Join me for an afternoon of friendship and food at the USCPFA Annual Banquet ON March 5. I will share my rooting adventures at the banquet.
Join me for an afternoon of friendship and food at the USCPFA Annual Banquet ON March 5. I will share my rooting adventures at the banquet.
I had no idea when I started “rooting” that it would be so much more than finding my father’s village and honoring my ancestors in their homeland. It will take me years to fully process the experience. As a student of architecture, I was fascinated with the doors and windows. They became the symbol of my journey. So, here is my ode to the doors of Guangdong.
The journey to our ancestral villages in China,
thousands of miles away from our birthplace,
began with a single step.
Like knights on a heroic quest,
we’ve overcome many obstacles.
We’ve slain dragons of ignorance,
learning how our forefathers and mothers
were treated on the Gold Mountain.
We’ve unearthed records from the National Archives.
Some have been fortunate to learn the oral histories.
I was not one of those
because my father and my older brother
speak about their lives in China,
I persevered as we all have
at last we stepped through
the doorways of Guangdong,
where the past and the present collided.
We touched the hands of the villagers
the red thread of fate
pulled us together once again.
We know our quest is about so much more
than dots on ancestral tablets
even as we honor our ancestors.
We know it was our choice
to make this journey
and to take from it
whatever we choose.
Where will our next step take us?
Before I sat down with the files in the research room at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), I had no idea what my grandfather or great-grandfather looked like or that they had a birth name and a marriage name. I had no clue about the challenges they faced, the obstacles they overcame, and their tenacity to rise above every challenge and obstacle to create a successful business.
Not only do I know more about my ancestors but I have now walked the streets of their villages in China. I have knelt at the altar of those whose shoulders I stand on.
My great-grandfather came to the “Gold Mountain,” the land of the beautiful flowery flag, in 1881 on the SS Gaelic.
He became one of the partners in the Fong Sang Lung & Co. store on DuPont Street, which is now known as Grant Avenue. In 1907, my grandfather followed in his father’s footsteps even though the Chinese Exclusion Act created more hurdles. He helped the store rebuild after the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco. And in 1928, my father made the same trek across the ocean and faced a new generation of discrimination. Discrimination that haunted me for many years.
I felt sad and elated at the same time as I read the files; sad to read the interviews that were more like interrogations, to witness the difference in the way the sojourners were treated as opposed to the way their white witnesses, amazed to think about the vast amount of information they remembered and communicated during those interviews. I am in awe that the information held clues for my search for truth in villages half way around the globe and painted a picture for me of those whose shoulders I stand on.
Now more than ever, I understand the words of Martin Luther King,
“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
Like King, I too have a dream of a nation, a world where we honor, love, and celebrate our uniqueness.
Becoming a Chinese American was not my father’s goal, at least not in the beginning of his sojourns to the Gold Mountain. Like his father (Louie Mow) and his grandfather (Louie Fat), he intended to create wealth in the land across the sea and return home a successful Gold Mountain man. They intended to stay only temporarily in the United States, to build up their business for the next generation (my generation) and retire in style and comfort back in the homeland, where they intended to be buried and honored by their descendants.
Fate, if you believe in fate, had other plans for Dad and that is how I came to be. If my father had been able to go back to China to remarry after his first wife died, would I be one hundred percent Chinese instead of 50.3%, as the DNA test shows? Would I have been married off to a good family in a village near Gong Yick? Or would I travel to San Francisco with my husband like a few of the Chinese women and bear my children in a strange land? Would my sons carry on a generational name from my husband’s family poem? There are so many “what ifs.” I know, I’ve pondered many of them in the wee hours of the morning when the questions nudged me to find more answers.
At least, I finally have some answers about my grandfather Louie Mow, whose married name was Louie Hong Wei. I know what he looked like at different stages of his life and a few things about his success as a Sojourner as well as the twelve trips he made back and forth to China over a twenty-odd year period between 1907 and 1930s, enough time to father six children.
I now know my great-grandfather’s name – all of his names. his birth/childhood name, his marriage name, the various transliterations he used and the interpreters at the immigration offices used. I know what he looked like and a little bit about his back story. I am “blown away” by his daring and tenacity.
Now, I am the sojourner, traveling by air cooped up in tight quarters for over half a day, but that is still a much shorter time than the trip by boat in 1881 by my great-grandfather or even the trip by my father in 1927. I am heading to a land that is somewhat strange to me, whose language I do not understand although I am picking up words here and there. And like my ancestors, I intend to return home. My journey to China, to Sam Dor Village in Guangdong Provence, has taken me years of preparation. One reason being that I did not even know the name of the village where my father was born until after his death in 1990. The name of the village was carved on his tombstone. My first clue. The search began.
