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.
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 tocreate 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.
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.