Feature: Turning the tide -- a Chinese American's endeavor to preserve lost memories

Source: Xinhua| 2018-12-26 16:55:48|Editor: zh
Video PlayerClose

by Xinhua writer Wang Jian

MONTEREY, United States, Dec. 25 (Xinhua) -- In a museum in Monterey, California, Gerry Low-Sabado, dressed in a red traditional Chinese jacket, was telling the story about how her ancestors sailed all the way across the Pacific from China to America.

Back in the 1850s, natural disasters and social turmoil after the Opium War forced some Chinese in the coastal regions to seek living abroad.

Gerry's ancestors boarded a small wooden boat, left their hometown Dongguan in southern China's Guangdong Province, and ended up on the coast of Monterey. They set up camps on the beach and fished for a living.

From then on, hometown became a distant memory. The fishermen lost contact with their Chinese family. Now the tide has turned.

Gerry's son Brandon, who joined a Chinese tech company three years ago, was sent back to China for training.

Brandon traveled to Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces. He told Gerry that the two places both witnessed robust economic growth during the past few decades and boast clusters of hi-tech companies.

"Look, the tide in the ocean is magical. My ancestors traveled to America to better their life, now my son works for a Chinese company and traveled back to China to improve his life!" Gerry said, smiling.


Gerry, now 69, could not speak a word of Chinese, nor did she know anything about China in her early years.

"Beach Boys, Beatles, peace and love, that was what teenage years was about," Gerry recalled.

The first time she noticed her difference from other American teenagers was when she mentioned to her friends how her family observed the Qingming Festival, a traditional Chinese festival also known as tomb-sweeping day which falls in April.

"We would take dishes to the graves. After we served them to our ancestors, we would eat them," she said. "My friends seemed terrified when hearing this."

"I was astonished too, for I thought it was a festival observed by all Americans."

Gerry did not grow interested in her ancestral background until decades later in the 1990s when she paid a visit to Point Lobos, a local natural reserve.

In the Whaler's Cabin museum, a picture on the wall caught her attention. "It was a lady standing before a wooden house. It looks like grandpa's house," she said.

She mentioned it to her mother after getting back home. Her mother said, "That is Quock Mui, your great grandmother."

Gerry then decided to trace her family roots.

After reading history and talking to older relatives, she discovered that Quock Mui was the first documented Chinese girl born in Monterey.

In the book Chinese Gold, historian Sandy Lydon writes that according to oral tradition, seven 30-foot (about 9.1-meter) junk boats left southern China in the 1850s. The black tide, a current that flows directly from China to California on the Pacific, guided the boats towards America.

No one knows what miseries these boats encountered during their long journey. In the end, only two boats made it to the California coast; one of them arrived at Monterey.

Some settled down in the protected cove of Monterey's Point Lobos which resembles the fishing region where they once lived in China. They became an important component of the local fishing industry.

Gerry's parents worked in fish cannery factories. "They worked very hard, and seldom talked," Gerry said, "they would only speak to me in English, though they spoke Chinese with my grandparents."

Gerry decided to uncover the secret behind her parents' silence.

In 1882, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to prevent further immigration from China. The act was put in place for 60 years.

Gerry also learnt that local laws in Monterey were written against the fishing practices of the Chinese in the late 19th century, when fishermen from Portugal and Italy arrived there to compete with the Chinese.

"My grandpa had to get up at 2 a.m. in the morning for fishing, and he would rush back before dawn, because the Portuguese fishermen would cut his net."

In 1906, a suspicious fire burnt the Chinese fishing village to the ground, a significant blow to the Chinese community.

"My grandfather tried to repair his home in the village after the fire, but each day he would return to find his work torn down," Gerry said.

"After all the struggles, they had to move on. Maybe that's why the past became something unspeakable and the elders didn't want to teach their children Chinese," she said, with tears sprouting in her eyes.

"They did not want us to be different."


Four years ago, Gerry paid a visit to her Chinese hometown.

She signed up for a Chinese American root-tracing tour group. Since China's reform and opening up in 1978, the country has been witnessing flows of overseas Chinese traveling back to trace their family's past.

When the bus entered downtown Dongguan, her ancestral home, she was amazed by the glamorous buildings and busy streets, which were very different from the fishing village image depicted by her older relatives.

"Boy, It looks like New York!" she said to herself.

To her disappointment, she did not see the houses her ancestors had lived in, because they had been replaced by modern construction.

"But that's a good thing, my ancestors would be happy if they knew that the hometown they once fled out of poverty was now a very prosperous city," she said.

During the past four decades since the reform and opening up, Dongguan has evolved from a small agricultural town into a world factory floor.

That's just an example of the country's drastic changes over the past 40 years. In 40 years, China lifted 740 million people out of poverty. China's share of global GDP rose from 1.8 percent to 15.2 percent, generating more than 30 percent of global growth for years.

Today's China is like a magnet attracting opportunity seekers across the world.

Statistics show that in Gerry's ancestral home province Guangdong, 320 foreigners have been granted permanent residence since 2016. Among them are entrepreneurs, tech company investors and professors.

Chinese companies are also going global, offering opportunities to talent including Gerry's son Brandon.

Three years ago, Chinese leading tech company Netease set up a North American office in California, to develop online games for Western consumers.

Brandon, with a computer science degree from UCLA, joined the Chinese company and became a quality assurance engineer.

"I support my child to integrate into Chinese enterprise and Chinese culture," she said.

Gerry has also been endeavoring to spread Chinese culture and the history of Chinese fishermen in Monterey. During the past decade, she has been giving speeches in schools, museums and other public facilities in Monterey.

In cooperation with the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, Gerry has been organizing a Walk of Remembrance, an annual event to honor the Chinese fishing village which was burnt down.

Her effort has drawn praise from local people in Monterey. Some Chinese Americans came all the way from New York and San Francisco to join her events.

"The shared memory and the same ancestral ties can bind the Chinese community closer together," she said.

Gerry lives in Fremont, about one and a half hours' drive away from Monterey. She often traveled between the two areas. On the back seat of her car, there is always a red Chinese jacket and a red paper lantern.

Every time before she gives a speech, she puts on the jacket, applies the lipstick and carries the lantern.

"Red is the color of auspiciousness, it's the color of Chinese culture," she said.