Looking for Louie, Part 5 of 6
For 6,783 miles Mei-lang and I have traced Trinity merchant Louie Chow’s homecoming route back to his native province of Canton, China (see previous installments). Now we have come to this massive banyan tree, evidently the central public hangout for Kam Loong village, Louie’s alleged hometown. When we try to explain to the assembled villagers where we have come from and why we are here, we draw only blank stares.
Just by selling off the Wing Chong Store on Weaverville’s Main Street in 1920 and clawing his way back to this fly-specked corner of Taishan Disrict, Louie Chow proved himself a “winner” by Chinese lights, as Trinity patriarch Moon Lee would later explain to “oral history” interviewers. Conversely, Moon’s family, who bought the store to work off accumulated California debts, might have accounted themselves “losers,” despite all of Moon’s subsequent triumphs as a California Highway Commissioner, Clamper and founding father of the Trinity Historical Society.
But Louie Chow, that “winner,” seems hardly a name to conjure with here in Kam Loong, judging from the slack-jawed passivity of this hometown crowd of Louies when we try to tell our tale. It’s only after we pull out a photocopy of Wing Chong’s 90-year-old “joint stock” certificate that we finally get a rise out of these banyan-tree gawpers.
The word “stock” is whispered in tones of awe and voices painstakingly puzzle out the antique, hand-brushed ideograms for the names of Louie Chow and his three co-owners of the Weaverville store. As everyone in China has come to know over the past decade, “stock” potentially means dividends; some good may come of this, yet.
And just then, a middle-aged shorty shoulders his way through the crowd to introduce himself as Party Secretary Ng. Such a title might once have evoked a revolutionary militant; nowadays it’s likelier to adorn a Babbity business-booster. Anyone who has managed to survive to Ng’s age in the role of Party Secretary would have to be a protean opportunist with a fine-tuned sense of when to lie low and when to show zeal.
Our stock certificate is enough to trip him into his zealous mode.
“Comrades,” he addresses the crowd (incongruously in Mandarin, rather than Taishan Cantonese, presumably for our benefit), “these Overseas Guests have come from afar to find their long-lost townsmen. If any of you have records at home that can help them, let’s bring them forth now.”
At this invitation, most of the adults drift off to the three rows of houses that make up Kam Loong. Only a few children – either too young or too poor to be away at school – straggle behind to eavesdrop on our exchange with Ng. He wants a closer look at our stock certificate. “Where’d you get this thing?”
We explain how we’d Xeroxed it from Louie’s century-old immigration file in the U.S. National Archive’s San Bruno Repository. Is the Wing Chong Company a big, well-diversified conglomerate, Ng wonders. We have to admit that it was only a small general store, now defunct, in a has-been Gold Rush town, far, far away from Hollywood or anyplace else he might have heard of in California.
He shrugs in disappointment, but then brightens at a fresh notion of how he might yet capitalize upon our unexpected irruption amidst the torpor of rural Taishan. “Only 3,000-odd people, you say, in Wei Ba Fu [Chinese for Weaverville]? Maybe we can work out some kind of ‘sister city’ arrangement.”
Aside from the tenuous Louie connection, it’s hard to see much affinity between the two towns. By now, Ng has led us away from the banyan and into the three-block hodgepodge of Kam Loong’s lanes. In their proportions, the cheek-by-jowl houses recall Trinity’s own Joss House: taller than they are wide, and deeper than they are tall, with flanged or upturned rooflines and ornamented cornices. Except, instead of wood construction gaudily painted to resemble masonry (like the Joss House), these faded facades are actually made of crumbling brick or flaking concrete.
Like the Joss House, the Kam Loong dwellings front onto the street with massive portals that fill up most of their facades. No temple-style “spirit screens” here, though; no whiffs of incense or glints of gilt icons or embroidered banners. Rather, each door is barred with a horizontal grid of thick wooden dowels. In the dark recesses we catch glimpses of hanging crockery, kitchen smoke, loft-ladders, rattan settees, old two-tub washing machines, treadle sewing machines, haphazardly parked tricycles – all the homely clutter of intensely inhabited spaces.
The only house that seems exempt from this lived-in look is at once the grandest and the most dilapidated in town: a three-floor jumble of cinnamon-colored terracotta facing squarely onto the village rice-threshing ground behind the communal carp pond. This pretentious caprice of a building sprouts balconies and balustrades all over its upper stories and mosaic lintels over its windows.
But the windows and even the carved front entry are all crudely bricked in. A wooden side door, half off its hinges, gapes onto a sliver of gloom. Deep inside, a dust-flecked shaft of sun from a narrow skylight picks out a lone stool and a deal table.
Ng leads us right past this forlorn heap and up an adjacent lane. Apronned matrons lurk shyly in the doorways bearing red lacquer ancestor plaques that they’ve hastily fetched down from their attics. The Party Secretary waves them away; none of the brushed characters match the names on the Wing Chong certificate.
We’re heading, he tells us, to the home of Madame Soo-chin, the village matriarch, where the Kam Loong Louies keep their jia pu. This is the universal term for a genealogical table that is meticulously maintained by every Chinese clan, from the loftiest to the lowliest – a kind of Family Bible, minus the Scripture.
For such a sacred artifact, the Louie jia pu seems rather casually housed. The door of the matriarch’s modest home is unbarred and we find Madame Soo-chin herself – a birdlike little figure in blue tunic and black pantaloons – curled up asleep on a bamboo cot in the front room. Her snoring head is cradled on a sheaf of rice paper, about the size and thickness of a Redding phone book, all stitched together with silken thread. Ng casts about for a similarly sized headrest, settles upon a handy Chinese Farmers’ Almanac, and gently effects the substitution without awakening the old lady.
We perch on the door sill, where the light is better, to leaf through the yellowed pages. Ng flips right past the preamble, with its grandiose claims of illustrious prehistoric progenitors. Instead, he homes right in on the late 1800s and early 1900s. By this time, the 16th and 17th generations of historical Louies had already been reduced to dubbing their children Ah-This and Ah-That – diminutive nicknames that can be taken as pretty fair indicators of poverty and illiteracy.
But the name of Louie Chow is conspicuous in its absence. Nor do we find any of the other Wing Chong names. So our quest dead-ends, after all our exertions.
Ng seems as crestfallen as we are, having ginned himself up for a potentially profitable windfall of a foreign connection. But then Mei-lang homes in on a recognizable name – Louie Gar-Hien – dangling on the last row of the last line in the jia pu. Even though he never was a Wing Chong partner, one Louie Gar-Hien did figure in the immigration file we had looked up in San Bruno: he was the “Number Five Son” that Louie Chow brought back with him to clerk in the Weaverville store on his last return to the U.S. The only problem is Gar-Hien’s listed father in the genealogy is not Louie Chow but rather one Louie Heung-Yau.
Well, never mind. We’d been warned by the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong that the immigration files contained a high proportion of half-truths – right name but wrong village, or right hometown but wrong parentage, all in a bid to outsmart visa officials and end-run the U.S. ‘Oriental Exclusion’ laws. Perhaps Louie Chow – a legally settled immigrant in Weaverville – had adopted his distant clansman Louie Gar-Hien as a ‘paper son’ in exchange for some financial consideration. At least we had revived the prospect of a tangible Trinity-to-Kam Loong link.
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.