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News

Paula Madison talks about history of Hakka in America

Anthony Alvarez

Paula Madison

An discussion with Paula Madison about the Hakka diaspora in the new world.

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Paula Williams Madison and her brothers Elrick and Howard grew up in Harlem, raised by their immigrant single mother Nell Vera Lowe.  Paula and her brothers didn't look like most black people in Harlem. They had no relatives there. There was something different about their facial features. "My mother looked Chinese," Paula says. "I grew up knowing my mother had Chinese ancestry." 

The family story was that Paula's mother was born in Jamaica and that her maternal grandfather's name was Samuel Lowe, a Chinese shopkeeper in Kingston, Jamaica. She hadn't seen her father Samuel Lowe since she was 3 years old. In order to fulfill a promise to their mother to connect to her estranged father's people, Paula and her family embarked on a journey to uncover their ancestral roots.

Finding Samuel Lowe”, Madison’s book and documentary film by the same name captured her search. Her research led her to a Hakka Conference in Toronto, Canada. And as luck had it the co-chair of the conference was Dr. Keith Lowe.

“I said ‘Oh my god you are the only Chinese Jamaican I have ever met. And you have the same last name as my mother,” Madison recalled.

Dr. Lowe had not heard of Madison’s mother but agreed to email his family. He received a reply the following day and shared it with Madison. “My uncle says Samuel Lowe was his father.” The family story was, one day Samuel Lowe left Kingston and went home to China and died. The story, as with many family stories, was not complete.

Paula found out that many Chinese-Jamaicans had come from a group of North Chinese who had been driven from their homes to South China. They were called the "Hakka" and every four years the Hakka descendants held a reunion. Only a couple of months after her search began, she and her brothers hustled to attended one of those reunions in Toronto, where they met with a group of Hakka who pledged to help her find her Chinese family.

Her new Hakka friends told her there were only two villages in South China where you would find the Lowe name. One of those towns was a village called Niu Fu, the other seemed like a natural fit-Lowe Swee Hap, a Chinese city that included the family name. Her Hakka friends began contacting relatives in China and within a matter of weeks, the lines were connected. She found that she was related to a cadre of previously unknown aunts, uncles and cousins living in Shenzhen, China.

In August, now only five months after she began her search, Paula made the trip to China to meet her lost family. She returned to China in December 2012 with her brothers and 16 family members to piece together the lost family stories.

Her Chinese kin greeted her warmly and told stories about Samuel Lowe. The family was surprised to learn that Paula's mother was likely Samuel's oldest daughter and would have held a high place of honor had they known of her.

In Chinese culture, villages sometimes keep family stories. The stories, that go back centuries, are written in a document called Jia Pua.  Paula saw her family's Jia Pua that stretches back three thousand years to 1006 B.C. and there was, of course, no mention of her mother, or of the black Chinese-American family she raised. Not once in three thousand years has the document added footnotes or backdated additions. But Paula Madison insisted on accuracy. "You know I wouldn't rest until that happened," she said. Nell Vera Lowe's name was added to the village history book.

There was a reason Paula Madison had a lifelong gnawing need to know her past. She comes by it naturally. The gates of Paula Madison's ancestral village of Lowe Swee Hap in Shenzhen, China are topped with a sign with three words. "Family, Education, Prosperity."  Note, that the word "family" comes first.

And that is why the second New York Hakka Conference is named "Extending Our Hakka Family."

Because this conference aims to build upon traditional Hakka narratives from the heartland by including innovative ways of telling stories of Hakka family with diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural features gathered from places around the world, particularly that of the Afro/Caribbean and South America.  Having formally acquired the status of “perpetual outsiders,” new generations of Hakkas will seek to gather accounts of positive relationships with native hosts and even explore cooperative “ventures” with former less than friendly “Punti” people.  Thus, the conference will be held directly across the street from Tsung Tsin Association and the Hakka Associations which are outsiders in the predominantly Taishan (Punti) New York Chinatown.  Furthermore, the conference will address current issues and concerns about Hakka studies, with the goal to encourage former English speaking “Hakkaologists” to update their research and continue to contribute to the ongoing global Hakka identity formation.