This month, the International Examiner published Ron Chew’s memoir, My Unforgotten Seattle. It is available to purchase here. If purchased through the IE, all proceeds will go toward supporting the IE. See details about upcoming readings after the article.
Chapter 68 of My Unforgotten Seattle
By Ron Chew
In high school, I was told that the Chinese who came to America were from Canton, the southernmost province of China. I assumed I was Cantonese. But when I heard true Cantonese people talk, I couldn’t understand them.
My language was slower, more guttural and much louder— spoken in a shout. Were we really Cantonese? If not, where did we come from? I knew that we weren’t northern Chinese. They spoke Mandarin. That sounded even stranger.
My mother explained that I was a Hoy san nghin, a person from Hoisan. We spoke Hoy san wah or Hoisanese, not Cantonese.
She told me that we were from the four-county Sze Yip region in the Pearl River Delta in Kwangtung Province. The four counties are Hoisan, Yanping, Hoiping and Sanwui.
My mother added that I was a hoo ji how —an “earth paper head,” an American-born person with a U.S. birth certificate. I wasn’t a hong san doy, a kid from China. Hong San is what she and people from Hoisan called China. “Doy” was the word for boy.
During my childhood, my mother played a question-and-answer game to help me remember my Chinese roots. She supplied both questions and answers in a rhythmic, quick-paced Chinese call-and-response. My job was simply to listen. Over time, I was expected to provide the answers.
What is your surname?
My surname is Chew.
What is the name of your father’s village?
Fow Seck Village.
What is your Chinese name?
What is your older brother’s name?
What is your younger brother’s name?
What is your sister’s name?
What is your father’s name?
What is your mother’s name?
Wee Gam Har.
What is the name of my village?
Ai Gong Village.
I woke up from afternoon naps on the living room sofa in our Beacon Hill home listening to my mother repeat this same Q&A. Over time, it sounded like a Chinese nursery rhyme. At first, I found it amusing. I played along, hardly conscious of what I was saying. But it stayed with me.
During my unruly adolescent years—when I began arguing loudly with my parents in English, often cursing at them—I feared that my mother would make good on her threats to bring all of us—my sister, brothers and me—to China. She said she could never accept living in a country in which children could shamelessly defy their elders. She added that we wouldn’t survive more than a week in China because of our attitude and our inability to speak Chinese. “If you don’t want to come with me,” she added tearfully, “you can stay here. But don’t ever call me your mother again.”
These stormy episodes subsided as we grew up and each of us moved out to live on our own. My mother made peace with her Americanized children. Seattle became her home, even though she never shed her bittersweet longing for China. Broken English became her barely-mastered second language.
For me, the United States was my full world. As I matured beyond my parents’ dominion, fluent English became my celebratory prize. My Chinese eroded. I didn’t care to learn more about—much less travel to—Hoisan, a faraway land that existed only in the stories of my parents, especially my mother. I wanted to blend in and be accepted by others where I was.
But now that my father and mother were both gone, I yearned to see their first home. I wanted to unravel the mystery of who they were. I discovered that it wasn’t enough just to know my Seattle origins or even to have lived in Chinatown in the shadow of my grandfather. I had to go to Hoisan.
Like me, my children uncritically embraced their American identity. But I didn’t want them to someday wake up like me and find a key part of their history mired in mystery. Their mother agreed.
In December 2006, Loan took Cian and Kino to Vietnam with her extended family. The trip included stops in Hanoi, their grandmother’s village in Yên Bái, Nha Trang (a small coastal town where Loan was born) and Saigon, which teems with over 12 million inhabitants.
In 2008, my sister Linda proposed a trip to China. My brothers Tom and Harvey didn’t have time. They said no. I said yes. I wanted to see our father’s village and to bring Cian and Kino. Linda wanted to attend the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. She also wanted to visit other parts of China. On three separate trips, she had adopted infant girls from orphanages. Noel came from Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province. Her younger sister Emma came from Changzhou, also in Jiangsu. The youngest, Kia, came from Luoyang in Henan Province. Now that they were older, she wanted to take them and their older brother Orion to see the orphanages and their country of origin.
I contacted our Seattle cousin, Sen Poy Chew, to see if he might help set up a visit to Fow Seck. He wrote to a 73-year-old childhood friend, Sen Nguk Chew, still living in the village. Sen Nguk Chew agreed to take us to our ancestral house and a cemetery where many Chew relatives were buried.
