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Looking for Louie, Part 3 of 6
To get to see Mr. Lam, you have to stand for 45 minutes in the “U.S. Citizen Services” line at the American consulate in Hongkong – mercifully shorter, at least, than the three-hour line for ‘Others.’ You have to pass through a metal detector, submit to a pat-search, surrender your passport and cell phone. You then explain your business to an unsmiling receptionist behind bullet-proof glass.
Even so, you won’t get to see Mr. Lam unless you have inside State Department contacts, which we happen to enjoy due to our prior incarnation as Beijing-based foreign correspondents. So Mei-lang and I are buzzed through three steel-clad doors, ushered into a windowless room with a gun-metal desk and invited to wait some more.
We don’t wait long, though, before a door is buzzed open on the other side of the desk to admit a sad-eyed, stoop-shouldered old pensioner in a frayed blue cardigan. Mr. Lam is the last still-serving veteran of a once substantial corps of local Cantonese that the Hongkong consulate retained back in the days of Oriental Exclusion (which only ended in 1965). The mission of this “Control Unit” was to trip up bogus visa applicants with trick questions about esoteric details of Canton ethnography and geography.
In setting up our appointment with Mr. Lam, our State Department friend had already briefed him about our objective: to track down the alleged hometown in Taishan, Canton, of one Louie Chow, Weaverville’s next-to-last Chinese merchant. Louie had sold out the Wing Chong store on Weaverville’s Main Street to the family of Trinity county patriarch Moon Lee (see Part 1).
All we had to go on was a village name that we’d stumbled upon in Louie’s century-old immigration file, buried at the National Archive repository in San Bruno (see Part 2). Hardly the most reliable of place names, either: a phonetic transcription at dockside by a white bureaucrat with no Sinology background. The syllables, as recorded — “Kam Loong” — could mean anything from “Golden Prosperity” to “Near the Dike.”
To resolve just such puzzles, Mr. Lam’s old consular unit had worked out an exact index of what clan names came from which obscure corner of Taishan. This they supplemented with detailed sketch maps of individual hamlets, so they could grill each applicant on the minutiae of local markets, bridges, temples and schools. “If he don’t know these thing, you bet he don’t come from where he say,” Mr. Lam explains.
To underscore his point, Mr. Lam has brought some of this background material with him, all dog-eared and marked up from heavy use some 40-odd years ago. Our quest offers a glimpse of what consular inquisitors were up against back then. We pore over pages and pages of densely packed typescript, map coordinates and Chinese characters before we stumble upon a promising match: a village named Kam Loong (meaning “Flowery Dragon,” as it turns out) where the dominant surname is Louie.
It’s just three rows of houses surrounded by rice paddies, according to the appended sketch map. An Earth God temple and a duck pond overshadowed by an ancient banyan tree. Where a creek bed enfolds the back of the village, there’s supposed to be a stone jetty “with finely carved lions.”
Click image to enlarge.
Some things don’t change. Kam Loong – even today, as in the days of Louie Chow – is still best reached by water. The East side of the Pearl River Delta is so crenellated with bays and inlets and tributary streams that to get there overland from Hongkong would take twice as long, involving huge inland detours.
Not that the river route would have been exactly hassle-free, either, for Louie Chow. After his long ocean voyage from San Francisco, he’d have trans-shipped to a series of delta steamers, river junks and finally flat-bottom punts to navigate Taishan’s capillary network of backwater creeks – a journey of several days.
For us, it’s a lot simpler: a direct hydrofoil shot from Kowloon straight into the heart of Taishan. The M.V. Gui Feng feels more like a no-frills airliner than a ship of any kind – just a metal tube with close-packed seating and no openable windows. Except, unlike your typical airline flight, we turn out to be the only passengers aboard this trip, all alone in the cabin apart from a TV screen blaring Grade B kungfu movies.
The craft rears out of its berth and takes off across Hongkong harbor with its bow held high, a fan of spray flaring against the Tsim Sha Tsui skyline. In no time at all, we’ve passed from the twitchy, opal waters of the South China Sea into the sluggish, nacreous outfall of the Pearl River – a 100-mile-wide open sewer of industrial pollution nowadays, thanks to China’s meteoric rise as the workshop of the world. Trawler junks and garbage scows ride the tide like grazing cattle, unperturbed by our hurtling passage.
Less than two hours later we round on the ex-Portuguese colony of Macao – a journey that used to entail a romantic, overnight deck-passage “cruise” back in the days when Mei-lang and I “honeymooned” there on our elopement some 30 years ago. Glitzy new casinos now dwarf the Iberian villas along the esplanade. Our hydrofoil plunges, heedless, right past Macao and crosses yet another little estuary, then abruptly veers shoreward to squelch its velocity in the Taishan backwaters.
The M.V. Gui Feng sinks down off its cushion of compressed air and churns its way up the narrowing bayou at a tempo more in tune with the surrounding barges and sampans. At this leisurely pace, we can take in some riverside detail: cantilevered seine nets, bare-ass children splashing and squealing in the shallows, bobbing cormorants. Squat, brick courtyard houses crowd right down to the banks, their unplumbed privy’s perched right over the water on stilts. Despite the occasional intrusion of brickyards or low-slung, whitewashed warehouses, the flat, boggy landscape has a rural feel. As the channel gets narrower, we glimpse rice fields between the shoreline willows and bamboos.
Not exactly the richest farm country in we’ve seen in China, but not the most desperate, either. It looks just poor enough to be susceptible to the allure of the glittering world beyond. Yet it’s still rich enough (and near enough to the Hongkong docks) that adventurous Taishanese – unlike their inland cousins – could muster up the resources to act on their huaqiao (emigrant Chinese) ambitions.