Patience and perseverance paid off. China has changed a lot since my family left the comforts of home, but the villages were much the same as they had been all those years ago. Going to my great-grandfather’s birthplace was surreal. Yes, we went through the motions of the rituals to honor my ancestors on an empty plot of land overgrown by Chinese squash plants. We saw the old men smoking their water pipes while all of the women gathered in the community center. A couple of women killed a snake that crept up from the pond and showed my fellow Rooters the markings that indicated it was poisonous. Others squatted around bowls making a cocoon shaped pastry and something else that was a flattened out version of a sesame seed ball. Even though they were getting the food ready for a wedding in a few days, they generously shared their treats with us. And I shared little baskets that I had crocheted from red yarn to symbolize the red thread that connects us all.
At the same time, it was as if I was floating about the scene observing everything from a bird’s eye view and then, the veil between the past and the present disappeared and I saw more. Standing in the parlor, I felt the walls around me and heard the joy of child’s naming day. Walking through the streets of the village in my mind, the vibrancy of the villagers in as palpable as was the community of women who prepared for a wedding on the day of my rooting, teasing the young bride-to-be, giving her advice, laughing as she blushed. I felt as if I’d been there before in another time.
Like my ancestors who traveled back and forth between these two great countries, I want to go back again. I want to go to the house in Gong Yick, now Gong Ye, were my grandfather moved his family, where my father married his first wife, and where my half-brother was born. If it’s still there, I want to go to the marked slab on Long How Hill, aka Bock Sock, where Louie Fat is buried, to pay my respects. I want to spend more time in China, people watching, learning more about . . . well, everything. I want to track down the exhibit about the Yangshi Lei, Lei Family Architects, and anything about Leizu 嫘祖, wife of the Yellow Emperor – not the terra-cotta soldiers-famed emperor from 200s B.C. but the one from the three sovereigns fame of the 27th century B.C. They speak to me in ways that tell me I have to follow the crumbs, pull the red thread until I know why I need to know their stories.
Here’s the really beautiful thing about my sojourn and all the work that has made it possible: even though I have not always been totally accepted in the East because of my Caucasian blood nor in the West because of my Chinese blood, the really beautiful thing is that I have found that place inside of me where I am “at home” no matter where I am.
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.
When you drink water think of its source.
Our first rooting day gave us an opportunity to experience two of Albert Cheng’s adages: 1. Be flexible (which means “we think we’re going to one person’s village, but we might end up at another’s) and 2. Be open to miracles, aka divine intervention from our ancestors. As our bus rolled into the village, we were greeted by the head of the village at the gateway flanked on the village by a pair of trees. We learned about Barbara, Cindy, Amanda and Diane’s connection with the famous red-faced General Guan Yu from the “Romance of the Three Kingdom’s” era (almost 1800 years ago).
A short walk down an alleyway brought us to a house once owned by Barbara’s ancestor and then further down the alley and a left turn took us to her relative’s house, where she performed the ceremonies at several altars and fireworks were set off to honor her predecessors. Barbara’s Chinese helped her communicate with her relatives enough to verify details about their stories and to know she was offered a chicken – make that a live chicken – to take home. One more turn down another alley way took us to the newer home of her grandparents, where the plaque on the left showed her grandmother’s name. As if to signal the joy of the reunion, a pair of dragon flies mating flew overhead.
We hopped on the bus, went a very short distance and this time it was Cindy, Diane and Amanda’s turn. The walled courtyard appeared ominous, especially with its glass shards at the top, but as soon as we walked through the gate into the courtyard, we knew this was a wealthy family’s home. Although the house was barren, its spaciousness and remnants of stained glass hinted of another time. This house had its wood bars across the entrance door in place. Lacy iron corbels buttressed the overhang at the front side of house.
The excitement of the two finds was topped off by a visit to Chikan, a town nearby where Cindy, Diane and Amanda’s ancestor had a noodle shop and overseas Chinese again brought their experiences in the new world to their homeland. Albert told us to look for Elsie Lam, one of our guides, and the peanut brittle vendor. We did not have to go far as we crossed the bridge over the Tanjiang River. A photo of former Rooters including Elsie graced the post and the packaging labels of the peanut brittle, which we got to watch being made. The best part was sampling this delicious treat. I knew my Lebanese family would enjoy every morsel. Chachkies galore, dried fish and chickens, Chinese sausage and bacon as well as a calligrapher tantalized our senses and memories of our youth. While Cindy, Amanda and Diane explored the Guan Library, I peeked through the gate and wondered what the Hotel Paris was like back in the day and people-watched in this town created over a hundred years ago.
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.
The journey begins and already I am confused. What day is it? I know I left San Francisco at 00:58 on October 30th, I know I flew for hours and hours, sleeping when I could, eating dinner at 2:00 A.M. and breakfast shortly before landing. However, here’s what I cannot wrap my mind around crossing the International dateline, we lost a day which is why I’m not sure what day it is today.