Working with a travel agent, Linda pieced together a packed itinerary for our nine-member group: the two of us, her four kids (Orion, Noel, Emma and Kia), her good friend Judy, and my two kids (Cian and Kino). We had three different interpreters for various legs of the journey.
In just 21 days, we managed to visit 11 cities and towns in seven provinces. It was the kind of vacation that only Linda— the most efficient and fast-paced person I know—would even dare to attempt. By the time we settled into one hotel, it was time to pack up, get on a plane or train and speed somewhere else. I realized that there was little point in unpacking more than a few toiletries at each stop. After we got back home, I spent two weeks trying to take another vacation to recover from the vacation.
The three orphanages we visited were Changzhou Children’s Welfare Institute, Yangzhou Welfare Institute and Luoyang Children’s Welfare Institute. It was moving to watch each of my nieces read heartfelt thank-you letters, composed beforehand, to the respective directors and staff who cared for them as infants. We examined the spare living spaces they had occupied as orphans and met other abandoned infants.
In between the far-flung orphanages, we made many other stops. We visited the 1,400-year old Buddhist temple of the Six Banyan Trees in Guangzhou. In Guilin, we took a cruise on the Li River and marveled at the majestic peaks in the distance. We saw the Temple of the Soul’s Retreat with its rows of huge religious statues. We explored the famous Ling Yin Temple. We stayed at a lavish hotel filled with European boutiques and spent an evening watching The Goonies on HBO while the rain came down in torrents outside. We toured a comb-making factory and jade factory. We explored the 100,000 Buddhist figures that make up Dragon Gate Grottoes in Henan Province. We ordered two buckets of KFC chicken and four orders of french fries in Changzhou, then worked out with weights and on a treadmill at the fitness center in our hotel. We breathlessly climbed a towering section of the Great Wall in Beijing.
About a week into the trip, I realized that we hadn’t visited a single museum. It didn’t feel right. As the tour bus left the hotel, I turned to our tour guide and interpreter Wendy and asked, “Can we visit some museums today?” Wendy seemed perplexed. She huddled with the driver. The two spoke for nearly five minutes over the din of the kids in the rear of the bus. Wendy came back over and asked, “Why would you want to visit a museum?”
I paused. I didn’t know what to say. Wendy did not know what I had done for a living. But why would that matter? Wouldn’t a museum or two be part of any itinerary like ours?
I awkwardly answered, “Uh, I used to work for a museum in the United States.” Wendy persisted, “But wouldn’t you rather visit more of these interesting sites like the temples and the historic places?” I didn’t know what else to say. She conferred again with the driver, then said: “The driver says there aren’t any museums around here. We would have to drive far to find one, but we can if you like. How about later in the trip?”
The following week, we made our way to three museums: the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, the China Block Printing Museum and Yangzhou Museum. They provided a badly needed dose of air conditioning for our kids, who were withering in 100-degree temperatures. It was striking how sparse the crowds were. There were a handful of foreign tourists. The exhibitions were dull compared to the outdoor wonders. Wendy was right.
As we approached the Yangzhou Museum—a huge modern building—we couldn’t figure out where to enter. The parking lot outside the towering block structure was nearly empty. There were no visitors to follow. We walked around the building, trying doors until we found one that opened.
There was no shortage of tourists when we arrived in Xi’an to see the ancient terracotta warriors. The site was wildly popular. I suddenly developed a splitting headache. I told the others to go ahead without me. I passed the time in a nearby café. Kino stayed to keep me company.
We concluded our journey in Beijing. The capital city had been completely made over for the Olympics. Over a million cars were removed from the streets and hundreds of factories closed. Everything was remarkably tidy and efficient. The air was clearer than usual. We watched a soccer match in a spectacular new stadium.
I was overwhelmed by the entire trip. It was too much to absorb in a short amount of time. Now, over a decade later, I can’t recall much about the soccer game or even certain cities we visited.
But I’ll never forget our brief foray into my father’s village of Fow Seck at the beginning of the trip. It changed me forever. We first stayed at the White Swan Hotel, a luxury hotel in Guangzhou overlooking the Pearl River. From there, we traveled by van to a smoky hotel in Kaiping, the most convenient point for an overnight stopover before venturing into the village.
