I DON’T SPEAK PUTONGHUA or Cantonese and know little about China’s past – or present. Yet I – a British-born, American-raised, twentysomething of Chinese and Afro-Jamaican ancestry – travelled to China recently to better understand my complicated family history.
Along with me on the trip were my sister, Tao Leigh Goffe, a university lecturer in the United States who is an expert on the Afro-Asian experience in the Americas, and my mother, Judith Hugh-Goffe, a paediatrician who was worried that because we were not “full Chinese” we would not be accepted.
This is how it has always been for people like us – “half Chinese” or black Chinese – in Jamaica, where my mother grew up. Those who are “full Chinese” are proud that they have no black in them and proud that they have a command of Cantonese and Hakka – and proud, too, that they are able to recount their family history, perhaps going back 1,000 years.
According to my mother, her maternal grandfather, Chong Quee, who migrated from Baoan, in Shenzhen, to Jamaica in the early 1900s, often used the derogatory term hak gwai (“black ghost”) to describe black people on the Caribbean island and even to, sometimes, scold his mixed-race daughters, Almira (Judith’s mother) and Curveza.
And, it is not just those who are full Chinese who have been insulting towards those who are half caste. British author Ian Fleming, who built a home – Goldeneye – in Jamaica and wrote several James Bond novels while living on the island in the 1950s and ’60s, came up with a disparaging term all of his own.
“You can see the result all over Kingston – Chigroes – Chinese Negroes and Negresses,” Fleming wrote in the novel Dr No. “The Chigroes are a tough, forgotten race. They look down on the Negroes and the Chinese look down on them.”
Once in China, we did all the usual things tourists do. In Beijing, we wandered around the Forbidden City and woke before daybreak to see the national flag raised along with the sun over Tiananmen Square. We walked along the Great Wall, at Mutianyu.
We’d hoped to visit the village in Shenzhen that Chong returned to in 1985, after a lifetime in Jamaica, one of the few who migrated to what was then the British West Indies in the early 20th century to ever make it back home. The 90-year-old died shortly after he returned, although it took us a long time to find that out because the crafty relatives looking after Papa, as the family called him, continued to cash the cheques we sent for his care long after he had gone.
Instead of searching for Papa’s grave in Shenzhen, though, we decided to head for Hong Kong’s New Territories, to see what we could find out about my late maternal grandfather, Edwin Hugh, who had been born in Jamaica but raised in Fanling, in a house on Fan Leng Lau Road.
Family lore has it that the house was built in the 1800s, before the arrival of the British, and was bought by my mother’s paternal grandfather, Hugh Yee Fatt, and his brothers, Hugh Gyen Fatt and Hugh Yuk Biao, in the 1920s, several years after the clan had left their village in Baoan to settle in Fanling. In 1914, Yee Fatt, aged 25, had travelled to Jamaica, hoping to get rich.
Chinese men had been voyaging to the Caribbean for years, first as indentured agricultural labourers, to work on plantations, and later to become merchants and shopkeepers, as Yee Fatt did. In Jamaica, he set himself up in one business after another, selling everything from fizzy drinks and liquor to clothing and food. Business after business failed, so he decided to return to China in December 1923, according to manifests available on ancestry.com, and buy goods to take back and sell in Jamaica. It was on that return trip that he and his brothers bought the Fanling house.
Yee Fatt returned to Jamaica, sailing with dozens of other Chinese men hoping to strike it rich. But Jamaica was becoming hostile towards the Chinese and their growing domination of the island’s retail sector. In 1925, a bill calling for all Chinese to be expelled was introduced to the Jamaican parliament. The measure didn’t pass.
Despite the growing bitterness, Yee Fatt remained in Jamaica, working in retail for the rest of his life, returning only a few times to Hong Kong over the years, and to the house he was so proud of in Fanling.
MY MOTHER, SISTER AND I have seen photos of the house. Arriving at Fan Leng Lau Road, we meet the village chief, Pang Kwok-hung, whose family, prior to 1923, owned the house we have come to view. With us is Geoffrey Hang, a friend of a friend and a Hong Kong local who is acting as interpreter. As we approach, we spot the house tucked away behind several modern apartment buildings, inside a walled compound.
As we draw nearer, Hang tells us our family name, Hugh, or Yau, is written above the door. Thrilled, we begin furiously photographing everything in sight.
A middle-aged man in a white T-shirt, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, emerges from the house. He seems as pleased, and as puzzled, to see us as we are to see him. But he doesn’t speak English.
With Hang translating, we discover that this man, Yau Tang-kwong, and my mother are first cousins, offspring of half-brothers Edwin Hugh and Ashley Hugh, the sons of Yee Fatt.