Kudos to Cathay Pacific for their customer service and quality of food, but next time I’m going to swing for premium economy or better yet, first class because the leg room in economy must be designed for very small Asians.
Our fourteen-hour flight to Hong Kong was followed by a quick hop to Guangzhou, where we waited for others in our party to join us. I meant to bring my mini-disposable tooth brushes and rest assured I will not forget them next time, because when we landed in Guangzhou, the first thing I wanted to do was brush my teeth.
I was happy at last to meet other members of our Roots Plus group, bonded already by our common goal to touch the good earth of our ancestor’s homeland. Undaunted by hours of travel, we embarked on the first leg of our journey, meeting our guides from the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Vocational School, who have worked tirelessly helping the U.S. guides locate our villages in the Guangdong Province. In Chinese fashion, our meeting occurred over a meal – not a McDonald’s or KFC lunch – yes, they seem to be around every corner in Guangzhou, but rather a feast of one dish after another, topped off by an apple cider vinegar drink or a very potent drink in the tiniest cordials I’ve ever seen, imbibed by the red-faced folks at one table. I won’t mention any names; you know who you are.
A ride through the extremely crazy traffic of the city took us towards Kaiping and the “Watch Towers” at the Fong residence at Kaiping Diaolon and Village, a UNESCO and World Cultural Heritage site. The village represents a sampling of a unique collection of buildings made possible by the contributions of Overseas Chinese, who brought every manner of cultural influences to this small village.
What will we find in our villages?
Rooting is like the Chinese legend about the red thread of fate 姻缘红线. According to this myth, the gods tie an invisible red cord around the ankles of those that are destined to meet one another in a certain situation or help each other in a certain way. The two people connected by the red thread are destined, regardless of place, time, or circumstances. This magical cord may stretch or tangle, but will never break.
I feel that way about my ancestors, even the ones I have never met. And I have that same feeling about my future mate, who I have yet to meet. I know, it sounds silly. It’s the stuff of myths.
“One story featuring the red string of fate involves a young boy. Walking home one night, a young boy sees an old man (Yue Xia Lao) standing beneath the moonlight. The man explains to the boy that he is attached to his destined wife by a red thread. Yue Xia Lao shows the boy the young girl who is destined to be his wife. Being young and having no interest in having a wife, the young boy picks up a rock and throws it at the girl, running away. Many years later, when the boy has grown into a young man, his parents arrange a wedding for him. On the night of his wedding, his wife waits for him in their bedroom, with the traditional veil covering her face. Raising it, the man is delighted to find that his wife is one of the great beauties of his village. However, she wears an adornment on her eyebrow. He asks her why she wears it, and she responds that when she was a young girl, a boy threw a rock at her that struck her, leaving a scar on her eyebrow. She self-consciously wears the adornment to cover it up. The woman is, in fact, the same young girl connected to the man by the red thread shown to him by Yue Xia Lao back in his childhood, showing that they were connected by the red string of fate.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_string_of_fate)
During my Rooting experience, I have made many connections with people from all over the world and as a medium, I am not limited by the physical reality, or by time and space. I have been blessed to reunite with lovers, family, and even enemies from past lives because we all have one connection, and that is love. Unconditional love. I have yet to meet that person who I want to share the journey with, but until then, I will carry my red threads to China and wherever I go as I root for truth with love.
Sometimes when we search for something, we discover that someone else has had the same mission, the same urge, the same quest. I came across a paragraph in a book that I was drawn to like a moth to a light. It speaks volumes about what my quest has meant to me.
“The search for truth is an endless quest, and truth itself seems to change with one’s state of consciousness. It is not found in one particular place — the halls of ancient and renowned universities do not have a monopoly on the secrets of the universe. Truth and knowledge is in everything that exists, in all experiences and in all persons, rich or poor, smart or dumb. Truth is available to all who seek it. The only way to see it is to summon it forth with the heart and an open mind. Remember, truth “feels right,” it rings clear, and it’s applicable to more than one situation. To know how something feels requires that you be in touch with your feelings. If you haven’t learned how to listen to your own inner voice, it will be almost impossible to know the truth. True power requires a centeredness in truth, a direct relationship with the self. ” (p. 400, “The Day You Were Born,” Linda Joyce)
That still small voice has guided me on my quest as I have rooted for truth. You would be amazed at how that still small voice has helped me find my father’s village, a small village in China, has pressed me to be patient in my twenty-plus year search. And also in so many other practical ways throughout those years.
The journey does not end when I touch the soil where my father once lived, when I kneel at the altar to honor my ancestors. It is a never-ending journey.
As 4th Century mathematician, astronomer and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria said, “Life is an unfoldment, the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend.”