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.

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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 Reflections

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 .

“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.

angel-island

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.