Such a combination of “push” factors and “pull” factors made this out-of-the-way enclave the earliest fountainhead of Chinese migration to America, and it spins off its share of emigrants even to this day. Taishan dialect remains supreme in U.S. Chinatowns, although its dominance is now challenged by newcomers from coastal Fujian and elsewhere.
Still, Taishan thinks of itself as the hub of the Huaqiao Diaspora, as evinced by the grand billboard that greets us when we pull up to the quay at Gong Yi port. “Welcome Overseas Chinese Brethren,” it proclaims, over a bird’s eye architectural drawing of a fancy gated community exclusively for Taishan returnees. No such development yet, though, in Gong Yi; just a quonset customs shed where a pair of uniformed flunkies perk up as the gangplank is lowered. They resume their customary slouch when only Mei-lang and I disembark with just a fanny-pack between us by way of searchable luggage – slim pickings in terms of shake-down opportunities.
We’re glad we packed light when we have to cram our way into a standing room-only passenger jitney on the trunk road into the Taishan district seat. With roadside sweatshops running round-the-clock shifts, 3 p.m. turns out to be rush-hour here. We strap-hang our way down the smooth, new blacktop to the outskirts of town, where, factory loft buildings absorb most of the commuters. For the rest of the ride – through a twisty maze of dilapidated concrete shop-houses – we have the jitney pretty much to ourselves.
At the end of the line, the grey cityscape abruptly gives way to a spotless pedestrian mall lined with chi-chi boutiques. Sculptural doodads – caryatids, balustrades, quasi-Corinthian cornices – encrust the pastel buildings, highlighted in gaudy colors. The chromatic transformation seems so complete that it takes us a minute to realize it’s no more than a paint job – the 1920’s vintage buildings are structurally and stylistically the same as the run-down, gray tenements in the surrounding blocks.
“What gives?” we ask a sidewalk dumpling vendor. Just a city council-mandated gentrification to please returning huaqiao, he explains. Has it notably improved business? So-so, he shrugs. He steers us to a second-story flop-house down the block, where we find a clean and comfortable room for 75 renminbi (about $9 at then-prevailing exchange rates).
We’ve got an afternoon to kill, since it’s already too late to head out for Kam Loong, so we head for Taishan’s famous Huaqiao Museum, purportedly the largest in China. The exhibits turn out to present a multi-layered time capsule of Communist China’s wildly shifting official attitudes towards its overseas sons and daughters.
A diorama depicts a snide-looking, long-nosed, white labor contractor bamboozling poor, upright Taishan peasants into signing up for indentured servitude in “Gold Mountain” (as California was called). A “Socialist Realist” style mural makes the steerage hold of a trans-Pacific steamer look like an African slave ship. Grainy period photos document intrusive medical exams and strip-searches of incoming immigrants at Angel Island.
San Francisco Chinatown is represented as an unrelieved warren of brothels, opium dens and gambling parlors. Sad-eyed little Chinese girls in white pinafores crowd around a sourpuss white missionary under the dyspeptic caption “California Rice Christians.” An entire wall is devoted to racist caricatures of “John Chinaman” from 19th century American newspapers. Charley Chan and Fu Manchu and other such demeaning stereotypes figure in lurid Hollywood posters.
For most of the first 30 years of the People’s Republic, while founding Red dynast Mao Zedong was still alive, this was the prevailing Beijing line on huaqiao: hapless victims or witless dupes, at best, of the American imperialists, if not outright, willful, treasonous sell-outs to the perfidious West. Anybody with overseas connections – a substantial proportion of the Taishan population – risked denunciation and persecution in the successive waves of Maoist purges.
And then, with the onset of post-Mao “Reform and Opening,” the official take on huaqiao abruptly reversed. The once-reviled foreign lackeys found themselves suddenly lionized as vanguards of China’s cosmopolitan, mercantile modernization. Newer galleries in the Taishan Museum celebrate huaqiao research scientists, Little League sluggers, concert violinists, even military aviators. Angelique Telemarque, the half-Chinese star of “Susie Wong,” earns praise as a “cultural icon in America.” So, incongruously enough, do stoner comedians Cheech and Chong.
If these picture galleries seem overly beholden to the vicissitudes of Communist Party line, the Museum’s mute, concrete memorabilia offer more eloquent testimonials to individual huaqiao lives: U.S. military medals, Sears Roebuck hand tools, high school class rings – all the homely little personal treasures brought back by overseas sojourners.
One display features a standard “Gold Mountain Box” – a chest full of pre-selected presents for a returning emigrant to distribute back in the village upon his splashy homecoming. These gift packs were available in small, medium and large versions from a Sacramento Street merchant, according to an accompanying clipping from the classified pages of a 1920’s vintage Chinatown newspaper. Which size box, I wonder, could Louie Chow afford on his return from Weaverville to Kam Loong?
Bang opposite the museum, we find a storefront immigration brokerage operation, one of dozens we’ve noticed about town in just an afternoon’s casual strolling. We stop in to find out how’s business. Depends on what you’re looking for, the prim young matron behind the counter warily allows.
We handle immigrant, student and work visas, as well as “visiting relative permits,” she ticks off on her exquisitely manicured fingers. Australia, Japan, European Union and the U.S. Everything from form-filing to travel arrangements to entrance exam coaching for school applicants.
So, we ask, what’s selling well these days? We do a good business in Australian and Canadian papers. E.U.’s still popular, too, despite bombings in London and Madrid and race-baiting in France, Italy and Holland. Japan remains economically weak, so not too many clients set their sights there. And America’s stock is way down – job-market doldrums and too many legal hassles there for immigrants these days.
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.