Winners, Losers, Swimmers and Players

Looking for Louie, Part 6 of 6

This is the house that Trinity built: a sprawling, ruined heap of terracotta tile and Chinese-baroque curlicues, a 1920s Oriental version of a gaudy McMansion. The dilapidated shambles in front of us is the payoff for generations of the Louie clan’s toil in Northern California, first as miners and then as shopkeepers.

It’s taken Mei-lang and me weeks of sleuthing and nearly 7,000 miles of travel to track down this crumbling shell of a house, way on the other side of the world from Weaverville, in the Taishan district of Canton. Will we finally get to meet a direct descendant of “our” Louies and fill in some of the mysterious details of what happened to them after they left Trinity county?

Party Secretary Ng, our guide here in Kam Loong Village, has bellowed into the cavernous recesses of the shattered mansion to summon somebody named “Ah Fong.” After many scraping footsteps from deep within the ruin, a pair of suspicious eyes appears in the dark crack of a sagging portal.

Ng pushes the door wider to reveal a crew-cut, one-legged old man who squints out into the unaccustomed daylight, hunched forward on a pair of crude, hand-hewn crutches. “Comrade Louie is – um – caretaker here,” Ng introduces. “These American friends would like to see something of the house.”

“Not much to see,” the old man grumbles, without making any move to unblock the doorway or invite us in. “Used to be a few households sharing the place, but they’ve all moved off to look for work. Then there was chickens, but nobody can afford to keep them anymore, either, these days.”

Anything left over, I ask, from the family that first built the place? You know, Louie Gar-Hien, the “paper son” who bought his way into U.S. immigration papers and then brought back a fortune from “Gold Mountain” (as California is called in Cantonese).

“Dunno anything about that,” Ah Fong shrugs. “When I was little, this place looked a lot fancier from the outside. But then I never got to look inside; they never opened it up to kids like me from the edge of town. Only other landlords came in here. Or Kuomintang big shots, or Japs,” he adds, referring to the two administrations that ruled Taishan before the Communists.

So how did the place come to its present state?

“It was still in OK shape when I left to Liberate Chaoxian,” Ah Fong relates, citing the Communist phrase for the Korean War of the 1950s. “By the time I came back, Old Gar-Hien was dead. So were his wives. His remaining kids had been moved to the outskirts. Most of the nice stuff in this place had already been stripped out. Some Proletarian Families had moved in. I got a room here as a Wounded War Veteran.”

And the Trinity Louie descendants? Ah Fong just shakes his head and clenches his face into a mask of adamant incuriosity. “Everybody else has gone from here, but I’ll just keep on care-taking the place. I have a right to,” he declares, dropping his gaze to his empty trouser leg.

“So many people have left,” Ng murmurs behind us. “So many changes.” He sighs, almost inaudibly: “Swimmers.”

Enough said in that one word. In the early decades of Communist rule, compared with living in Chairman Mao’s New China, it seemed a promising career option for hundreds of thousands of coastal Cantonese to dog-paddle their way down the Pearl River Delta to the colonial enclaves of Portuguese Macao or British Hong Kong.

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The journey could take weeks, swimming under cover of night and hiding out by day. Many were caught, or shot, or drowned, or returned to China by colonial authorities. But some “swimmers” did make it out of Canton to become Triad gangsters or pillars of Chinatown society worldwide.

Swimmers, boat-people and other illegal migrants still pour out of enclaves like Swatow, Fujian or Zhejiang further up the coast. Taishanese, with their already well-established overseas networks, have a range of less stressful emigration avenues nowadays. But, back in Mao’s time, no wonder a moneyed, U.S.-tainted family like the Trinity Louies might be driven to more desperate measures.

Mei-lang and I rehearse in our minds the long litany of pan-China class purges in the Mao years. Was it the initial expropriation of Land Reform that brought down the last of “our” Louies? Or the Anti-Rightist Campaign in the wake of the Hundred Flowers Movement? Or the famine after the Great Leap Forward? Or the Red Guard pogroms of the Cultural Revolution?

In any one of these convulsions, the tormentors of Louie Gar-Hien and his descendants could well have been precisely Party Secretary Ng, caretaker Ah Fong or any of the other stolid Kam Loong villagers we’ve run into since we stumbled into this hamlet a couple of hours ago. Just as I’d imagined Gar-Hien’s proud return from Trinity, silk-robed and gift-bearing, by ferry punt up this estuary to Kam Loong, so I could now picture the furtive, frightened swim of his last descendants down the same out-of-the-way backwaters.

And how did the Trinity Louies fare under the post-Mao “Reform and Opening,” when the Communist regime abruptly shifted tack and started courting – rather than denouncing – the Overseas Chinese? Did any of “our” Louies ever try to reconnect with Kam Loong?

“That, I can’t say,” Ng demurs, avoiding our eyes. Then, abruptly, he turns to the practical problem of how to get us back to Taishan City and on to Hong Kong. Evidently, our Kam Loong interviews are at an end; the Party Secretary starts briskly escorting us out to the village’s frontage road.

“If you walk about a kilometer out to the main highway, you can catch a jitney bus into town,” Ng suggests. “You might, on the way, care to stop for a haircut at the crossroad. There’s a Kam Loong-born barber there who might shed a bit more light on your American Louies.”

