Four generations and a century later, a descendant of Chinese immigrants traces his path back to the rural village where his great-grandfather was born. Compared to navigating family stories and traditions, getting around in China may have been the easy part.
“So what were your parents’ Chinese names, Uncle Fred?” I ask into the phone.
“Oh, I can’t tell you,” he replies. Even with his gentle tone, I get the sense that this should be obvious. “To do so would be highly disrespectful. I always called them ba-ba and ma-ma.”
There’s an awkward pause as I grapple with this, trying to reconcile my desire to know with my need to show respect not only for my uncle, but for our family and these customs.
“Okay. Well, could you tell me where in China our family is from?”
Again, his answers are short, declarative. On a need-to-know basis.
“Great, great. I think my dad mentioned that,” I respond finally. “Could you tell me where in Toisan? Like, what village? Or area?”
“Oh, they were from a village so small it’s not even worth mentioning.”
And that is as far as I could get. In 2005, I had given my Great-Uncle Fred a call hoping to find out more about the history of our Chinese family. Long venerated within the Gong family as an art prodigy, a World War II hero and caretaker of my great-grandmother, Fred Gong Jr. is the oldest living member of our family. He now lives in an assisted-care home in Southern California but had for many years taught English to newcomers from Guangdong in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.
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When I first began asking questions about my Chinese ancestry, I was fortunate enough that my father was able to provide some of the basic answers – his grandfather had immigrated from Guangdong to Ensenada, Mexico, near the turn of the century; his father, my grandfather, was born in Ensenada but was raised in Portland, Oregon’s Chinatown; our family was almost deported under the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1941 but was eventually saved by a Jewish lawyer who argued that the Gong’s were technically Mexican nationals and, therefore, legal aliens under the Bracero program.
Nearly a hundred years ago, my great-grandfather left rural China for the United States. Toisan, a district of Guangdong province, is also known as the home of the overseas Chinese. By the turn of the 20th century, Southern China had been through decades of famine, plague and conflict, propelling hundreds of thousands of Chinese across the globe. First landing in Baja Mexico, he eventually made his way to Oregon with my great-grandmother and grandfather in tow. Settling in Oregon, the Gong family regrew its roots in the concrete of Portland, San Bernardino and the Bay Area.
Since he left China, none of our immediate family had ever returned to his village, our village. Growing up in Oakland, I knew a very basic outline of our immigration: We had retained Chinese names and recipes, but the specifics of where and why were educated guesses at best.
Last summer, I had the chance to return to our village in China with the help of a Bay Area organization that helps reconnect those of Cantonese extraction with their ancestral villages. Roots: Him Mark Lai Family Project helped me trace our family’s history from the Chinatowns of America back to the rural village in Southern China where our family originates. After pinpointing our exact village (no easy task given the century time-lapse since any American Gong had contacted the village), I traveled with a number of other Chinese-Americans (including my dad) eager to trace their family origins.
I was unprepared for what I would discover and see. My understanding of Chinese-America has been predominantly an urban one, which is to say that Chinatown and being Chinese was synonymous in mind. Dim Sum restaurants, double parking, stores crammed with goods: If not this, what did Chinese do?
I found out. The China my great-grandfather left was and still is a rural one. Traveling to a part of China rarely seen because it’s hard to reach, I was astonished by the beauty of the land, the centuries of tradition embedded into daily life. Most of all, I was taken in by the incredible warmth and hospitality of its people.
I hope the pictures tell the rest of the story.