Like Xuanzang, the 7th Century dynasty monk, who went West in search of knowledge from the homeland of Buddhism.
I am heading West in search of the homeland of my Chinese roots. My journey has also been one of discovery about Buddhism, Taoism and even Christianity and the roles they have played in my families’ lives. For although I was raised in the Christian faith, I am open to exploring Buddhism and Taoism and feel I have gained much by what I’ve discovered. Like Xuanzang, I have a thirst for knowledge.
Even though I do not speak, read, or write Chinese, I am moved by calligraphy paintings and slowly but surely I am learning the language. If I do not learn anything else on this journey, I have discovered the truth about my Chinese name. For many years, I thought my name was Louie/Lei Bao Lian, precious lotus blossom of the Louie/Lei (thunder) clan. However, when I showed my Roots guide the paper where Dad wrote my name, he said that it translates to “precious age.”
If that misunderstanding does not complicate the issue enough, there are the various spellings depending on which dialect you choose. Dad spelled my name Bo Line. Obviously, he did not follow the rules of transliteration, but rather created his own. I’m not sure why he told me my name had one meaning but then wrote the calligraphy for another. Maybe, he inadvertently gave me a clue about another lifetime, one as Precious Lotus Blossom. I wouldn’t be surprised because I do remember many life times in China. I believe those memories draw me back to China, and then, I wondered: did Xuanzang have a similar urge to go back to India, to read the original Buddhist texts because he remembered writing them long ago? I cannot say for Xuanzang, but for me the journey West has also been a journey within. How appropos as I explore the teachings of Buddhism. For in my search to find my father’s village, I have learned to overcome suffering, to walk the middle way, and to live my dharma. Even though I may be far from nirvana, I am happier about my journey in this lifetime.
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.”
I am part of the Chinese American story, but one thing that has made my mission to discover my heritage challenging is that I do not speak, read, or write Chinese. Now, I have friends to help me overcome that hurdle. My group is called Roots Plus. It’s for Rooters over thirty and also for family groups. It is part of the Friends of Roots organization, which grew out of Roots: Him Mark Lai Family History Project. Him Mark Lai (1925-2007), renowned as the Dean of Chinese American history, was a life-long advocate for documenting the Chinese American story.
My Roots guides, John Wong and Walter Lim, emphasized the importance of knowing the calligraphy for my ancestor’s names and villages. Thank goodness that I had photographed Dad’s tombstone, which was carved in calligraphy and that I saved the piece of paper where Dad wrote my Chinese name. However, when I met with Walter and showed him the paper, I discovered something strange about my name. For years I lived with the idea that my Chinese name meant Precious Lotus Blossom, but when Walter looked at the characters Dad wrote down, he said, “The first character means ‘precious,’ but the second character is not ‘lotus blossom.'” A quick search in his Pleco app and he discovered the actual meaning was “age.” Not Precious Lotus Blossom! Precious Age. What a strange name! But I like what my friend, Winny, said, “Let’s call you A-Bao.”
“A”阿 used as a prefix to a name indicates familiarity, seniority, or an affectionate form of address. ” Bao “宝 means precious. A- Bao. I like that name. So, I decided that Carole A-Bao Louie would be my pen name.
Now, to sort out the other names in my family tree. I discovered how important the calligraphy is as I poured over the documents from the National Archives (NARA). John and Walter were right! The calligraphy and understanding its meaning is a key to the treasure chest that held the map to my roots quest. As I search for the names and my family’s story, I am learning to read and understand more Chinese than ever before, and the branches of my tree are growing.
I’m looking forward to going to the villages of each of my Roots Plus group. There are fourteen of us and our guides. We will share the rooting experience going from one village to another. Will we be able to locate not only the village but also the house? Or the burial grounds? Or living relatives? Will I be lucky and find the genealogy book and learn more about my Chinese lineage? Who knows what we will find and how it will affect us? I have a feeling some very special friends, our ancestors, will be going on the journey with us, and so, the story continues.
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.
July 2017: I am looking forward to learning more at a Chinese Genealogy Workshop knowing that there is something more driving me in this search for my roots, not entirely sure what that something is, but embracing the journey with heart and soul.
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.
The most common greeting in China is “Chi le mei?” (Have you eaten?) Maybe, because dining plays a central role in all social settings. An ancient Chinese proverb says, “Min yi shi weitian.” (To people, food is heaven.) __Paraphrased from “A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts – A Collection of Deliciously Frightening Tales” by Ying Chang Compestine
When my dad died and, as per Buddhist tradition, there was a spread of food at his wake. At that time, I did not know the significance of each of the types of food, so I said, “I want cha siu baos at my funeral.” (Served during Dim Sum (“small meals to delight your heart” – sort of Chinese tapas), cha siu baos are buns with a Chinese barbecue pork mixture filling, and can be baked or steamed.)
So, here’s a strange question: What kind of food do you want in your heaven?
Me? I’d want a banquet of all sorts of food. Not just Chinese, but rather food from a variety of cultures, and of course, I would be able to eat and eat to my heart’s content without feeling bloated or gaining a gazillion pounds.
Til then, I will follow the Buddhist mantra: eat in moderation.