Thursday, 31 May 2012

The other side of me

SOMETIMES something will occur in a person's life that will define them and delineate a place for them on the atlas of history.
There is a story in my family from my paternal grandmother's side that my great great grandmother fled China during some revolution or other and boarded a boat to British Guiana as Guyana was then called.
In the pandemonium of fleeing refugees on the wharf, she allegedly lost a son and the boat slipped from the harbour without him.
This was only a family story and has never been corroborated and, as the generations passed, the story probably changed, leaving only a residue of truth ... a Chinese whisper in this case.
Having a nose through the internet a few days ago, I found her: my great great grandmother who they called Loo Shee (or Lo She) or, as she was known after her marriage to my great great grandfather, Rebecca Lee-A-Tak.
Loo Shee was  apparently from a wealthy Manchurian family and lived in the Guangdong province in Southern China (probably in Canton, now Guanzhou) in the mid-1800s during the Qing Dynasty.
This was a time of civil unrest, where the Opium Wars had devastated the country, feudalism caused starvation and imperial corruption was rife.
It was also known as the Golden Age of Chinese culture, fed by Confucianism, where centuries of war and repression led to egalitarian ideologies and eventually an end to the age of empires.
It took a peasant Hong Xiuquan, claiming to be the brother of Jesus Christ, to awaken the sleeping dragon of courage in the hearts of the peasant population, and the Tai Ping revolution was born.
Tai Ping ideologies had one goal: to rid themselves of the ruling powers by annihilating them, burning their homes and redistributing the spoils to the poor. The armies of the Kingdom of Heaven rose and declared war on the emperor.
This was one of the bloodiest and most brutal internal conflicts in history. During 14 years of violence, the rebellion claimed the lives of 20 million people.
But, fortunately, not that of my great great grandmother.
The family story says that, because her feet were bound, she had to be carried onto the boat. Whatever method she used to get on the ship, she boarded The Chapman on 27 February 1861 to British Guiana, on 9 June of that year.
During the voyage she married a man called U-A-Ho.
After his death, great great granny married another refugee called Lee-A-Tak and the rest they say, to quote an old cliché, is history.
What a tale and even more poignant is that this is part of my story: a chapter that had not been read until now.
There's a piece about her here. The picture above shows her at the grand old age of 80 (note trappings of Western civilisation!) and I think she is magnificent. Look at her beautiful tiny feet.
Loo Shee's life in Guyana is probably well-documented. I know, for example, that her descendants were some of the most influential and successful people in the country and many of them are my aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews scattered across the Americas and various parts of the globe.
It is doubtful, however, that I will ever know whether Lee Shoo left a son on the wharf. I would hate to think that she was forced to endure such pain but guess that she probably had already been through quite a lot before her first step onto the Chapman.
Most of the records were possibly burned during Tai Ping and the ones that survived, if any, were probably destroyed alongside the 16 to 45 million people by Chairman Mao and his Revolutionary Army in the Great Leap Forward.
I intend to find out as much as I can of Loo Shee and get properly acquainted with my long lost relation that I already feel close to.
But was she a gentle, kind woman or a hard-nosed inscrutable alpha female? Did she nag? Did her feet remain bound? Was she happy?
I will keep a space in my imagination to tell the remainder of Loo Shee's story and a place in my heart for the rest.