How I Became Chinese: The Story of One Woman’s Search for her Chinese Roots

Posted by Paula Williams Madison on February 8, 2016 in Guest Bloggers, Research, Stories

Beijing, Summer 2008. Standing on a corner near the Silk Road, just a few blocks from my hotel, thousands of Chinese passed me by. They were all hurrying somewhere. Not me. That day, I had no destination; I just wanted to see if a Chinese metropolis like Beijing had the hustle and bustle of my hometown, New York City. I was an NBC Universal executive vice president, in China to attend the Summer Olympics. Me. I was a Harlem-born daughter of Jamaican immigrants just standing on a street corner in China. My brown skin and curly Afro did attract attention, but even if the passers-by cared to exchange pleasantries, I don’t speak Mandarin and for the most part, they don’t speak English.

And yet, I felt a deep kinship to these people.

My grandfather was Chinese.

And somewhere in this nation of more than 1 billion people, I had family. My heart ached because I needed to find my long-lost family, but where would I start?

Nell Vera Lowe Williams, the author’s mother and the firstborn child of Samuel Lowe. Nell was separated from her father at age 3 and never saw him again.

Nell Vera Lowe Williams, the author’s mother and the firstborn child of Samuel Lowe. Nell was separated from her father at age 3 and never saw him again.

At that moment, a beautiful and statuesque Chinese woman, about 5’7″, caught my attention and took my breath away. This Chinese stranger with fair skin, upturned eyes, and straight black hair, who as quickly as she appeared, disappeared into the crowd, reminded me of how my mother, Nell Vera Lowe Williams looked when I was about 10 years old! My chest tightened. Tears welled in my eyes. And then I felt invigorated. Seeing this apparition of my already deceased mother was a sign. I would find them. I would find my grandfather’s descendants in China. And so I began the quest to find the family of my grandfather Samuel Lowe, a quest that forever changed my life.

Just two days later, in my hotel room, an English-language documentary was on television. I was busying myself getting ready to head out to the Olympics competitions. The documentary was about the construction of the Great Wall of China, which had long fascinated me, but today I just didn’t have time to sit and watch. Half-listening to the documentary’s narrator, I heard the voice explain that the Great Wall had been built section by section by local people living along the 5,500 mile route. This section, he said, was built by people who lived in a village named for the Lowe family. What was I hearing??? I ran to the TV, but the narrator had moved on; no more about the Lowe village. I couldn’t rewind or record!!! TVs in hotel rooms don’t have such features. My grandfather’s surname was Lowe, just what the narrator said, but how would I learn more? Who would I ask? Still, I took this as yet another sign.

First my mother, then this voice from a documentary that I couldn’t rewind.

China was where I knew they were. China was telling me to find them.

Over the next three years, in fits and starts, I would attempt to trace my genealogy. I worried it was too late because my tight-lipped Chinese Jamaican mother (who knew just a little about her father) had died in 2006 at the age of 87. My Jamaican dad was racially black and he’d known nothing about my mother’s Chinese roots. He, too, was deceased by then.

But in 2011, finding my Chinese family moved into my focus. At the time I’d had a very demanding career that left little time for any primary research. So I did what I knew I had to do: after 22 years, I retired from NBC Universal, ending my work life as executive vice president for diversity. It just seemed that working someone else’s agenda would be too distracting. I knew myself well enough to expect this journey would involve endless research, countless conversations and a deluge of emotions.

With little else to go on, I contacted my father’s siblings and cousins, hoping they might direct me, and in a remarkably short time, an elder cousin said a huge Chinese Jamaican population had immigrated to Toronto, Canada. He said would ask friends and acquaintances for help.

By April of 2012, that cousin, John Hall, had told me about a Toronto conference that occurs every four years: the Toronto Hakka Conference. First organized in 2000, this gathering is an international conference of the Hakka Chinese, who are racially Han and are a minority cultural group in China. Worldwide, there are an estimated 70-80 million Hakka. The name translates to “guest,” but I think of it as a gentler way of describing these migrants, who were sometimes invaders, sometimes aliens. This migratory tribe originated in central China, and over the millennia, because of wars and conflicts, settled mostly in the far southeastern region of China, Guangdong Province. My grandfather was Hakka.

At a reunion in China in 2012, the descendants of Samuel Lowe numbered more than 300. Some are pictured here.

At a reunion in China in 2012, the descendants of Samuel Lowe numbered more than 300. Some are pictured here.

I decided to register myself and my two older brothers, Elrick and Howard, for the Toronto Hakka Conference, hoping we’d uncover clues about our grandfather. Back in 1921, three-year-old Nell was forever separated from the father she recalled as kind and loving. Her jealous mother vowed to keep them apart because Samuel was to marry sight-unseen a Chinese bride sent from China by his parents. And the rift in my family began. My mother, Nell, always melancholy yet beautiful, spent the rest of her 87 years fatherless. She never saw him again. We never had our grandfather.

The end of June 2012 found us among the 400 conference attendees. Our cousin, John Hall, joined us from his Toronto-area home. The four of us and maybe a couple of others stood out from the crowd because of skin color, more caramel to chocolate in tone, darker than the creamy tones of the Hakka Chinese.

There, I met Carol Wong, a.k.a. “the Dragon Lady,” and a leader in the Toronto/Markham Hakka Chinese community. I’d been introduced to Carol via email a few months before. She was co-chair of the conference, and I’d contacted her to get more insight into the conference and the Hakka people. Carol explained that she came from a family of Chinese shopkeepers in Jamaica and that many of the Caribbean Chinese descended from indentured workers who began arriving in Jamaica in 1834, after the British abolished slavery. The emancipated Africans refused to work for the British and U.S. sugar plantation owners who had enslaved, brutalized, and murdered them. So the owners faced East to India and China, attracting laborers who signed contracts ensuring them passage to Jamaica and three years of indentured labor.

I also met Jeanette Kong, a Chinese Jamaican filmmaker, who I quickly hired to produce and direct my film. We were joined at the conference, too, by Martin Proctor, director of field productions for the Africa Channel.

The chair of the conference, Dr. Keith Lowe, also was Chinese Jamaican. When I was able to get a few minutes with him, I told him why we were there. He encouraged me to stand and tell what I knew of my mother’s and grandfather’s lives. And so, before 400 mostly Chinese people, I said, “I am Chinese and am trying to find my grandfather’s descendants in China.” For the very first time in my life, no one laughed or snickered. To pronounce that I — clearly black — am Chinese didn’t produce even any head shaking. That was my huge surprise; these Chinese people believed me. And so I began to have hope.

Almost a week later, Keith Lowe responded. Jeanette convinced him to help me. And so Keith decided to send an email to his nephew in Hong Kong. A Black Chinese-Jamaican woman is looking for her grandfather’s family in China. Grandfather’s named Samuel Lowe. Can you ask the Lowe family in mainland China if anyone has ever heard of him?

Next day, the return email read, “My uncle says Samuel Lowe was his father.”

See more in Finding Samuel Lowe, available on iTunes and Amazon February 2nd.

Read more in Finding Samuel Lowe, available in select book stores.

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