Rooting for Truth – patience and persistence pays off!

Another day at NARA (National Archives) and digging through more files, I hit pay dirt. The ratio of Chinese women to men in the early days of Chinese Sojourners to the Gold Mountain (U.S.) was very small. So, I cannot help wonder what motivated my grand-uncle to bring his young wife, Toy Shee, to San Francisco in 1928. I cannot help wondering what she must have felt as she birthed three children in this strange land. However, I have a feeling that my uncle Don (Louie Hung Don) would have cherished that young family as much as he loved spending time with me and my siblings in the 40’s and 50’s because he was one of the “bachelors” (the thousands of men alone).

What a difference it was reading Toy Shee’s interrogation versus her husband’s! And what a treasure trove of information painting a picture of her life in China. She must have come from a family of substance because ten servants accompanied her as she rode a sedan chair to her wedding. No doubt they were loaded down with gifts for the Louie family as well as all her worldly possessions. She proffered her husband (my paternal grand-uncle), a man she had never met, a cup of wine and paid respects to his ancestors at the family altar. Then, he went to the men’s celebration while she stayed at her new home with the women. A home she’d share with her in-laws and their servant, a young girl who fetched water from a river a few blocks from the house.

How did she feel when her husband returned to the Gold Mountain before their first child was born? How did she feel when he returned, decided to take her back with him but left their first-born with his parents?

A note to fellow genealogy researchers who are new to the Chinese traditions: Toy Shee means that she was from the Toy clan. I do not know what her birth name was. I do not know if a woman took a “married name” as her husband (Louie Kaow/Louie Qiao Wei) did. Her confident gaze speaks volumes to me even though she could not write or even sign her name.

I hope her spirit and/or the children’s will tell me more. Until then, I will enjoy MY grand-nieces and the memories of the day we shared exploring the Korean Market, snacked on fermented blue crabs, baby crabs, ramen, glass noodles and more. I’ll enjoy my extended family (new ‘cousins’ I met while doing research at NARA) as we dig through the documents, the Jiapu, and of course more food.

What the hell!

Have you ever wondered what Hell is like? That’s where I journeyed the first time I saw my father’s ghost. Here’s a preview of his hell:
 
____Here I go again. A familiar tug at my third eye, a tingling sensation spread from my forehead pressing against my eye sockets and down to my upper lip as the music of Tibetan Buddhist monks chanting filled the meditation room. My spirit rose above my body as the veil between the meditation circle and the Tenth Hell of the Buddha disappeared. Before I could question what, I saw in my mind’s eye, the music pulled me deeper and deeper until I felt as if I’d slipped through Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole.
                                                     ***
My vision blurred around the edges, but before me, an intricately carved kang sat in an alcove adorned with painted panels depicting the seasons.
 3rd hell
Butterflies danced around spring white peonies, followed by ducks swimming by white lotus blossoms heralding summer. Balls of white chrysanthemums announced fall’s arrival while white plum blossoms created lacy patterns against a winter sky.
 
A Buddha-like man sat crossed legged on silk brocade cushions of saffron and maroon on the wooden kang used as a sofa or a bed. He propped his left elbow on a pile of pillows to his side, and his right arm rested on the scholar’s table that filled the middle of the kang during the day. Embroidered silk slippers sat at the ready on the saffron and maroon wool and silk rug with a classic shou/longevity medallion in the middle, and eight Taoist symbols of immortality adorned the border. Incense from bronze tripod incense burners strategically placed on each side of the kang wafted about him.
 
I recognized the man who sat folded up into a ball at the foot of the kang’s platform. I saw his white chef’s jacket pulled down exposing his flimsy undershirt. He sobbed as he pulled at his hair and slapped his exposed bony shoulders. Sweat dripped from his hairline and followed the curve of his back. He lifted his head. If I entertained any doubts before, they melted away when I saw my father’s face.
 
“Lord Buddha,” Dad said. “I am ashamed. I know what I did wrong.” Looking around at the others who writhed in agony in their corners of this hell, he knew his sins had caught up with him. “Will I be in the Tenth Hell forever?”
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“Ching Ming Time”

It’s that time of the year again. As my father’s ghost would say, ” Ching Ming time.” I did not know what Ching Ming was until my father’s ghost visited me and wanted me to perform the ceremonies. Ugh! Ceremonies! As far as I knew Dad did not do these ceremonies when he was alive, so what was the big deal?

I am put off my many ceremonies, but like a dutiful daughter, I went through the motions and then something happened. I felt a more peaceful energy around Dad. I may have fumbled some of the rituals but what I discerned was that my intentions were pure. I began to understand the power of intentions.

So, for my Chinese friends who will be visiting their ancestors’ graves, sweeping them clean, and making food and gift offerings, remember to bring your good intentions with you in that basket along with the incense and paper money.

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For more info about Ching Ming, here is a great article: http://www.chineseamericanfamily.com/how-to-plan-a-tomb-sweeping-ceremony/

This celebration of the deceased has caused me to celebrate life. So whatever your beliefs, I will share with you two of the biggest lessons I have learned from my ghosts/spirits: 1. leave nothing unresolved, and 2.  treat others and yourself with compassion and love. I believe this world and the spirit world will be better for it.

Rooting for Truth 寻找真相 Doors of Guangdong

 

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.

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

could not,

would not

speak about their lives in China,

and yet,

I persevered as we all have

until,

at last we stepped through

the doorways of Guangdong,

where the past and the present collided.

We touched the hands of the villagers

knowing that

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?

 

.

 

 

 

 

 

We may have come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.

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.

family-collage

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, ships-collagewhich 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.

Rooting for Truth 寻找真相 My Journey to the West

Like Xuanzang, the 7th Century dynasty monk, who went West in search of knowledge from the homeland of Buddhism.

xuanzang

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.

journey-to-the-west_2
Earliest known edition of the book, Journey to the West, a Chinese novel published in the 16th century during the Mind Dynasty and attributed to Wu Cheng’en

 

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.”

caroles-name-written-by-james-louie

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.

kuan-yin-onlotus
Quanyin on a lotus blossom

Rooting for Truth 寻找真相 with Friends

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.

names

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-bao

          “A”阿 used as a prefix to a name indicates familiarity, seniority, or an affectionate form of address. ” Bao “ 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.