“These,” Hang says to Yau, in English, for our benefit, “are your cousins from America.”
Smiles and handshakes lead to an invitation to enter the house. Inside, we meet Yau’s 21-year-old son, Hing-lung, and study family photos, among which are some we know very well. It is strange to see the same pictures – including one we call “The Three Brothers”, a 1910 picture of a trio of young men, seated in their best suits, eager to make their mark in the world – that hang on our walls in New York, hanging here, in Fanling.
Next, we are shown a special room with a family altar, a kind of extended mantelpiece with photographs on it. To our surprise, there is a photo, a small one, of my mother’s father, Edwin, among pictures of a host of other deceased relatives. Never convinced he would be truly accepted by his fully Chinese relatives, Edwin, who died in 2003, in Florida, would have been happy he’d been recognised in this way.
As we take it all in, Hang becomes involved in an animated conversation with Yau.
“I was just assuring him that you were just tourists in search of your roots,” Hang explains, “not family looking for a fortune, coming here to claim ownership of the ancestral house.”
I don’t blame our cousin for worrying. It’s clear the house, which occupies prime real estate and was bought for a mere HK$1,000, according to Pang, would fetch a pretty penny if ever it went on the market.
“You cannot sell it to anyone but the government,” claims Yau, hastily, seemingly proud of the piece of Hong Kong history he calls home. “Not easy to find this kind of building in Hong Kong.”
Having reassured our hosts that we are not gold diggers, my mother points to a photo on her smartphone.
“This is my father,” she says.
“Oh, Wheelam, your father!” says Yau, clearly recognising the man on the screen. This brings a broad smile to my mother’s face. Both she and Yau realise their shared history is a close one, connected by their fathers, Edwin and Ashley.
We knew from Edwin that Ashley had, like his half-brother, an Afro-Jamaican mother (despite her surname being Dawkins) and that, as young boys, both were sent to Hong Kong to be raised. The six-year-old Ashley and seven-year-old Edwin were dispatched from Kingston, the Jamaican capital, on the SS Maron, in December 1934.
Ashley stayed, living much of the time in the house in Fanling with his wife and children, but Edwin returned to Jamaica in the ’50s, where he found work as a driver. In the ’70s, he, his wife and their children migrated to the US. His wife, Almira, who was also half Chinese, worked as a nanny and domestic helper, Edwin pressed buttons as an elevator operator.
Edwin was taciturn and never talked much about his time in Hong Kong or what life was like there for an Afro-Asian boy. No doubt he and his half brother were teased, taunted and had to endure being called hak gwai.
Another Chinese-Afro Jamaican boy sent to Hong Kong to connect with his roots had a terrible time. In a 2013 short film about his life, titled Half: The Story of a Chinese Jamaican Son, Vincent Lee reveals that although he was told he was being sent away at the age of five to be educated in Hakka culture, what he actually ended up doing was working as a servant for family members who questioned whether he was Chinese at all.
It must have been similar for Edwin and Ashley and the hundreds of other half-Chinese children sent to Asia from Jamaica. I want to tell Yau that Edwin and Ashley went through a lot and had much in common, including their Afro-Jamaican heritage, but this appears to be a sensitive subject. He seems to want to believe his Jamaican-born father was fully Chinese, even though Ashley’s photo leaves little doubt African blood flowed through his veins.
It’s my guess that while he was happy to receive his black-Chinese cousins from abroad, news that he himself might be partly black would not be quite so welcome. Perhaps that’s not surprising; it’s likely Ashley would have done everything he could to downplay that side of his life.
Edwin certainly did. His mother, Irene, was never spoken of and no photos of her were displayed in the family home. Pictures of Chinese relatives, by contrast, covered the walls. Indeed, my mother knew that when she displayed a large photo of her Afro-Jamaican maternal grandmother, Evelyn, it would be seen as an act of provocation.
And so it was. Harsh words were spoken and the photo was quickly removed from the walls, never to be seen again.
A number of books on the Chinese Caribbean experience, all written by half-Chinese writers, have recently been published, including Kerry Young’s novel Pao; Hannah Lowe’s volume of poems, Chick; and Easton Lee’s Encounters: Poems from a Jamaican-Chinese Experience.
So, what would Edwin, or to give him his Chinese name, Yau Wheelam, make of the genealogical journey taken by his daughter, Judith, and granddaughters, Gaia and Tao, to China in hopes of understanding how they fit into the Chinese experience?
I’d like to believe he would quote the Chinese proverb, “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.”
Gaia and Judith Goffe are the authors of Between Two Worlds: The Story of Black British Scientist Alan Goffe, a late cousin of Gaia’s.