“I can always tell when someone’s from that area,” one Hong Kong woman told me. “There’s a certain way they pronounce words, a certain intonation. Sometimes they’ll try to disguise it. The Chinese are just as class conscious as anyone else, maybe more so. The prejudice is similar to the American one about Southern accents, the stereotype of Southerners being uneducated, unsophisticated. So people from the Four Counties Area often have this rural accent and Cantonese speakers from big cities like Hong Kong have a prejudice about it. Of course it’s ridiculous to stereotype people because of an accent. You only have to look at how well those people have done in America, how hard they’ve worked, their success in business and education, to see how ridiculous it is.”
Murray Lee, who didn’t study Chinese (Mandarin) until an adult, has forgotten most of it, but he laughs when I tell him what the Hong Kong woman said. He admits that life was very hard and people were very poor in Toishan, where Yik-Gim Lee, his grandfather, came from. Murray Lee has spent considerable time tracing his family’s genealogy and hunting down the facts of his grandfather’s story. In Grandfather’s Bones, an essay published in the spring 1995 issue of the Chinese Historical Society newsletter, Lee describes his grandfather as a “quiet and humble man, despite his size. He stood over six feet tall and was as strong as an elephant and was nicknamed ‘the Elephant’ by those who worked with him.” In the 1880s, Lee’s grandfather left China to work on a railroad in the Pacific Northwest. According to Grandfather’s Bones, Yik-Gim Lee was at one point captured by a tribe of Pacific Northwest Indians with whom he ultimately lived for two years. The tribe’s chief had lost his son and adopted Yik-Gim Lee, making him a minor chief within the tribe.
“Can you imagine what an adventure that must have been for a poor boy from China?” Lee squints into the late-afternoon blue filling the empty museum. “My mother was Caucasian and the first immigrant to America on her side was named Jonathan Murray, and he came to Connecticut Colony from Scotland in 1685 at age 20. I carry the names of both immigrant ancestors, which is why I have this feeling of duty to research their histories and pass them on to the younger generation.
“Every Chinese family has a story.”
I ask Murray Lee what he thinks it means to be Chinese, if his interest in genealogy weren’t an expression of his Chinese-ness.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he chuckles. He moves across the room and gazes at Ah Quin’s family tree. “A lot of Chinese aren’t interested in genealogy or their ancestors. To me it’s interesting because…” He runs his fingers across the white board. “Because… Because it’s like a puzzle.”
A difficult puzzle, he could have added. Tracing genealogies, extracting family histories, is similar to what any journalist would do when setting out to write a story about San Diego’s Chinese community. You encounter immediate difficulties.
“My parents didn’t talk about the past,” a 28-year-old Shanghai woman told me. A recent immigrant from the mainland, a graduate of a well-known American business school, she could talk at length about economics, about the evolution of the Shanghai stock exchange, but she lacked the barest details about her own family’s past.
“My parents are both members of the Communist Party. I know they must have suffered during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and when they were growing up during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. There was incredible famine after the Great Leap Forward. Everyone starved. But my parents have never talked about those things. I think that’s common of many Chinese parents, wherever they are from. Life for Chinese has always been difficult. In China. For Chinese living in Southeast Asia. There was persecution, political troubles. Parents just never talk about it. They concentrate on the present. Making sure you do well in school. Making sure you have a profession.”
You encounter a lot of language couched in understatement and studied evasion. I remember talking with a young man from Beijing who now designs computer chips for a North County firm. I was asking him about Mao’s calligraphy, which was so idiosyncratic that, while Mao was alive, most mainland Chinese could recognize it on sight. Chinese characters are actually stylized drawings of things — wind, water, a rice field — that represent both ideas and sounds. While the Chinese, depending on which dialect they speak, assign a different sound to an individual character, they all agree on its meaning. In other words, a Mandarin speaker in Beijing can read a letter written by a Cantonese speaker in Hong Kong: Chinese share, at the very least, a written language. While there are universal, concrete rules for how characters must be drawn — you always proceed from the left to the right, the top to the bottom, etc. — there’s leeway for individual expression. Over centuries, Chinese calligraphy evolved into high art, and its masters elaborated their own rules and developed specific styles that are studied and copied by students of Chinese calligraphy across the globe.
I knew a little about this and I was still amazed that Mao’s handwriting could be recognized by so many people. (How many Americans could recognize Bill Clinton’s handwriting? Richard Nixon’s? Abraham Lincoln’s?) I asked the young chip designer why this should be so, and he paused. He had a green card, a good job in Southern California, had no apparent intention of ever returning to live in China, had therefore no reason to fear repercussions for anything he might say, especially in answer to such an innocuous question.
“You could tell by Mao’s handwriting,” the young man answered, “that Mao was someone who didn’t play by the rules.”
Beijing-born artist Li Huai sits in her La Jolla living room, surrounded by Chinese antiques, black-leather couches, a grand piano, framed gouaches she did while an art student in Beijing. I ask her if there are things about her life in China that she finds difficult to talk about. She says: