical perspective about Chinese cuisine. I wish I’d had a history teacher like him when I was in school, one who makes history palatable and throws in all kinds of fascinating nuggets.
It’s never too late to learn, and I am thrilled with what I am learning about my father’s homeland before my Roots trip this Fall.
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.