Our air-conditioned tour van took us into Hoisan. It was a long and tedious drive through the countryside along rural lanes to reach Fow Seck. Outside, the temperature climbed to a muggy, nearly unbearable 110 degrees. We passed shimmering rice fields filled with little green sprouts, water buffaloes, rows of trees, bamboo groves, lotus fields and noisy geese. There were few other vehicles on the road. I didn’t see any working-age adults, just elderly people and young kids. Wage-earners had forsaken the land for factory jobs in overcrowded cities.
I wasn’t accustomed to being surrounded by soil, greenery and quiet. My breathing slowed. My anticipation rose.
We first found our way to the home of Sen Nguk Chew and his wife. They waited at their front door. Sen Nguk approached first, greeting us with a smile and handshakes. He was a slender man with graying hair and a slight hunch. He blinked into the scorching sun through a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. He was dressed in a thin white polo shirt, black trousers and plastic sandals. His wife, who greeted us next, had similar salt-and-pepper hair. It was parted in the middle so that her hair draped over her ears like a helmet. She was stocky and more animated and expressive than her husband. She wore a white, patterned blouse. She had black trousers and plastic sandals like her husband.
We immediately discovered that our interpreter didn’t speak or understand Hoisanese. Everyone turned to me. My rudimentary Chinese turned out to be a lifesaver as we made introductions and discussed the day ahead.
Sen Nguk told us that he had worked as an accountant but had been retired for over 10 years. Their three sons were also accountants. He took us on a brief tour of their modest two-story house, which looked eerily similar to my parents’ house in Seattle. The kitchen tables were cluttered with food stuffs, cans, jars and empty platters. The floors were lined with boxes, baskets and odds and ends. Chinese calendars and pho- tos of relatives were pinned randomly on the walls. Sen Nguk said that he and his wife sometimes cared for a granddaughter but that it was usually just the two of them in the house.
After the tour, they joined us in the van as we continued to my father’s ancestral home.
We drove for a while before passing through the gates marking the entrance to Fow Seck. We slowed as we made our way along narrow lanes past ancient brick structures. As we neared our final destination, our driver misjudged the width of our vehicle. Despite our entreaties, he tried to navigate through the tiny alley between two buildings. The van got stuck halfway through. We were wedged in, a huge rock scraping paint from the right side of the vehicle. After he backed out, we decided to walk the rest of the way.
I now understood how our Chinatown alleys—Canton Alley and Maynard Alley—came into being. They were modeled after the tight village access lanes that opened into resident living quarters. Western depictions of Chinatown alleys—as turf for sinister hitmen with long knives and hatchets— flouted these origins.
We stepped inside the open doorway of a small building. A storage basket hung from one corner of the ceiling. I wondered if this was what my mother called a thloong lom or storage basket for leftover food. In the days before refrigeration, my mother had told me, meats and leftover food were cured with salt and hung in these baskets. It made sense why we ate dried, salted and cured meats at mealtime with bountiful portions of plain steamed white rice. For poor people, this was a good meal. This was how my parents ate.
Our eyes were immediately drawn to one wall which held the family altar, framed by two wooden panels carved with Chinese characters. The altar was decorated with faded photographs, plastic flowers and sticks of incense. The photographs were Polaroid snapshots of my parents, Tom, Linda, Harvey and me growing up. They must have accompanied the letters that my parents dutifully sent back to China.
It was an especially poignant and nostalgic moment for Linda and me to have traveled thousands of miles to discover pictures of ourselves occupying a wall set aside for memory and worship.
An old woman—we called her Ha Gu or Auntie Ha— said the altar room used to be the living room. One room in the back was where Number One Uncle, Kin Hong, and his wife lived. A side room was where Number Two Uncle, Hung Hong, and his wife lived. Our mother stayed in a small house across a narrow lane, next to an outdoor kitchen, which had deteriorated into brick rubble.
Was this the primitive kitchen that my mother once described to me? My mother told me that after she got married, she was disheartened to see that her bedroom was a tiny section of a room below the dining area. “What a humiliating fate for the daughter of a village chieftain (heung jeung)!” she lamented. She was especially proud of her father’s eminent status.
The villagers led us through the ritual of paying respects to our ancestors. We each filled a little red cup with alcohol, clasped our hands together, bowed three times and poured the wine onto the rough-hewn tile floor near an old water pump.
