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Looking for Louie, Part 1 of 6
Now that our Governator has sentenced just about all of California’s State Historic Parks to the budget axe (see sidebar Running Out of Joss), you North State history buffs might do well to visit the Weaverville Joss House while you still can.
After reveling in the faded gilt-and-brocade splendor of the 130-year-old Taoist shrine, spare a moment to savor the silence in the plain, barn-like back room out behind the main Cloud Forest Temple.
This was the community hall, the all-purpose meeting place where local Chinese would repair for everything from fortune-telling to ad hoc contractual arbitration. The walls are plastered several layers deep with crimson papers – now tattered and faded – listing the annual donors to the temple’s upkeep fund. These rosters (which are among the very few written records left by the Chinese who once comprised a bare majority of the Trinity county population) offer a glimpse into the community’s institutions and hierarchies.
One name leads the list year after year: the Wing Chong Company, Trinity’s number one Chinese mercantile concern. Check it out. Here’s how the company’s name looks in Chinese characters.
The ideograms roughly translate as “glory” and “prosperity” – shades of Red Reformer Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum “to get rich is glorious.” It’s an apt tag for Weaverville’s very own “Noble House.”
Seven-and-a-half Chinese calendrical cycles (i.e. about 90 years) ago, the company passed into the hands of the Moon Lee clan – Trinity’s much-beloved “Last Chinese Family.” Under the clan’s management, the shop gradually morphed from a purveyor of dried seafood, medicinal herbs and mysterious Oriental utensils into a broad-spectrum grocery store catering to the county’s increasingly white-bread population.
Wing Chong provided the foundation for patriarch Moon Lee’s rise from humble origins to his unrivaled stature as a pillar of the community – highway commissioner, Rotary president, Grand Humbug of the local E Clampus Vitus Lodge et al. Yet, as Moon, in his honored old age, repeatedly explained to oral historians, his family only took over the firm because they were too poor to cash out of America like so many luckier Chinese.
An ill-starred mining venture left Moon’s father so deep in debt he couldn’t decamp for China to flaunt a Trinity-derived fortune. The Louie family, which sold him the store, had presumably fared better in America. But – like almost all the rest of the once-substantial Trinity Chinese population – what scanty trace we have of the Louies in local records disappears completely as soon as they head back to their native Taishan district of Canton.
Finding ourselves Hongkong-bound a couple of Chinese New Years ago, my wife, Mei-lang, and I wondered if we might be able to fill in some of these blanks from the other side of the Trinity-Taishan equation. It struck us as ironic that, despite Weaverville’s splendid downtown museum and archive full of detailed pioneer memorabilia, the Chinese half of the county’s heritage should be represented only by a smattering of racist old clippings from The Trinity Journal, a few odd items of kitchenware and apparel, plus a collection of murderous cutlery from the notorious 1858 “tong war.”
To make up this deficit, the Wing Chong Louies seemed as good a place as any to start. Not that they were necessarily definitive of the Trinity Chinese experience. But they did seem emblematic in a general way, if only because of their eerily traceless, multigenerational sojourn in our midst.
Little did we dream, though, what we were getting into. Our search for the lost Louies took us through warrens of federal records, deep into the fortress-like American diplomatic compound in Hongkong, on a wild hydrofoil ride through the glitz (and sludge) of coastal China’s “economic miracle” and into a forgotten, impoverished, rural backwater of the Pearl River delta. In the process, we met some colorful characters: wannabe wetbacks, repentant Red Guards, quietly subversive bureaucratic saboteurs and cynically pragmatic communist cadres.
We never did find any direct, lineal descendents of the Weaverville Louies. But – what turned out to be perhaps even more interesting – we met plenty of their stay-at-home cousins, who related harrowing tales of where and why and how “our” Louies had made their brief splash back in Taishan and then disappeared yet again.
Their story resonates with some of today’s latest headlines – nativist immigrant-bashing, labor mobility in a downsizing economy, hidden costs of globalization. These grand, macro-themes take on extra poignancy in the human, micro-drama between individual fortune-seekers right here in our own county and far away on the other side of the world.
For all the pluck sometimes shown, the story is not, in the end, a happy one – due, in part, to bigoted ignorance on both sides of the Trinity-Taishan nexus so many calendrical cycles ago. Bigoted ignorance abideth always; it’s with us, in spades, to this day. The only antidote is to go out of our way to understand more about the seemingly alien “others” among us and where “out there” they might be coming from.
Such a quest takes a certain amount of imagination, flexibility and sheer, dumb, luck, as we found out at the very outset of our hunt for the Wing Chong Louies. Our first stop was the West Coast repository of the U.S. National Archive, which, despite its stately moniker, turned out to be a featureless warehouse in a tacky San Bruno industrial park out behind the San Francisco airport.
Patrons – mostly Asian Americans on genealogical safaris of their own – jammed the cramped reception room, jockeying through the microfiche catalogues with intimidating ease. What made the San Bruno repository so enticing for them (and for us) was the vast Mother Lode of paperwork housed there from the 80-odd years of Oriental Exclusion laws, which lasted right up through the 1960s.
We had precious little to go on, though – just the names Louie, Wing Chong and Weaverville. This might have been enough to start a Google search, but we had no idea how to dig into a microfiche record with only so few clues. We just scrolled up a sheet of “L’s” and started summoning files pretty much at random.
This soon produced a rather irate archivist out of the sealed-off warehouse area. Scanning the lobby for the most obviously clueless patrons, Javier Garcia homed right in on us: “Who’s ordering all this stuff? Don’t you realize there are more Louies in Canton than Irishmen in Ireland?”
We sheepishly explained our dilemma, which he met with an appraising look of mingled scorn and pity.
“Well, let’s try the stacks,” he shrugged, motioning us over to the freight lift. At level “B1,” the doors clanged open onto a windowless, basketball court-sized vista of angle-iron shelving stacked high with cardboard crates.
“A century of Yellow Peril,” Garcia grandly announced. “Your man is somewhere in here for sure, right along with everyone from Fan Tan Fannie to Sun Yat-sen. But,” he added, eyeing us owlishly over his dollar-store horn-rims, “to find him is gonna take some real archival feng shui.”
Next installment: Fork-lifting a needle out of a haystack.
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.