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Looking for Louie, Part 4 of 6
Shrimp dumplings, taro crescents and “phoenix claws” (braised chicken feet). Sticky-rice tamales, radish cake and egg tarts, all washed down with countless pots of chrysanthemum tea – RMB 65 (about $8) for two.
At this rate, it’s hard to pry ourselves away from the lakefront terrace of the state-run Penglai Teahouse here in Taishan City’s main downtown park. None of the huaqiao (Overseas Chinese) vacationers at the surrounding tables show any sign of budging, as swarming Taishanese waiters bring on course after course.
Not only does the dim sum far outclass anything to be had in San Francisco, London or Jakarta. So do the atmospheric setting and the fawning service. Yet the prices, which seem such bargains to us, apparently deter most Taishan locals; only huaqiao seem to dine here, judging from their dress and mannerisms.
But Mei-lang and I can’t linger over brunch. We have a day of bush-whacking ahead of us, the final leg (we hope) in our long hunt for surviving descendants of Louie Chow, Weaverville’s next-to-last Chinese merchant. The Louies had sold the Wing Chong Store on Main Street to the father of Trinity patriarch Moon Lee around 1920 (see installment one).
That made the Louies “winners” and his own family “losers,” as Moon would later explain to oral historians. No matter how much prestige a huaqiao sojourner might amass in the white world – and Moon enjoyed plenty, as a California highway commissioner, Clamper Grand Humbug and all-around pillar of the Trinity community – the only success that counted, by Chinese reckoning, was a splashy homecoming to the ancestral turf back here in the Taishan district.
For Louie Chow, according to his century-old U.S. immigration file, “home” meant an out-of-the-way hamlet named Kam Loong (“Flowery Dragon”) deep in the backwaters of China’s Canton province. That much we’d been able to establish in an investigative quest that has so far led us from Trinity’s own Historic Society, via the U.S. National Archive in San Bruno (installment two) and the American Consulate in Hong Kong, across China’s Pearl River Delta by hydrofoil and through the galleries of Taishan’s Huaqiao Museum (installment three). Now it only remains for us to visit the village itself.
Kam Loong village, our dim sum waiter has assured us, is best reached by “wild chicken.” That’s Taishan slang for a motorcycle taxi. There’s a whole fleet of them, 125 cc bone-rattlers with their freelance drivers, loitering in front of the East Wind Cinema. Two passengers and a driver would seem to be the norm for a “wild chicken,” judging from the passing traffic, so we choose a yellow Honda with auspicious dragon decals that match the driver’s tattoo. After agreeing to an inflated fare, we roar off – without helmet or muffler – into the northeast suburbs.
The blacktop soon gives way to a crumbling concrete track, and then just a tamped earth embankment between rice paddies. Yet, for all the rustic look of the landscape, the acrid, eye-stinging air still throbs with the hum of machinery. The noise comes from blocky, concrete bunkers strewn amidst the fields. Through the doorways or unglazed windows, we glimpse workers crouched over lathes, stamping mills or sewing machines – sub-assembly plants, evidently, for Canton’s flood of exportable schlock.
Here and there, baled scraps of plastic, rattan and Christmas tinsel line our path. Under a clump of bamboo, a forked-beard Earth God (a ringer for the ‘Dai Tze’ idol in Weaverville’s own Joss House) presides in his little kennel of a temple, right next to an open drain where a mini-factory spews borscht-colored effluent straight into an irrigation ditch.
We follow alongside this sluice for a few more twists until it peters out at a stagnant puddle. Our driver brakes right at the edge of the embankment. “Kam Loong village,” he grandly announces, with a wave of his tattooed arm.
What village? I wonder, peering through the dusty bracken. All I can see are a half-dozen frumpy matrons scrubbing, rinsing or wringing their clothes in the sudsy fen or else flailing wet laundry rhythmically against a couple of humped rocks at the water’s edge. Looking closer at these stones, though, I notice a trace of carving. Could these be the “fine-wrought stone lions” of Kam Loong pier, as noted in the Taishan District sketch map file we browsed at U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong?
If so, then this would be the very same dock where Louie Chow might have landed on his grand homecoming from Weaverville. I imagine him perched on his “Gold Mountain Chest” full of ‘Made in U.S.A.’ presents – yard goods, knick-knacks, kitchenware, simple tools – specially selected to impress his stay-at-home clansmen back here in Kam Loong. In my mind’s eye, an obsequious boatman silently poles Louie’s flat-bottom punt through the bayous of a lush, long-gone Taishan estuary. Nowadays, you could barely float a throwaway Coke can down these sludge-choked rivulets.
But if the contemporary reality of Kam Loong ill-fits our preconceptions, our surprise is nothing compared to the sheer, jimber-jawed shock of the villagers when they first catch sight of us. All scrubbing and splashing abruptly cease. One laundress stands up from her stone lion and cautiously backs away into a clump of bamboo without taking her wary eye off us.
“Don’t be scared,” our driver tries to reassure them, as near as we can make out his words in the unfamiliar Taishan dialect. “I’ve just brought you a couple of huaqiao visitors, is all. Go find Comrade Secretary.”
This concrete suggestion provides them a straw to clutch at; all six matrons turn tail at once and scurry up the bank. We pay off our “wild chicken” and pick our way across the bog to follow the washer-women. Kam Loong’s still only three blocks deep, just as depicted in the consulate’s sketch map. Houses are taller than they’re wide, but still low enough to have been screened off by the scraggly line of bamboos along the “waterfront.”
In barely a hundred steps, we traverse the village end-to-end without running into a soul, and we soon see why: apparently everyone – perhaps alerted by the laundresses? – seems to have assembled at a big banyan where the street gives way again to rice paddy. Farmers in singlets; matrons in aprons; silent, staring children; grannies pushing toddlers in bamboo strollers – all cordon the tree, watching our approach with their backs to the massive, intertwined trunk.
Mei-lang tries to explain, in Mandarin, that we’ve come from a village way off in California (“Gold Mountain”) to find out about some Kam Loong people who’d once lived among us. This news is met with blank stares, so she tries again in her native Taiwanese, a southern dialect that’s linguistically closer to Taishan. Still, no reaction. All eyes, in fact, seem turned on me, the most forbiddingly alien face around.
So, to reassure them, I try a little Mandarin of my own. It’s all about the Louies, I explain. They came over to Gold Mountain as miners, maybe 150 years ago, and stayed on to run a store.
I pull out the two Louie Chow mug shots from my collection of photocopied archives. “Anybody recognize this man?” (Louie as a smooth-faced young merchant in Ch’ing dynasty finery) “Or this one?” (a glowering veteran, some 15 years later, of one-too-many run-ins with America’s ‘Oriental Exclusion’ bureaucracy). People crane forward for a glimpse at the pictures, but remain silent.
“Anybody here named Louie?” I ask, in frustration. Some shrug, some sigh, but nobody answers. In the back of the crowd, a voice murmurs in Taishanese, “I could swear it sounds just like he asked if anybody here was named Louie.”
Let’s try another photocopy, Exhibit B: the hand-brushed joint-stock certificate declaring the Louie family ownership of Weaverville’s Wing Chong store nearly a century ago.
People jostle for a closer look. The ornate script (dating back long before the Communists streamlined the written language) must look strange to them. But one ideogram clearly catches their attention: the character for “stock,” as in “stock-market,” which has once again become a buzz-word in China.
A smiling, middle-aged man in a white polyester shirt pushes his way forward from the back rows. “Sure, we’re all Louies here,” he announces in Mandarin. “All except me. I’m Party Secretary Ng.”
Next installment: Stock-taking.
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.