Ha Gu asked me how our mother—“Fourth Auntie”—was doing. I told her my mother had passed away three years earlier. She held my gaze, nodded, then offered her condolences. Her expression hardly changed. She probably knew. The letters and remittances from America had ceased. Our return to this ancestral place restored the union between two separate Chew homelands, but only for this brief moment.
After the ceremony, our party from Seattle reboarded the bus and took a short drive to Yeung-hang-san, Fow Seck’s northeast cemetery. The unmarked cemetery was hidden behind several rows of trees and brush. Arriving at a clearing, we spotted a cluster of Chew headstones. This was where my grandfather’s two wives, Woo and Eng, were buried. The villagers arrived separately, bringing food from the ancestral house. We bowed and poured alcohol onto the ground in front of each grave marker. Incense was lit. A large tarp was laid over the ground and a roasted pig was chopped into small pieces with several cleavers. Flies swarmed over the meat, eliciting a few queasy groans from two of Linda’s girls. The kids ate heartily despite their initial qualms.
In the smothering heat, I felt strangely at peace in this forested final resting place. The trees provided partial relief from the blazing sun. I sensed the presence of ancestral spirits. I shivered, despite the inferno. I wondered if the spirits of my father, mother, grandfather and uncles accompanied me on this journey home.
One of the older female villagers approached me. “You speak Chinese like someone from our village. You are from America. How did you learn?” I told her that my mother taught me and that I worked in a restaurant in Chinatown when I was younger. She added, “I can tell you’re from Fow Seck because of the shape of your nose—it’s tall—and by the shape of your jaw. You’re definitely from Fow Seck.” I, too, had noticed similarities in appearance and gait between my father, Linda, myself and some villagers. I marveled at the durability of genetic traits.
I asked the woman whether she knew about the famous Sunning Railroad and Chin Gee-Hee, the early Seattle pioneer who launched the project.
Surprised, she asked, “How do you know about him? This was a long time ago.”
I told her that I had been director of a history museum in an old building built by Hoisanese immigrants and that some of Chin Gee-Hee’s descendants lived in Seattle. I asked if any traces of Chin’s railroad remained.
She said that when she was a young girl, she was told that the railroad was destroyed by the Japanese. If we had time, she said, she could take us to an area the railroad used to pass through. “It’s not far,” she said, pointing into the distance. She added that Japanese soldiers invaded the village, forcing residents to retreat to the mountains to hide.
I thanked her but declined. We had to leave soon. “I hope to return to Fow Seck someday to learn more history,” I said. She frowned. “I’m 63,” she said. “By the time you come back, I may not be here to help you.”
We finished our meal and hurried back into the van. We felt the refreshing blast of the air conditioner, which had been running while we were paying our respects at the cemetery. But as soon as we tried to take off, the engine sputtered, then died. It got hot very quickly inside the bus. The villagers, most of whom were older and skinnier than us, lined up behind the vehicle, pushing to get the engine restarted. Linda and I joined them. The kids—city-bred and softened by the easy life in America—stayed on the bus, afraid to face the heat again. With the help of our village clan, we were soon on our way.
After we returned home from China, I kept in touch by email with a young school teacher I met at Fow Seck Elementary School and a college student who approached us in Guangzhou. Both spoke rudimentary English. For several years, they patiently responded to my continuing questions about China. I told them I was an avid gardener. They sent snapshots of native plants and blooming flowers. I answered their questions about Seattle and sent pictures of my backyard garden. This correspondence kept my passion alive to one day return to China.
Linda has talked often about another trip; Tom, too. But in 2017, Sen Nguk passed away. Next time, we’ll have to rely on others to take us into the village. I hope my father’s old home will still be standing.
Ron Chew will be hosting readings at a number of online venues in the upcoming months:
10/1 at 7:00 at Town Hall with Naomi Ishisaka. Event link: https://townhallseattle.org/event/ronald-chew-with-naomi-ishisaka-livestream/
10/13 at 7:00 at Folio with Carey Gelernter. Event link: https://www.folioseattle.org/event-details/my-unforgotten-seattle-by-ron-chew
10/14 at 1:00 PM on Zoom through Bellevue College
10/24, time TBD, at Lit Crawl Seattle with UWP translators Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (Author of One Left). No event link yet.
11/12, time TBD, at International Examiner’s Community Voice Awards. Event link: https://iexaminer.org/community-voice-awards/
11/17 at 6:00 at Seattle Public Library. No event link yet.
11/21 at 2:00 at Wing Luke’s Book-O-Rama series. No event link yet.