So I spend the rest of the afternoon in an ornate old barber chair in a makeshift roadside shack, while Mei-lang gently pumps Louie Yat-hop, tonsorial artiste, for further leads. It takes time to overcome the barber’s natural reticence about his American kinsmen; I wind up submitting to a haircut, scalp massage, pomade, mustache trim, shave, manicure, earwax removal and light dusting of talcum powder before the tantalizingly sketchy outlines of the Trinity Louie story emerge.

It turns out a Gar-Hien descendant did show up back in the mid-1990’s – a 20-something kid that nobody in Kam Loong had ever seen or heard of before. He was egregiously barbered, unnaturally tall and dressed like a basketball player. He only gave out his English name: Sinclair, Sinclair Louie. He asked around about the family burial plots and bought fine, carved headstones for the few grave sites that could be pinpointed in the Gar-Hien lineage.

He left a sum of money to be spent on the annual Tomb Sweeping rites, plus upkeep of the Earth God Temple that Gar-Hien had donated to the village way back in the 1920s.

“I don’t know why he chose me to take care of these things,” the barber says. “Maybe because I live a little outside the village. Maybe because I have no immediate ancestors of my own buried in Kam Loong with graves to tend. Maybe because I finally gave the poor kid his first decent haircut.”

But after setting up these arrangements, Sinclair Louie departed “for somewhere in North America – New York? Toronto?” In any case, he left no forwarding address. “It seems he didn’t want to have that much to do with us here,” the barber surmises, without speculating as to why not. These maintenance obligations are now getting harder and harder, though, he adds, as the “substantial” sum that Sinclair Louie left for tomb and temple upkeep is starting to run low. “If you happen to run into him back there, do let him know.” We promise to do so.

Perfumed as I am, coming out of the barber shop, I get a wide berth from our fellow-passengers on the jitney back into Taishan and the “red-eye” highway bus all the way into Macao. Now that it’s under the Chinese flag, the erstwhile Portuguese colony has lost a lot of its Iberian charm since Mei-lang and I “honeymooned” there during our elopement 30 years ago. Still, some things don’t change: the best place for midnight supper remains the Casino Lisboa.

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After a vinho branco to wash down my bacalhau, I can’t help but wax philosophical about the ironies of our quest. Hadn’t our Trinity patriarch, Moon Lee, pronounced the Louies “winners,” by Chinese lights, just for being able to return home to Taishan while Moon’s own family had to slog on in California?

Yet, who were the real winners and losers, after all? Didn’t Moon and Dorothy live on to honored old age in Weaverville, where their descendants still preside over our annual Chinese New Year dinners? While the Louies, after a fleeting flash of ostentation, suffered through decades of persecution and refugee flight.

“Only to fetch up somewhere in America, evidently with money to splash around all over again,” Mei-lang reminds me. She casts me a pitying glance. “You poor, pomaded gwailo [foreign devil], you still don’t get it, do you? I guess it’s because you’re not made of qi [the inspiriting essence of the whole Chinese cosmos, of which everything is compounded – except, apparently, us Westerners].

“Why do you think all these Hong Kong high-rollers jam into here every night?” she surveys the smoke-filled casino. “Why do you think those Taishan miners back in Trinity kept gambling away their little pinches of gold dust on fan tan, dice and dominoes? Why do you think I’d risk elopement with the unpromising likes of you?

“Because, you know, you’re never a loser as long as you remain in play. Now why don’t you spare me your philosophizing and order me a flan?”

Click here to see all articles in this series.

lincoln-kaye-mugLincoln 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.

Lincoln Kaye
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.
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11 Responses

  1. Avatar Bea says:

    I enjjoyed thiis series very much. It was a picture of a China we don't get to see. How different from the China we saw during the Olympics.

    Immigrant stories are so fascinating. I once visited a guy in Spain who had worked for years in Redding . When he retired to his village in Spain, he was definitely thought of as a big shot..

    I am surprised the menu is still in portuguese at the casino. How was the cod cooked?

  2. Avatar Bruce Greenberg says:

    Outstanding.

    Thank you for taking us on this journey through time and sharing a bit of the history of this place we call home.

  3. Avatar Marda says:

    Lincoln, you didn't tell me you were doing this! Now can we go to Mariposa County and research my Leong ancestors. Another time. Keep writing.

  4. Avatar Brian says:

    Ahhh…dried cod fish. I must say, your article has taken me back in time quite a few years, beginning shortly after my wedding. I will say I never made to the casino but truly enjoyed the time my wife and I spent in Hong Kong.

    Thanks again!

  5. Lincoln, nice article about history and China. Chinese culture has always been very interesting! Keep on writing!

    P.S. May I leave a shameless plug? Houston Gun Safes

  6. Avatar tina says:

    RE "It's taken Mei-lang and me weeks of sleuthing and nearly 7,000 miles of travel to track down this crumbling shell of a house, way on the other side of the world from Weaverville, in the Taishan district of Canton."

    after reading this you can tell it was all worth it thank you

  7. Fantastic article that really pours life and color into past China. This kind of a "real life" glimpse into the past and especially China gives a history buff like myself goosebumps. I 've bookmarked this page and hope you write more such articles.

    Thanks very much,

    Karla

  8. This article does not only focus on winning the competition but more like developing a much heavier responsibility which is to accept everything even defeat.

  9. Avatar Adrian says:

    This series is one of my favourites. Thank you for the share

  10. Avatar Eric says:

    Nice article about China. I was fascinated about China since my wife went there to buy clothes for her business. This shows the responsability on competition that Chinese people have.