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09 May 2020

Chinese Couplets: A daughter's long search for her immigrant mother's past

On Mother's Day, we are pleased to share this story by guest contributor Felicia Lowe.

I didn’t really know my mother.
She spent most of her life hiding who she was.
Lying about where she came from, how she got here.
What secrets were so dark that the truth had to be concealed?

These are the opening lines to my documentary “Chinese Couplets,” which explores the impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943) on four generations of women—my maternal grandmother, my mother, Lettie Kam, my daughter, Alana, and me. The story is shaped by my quest to unravel the mystery surrounding my mother’s origins, the revelation of her illegal immigration to America during the period of Chinese exclusion, and the resulting web of secrecy and shame underlying her assimilation and achievement of the American Dream. The journey takes us from contemporary San Francisco to 1930s rural China, across the world to pre-revolutionary Cuba, post-Mao rural China and again to California, a place on the cusp of its own revolution in multiculturalism.

Felicia Lowe's mother (center) as a baby,
with her mother and older sister.

The research was complicated and messy.  There was not a single source to gather the information I needed to formulate a picture of my mother’s journey to America. For one, she was a “paper daughter,” meaning she had assumed the identity of a child of a citizen, one of the few exempt classes allowed to enter the United States in 1937. For me, the intrigue began when I was three years old and my mom instructed, “If anyone asks where I come from, say Hawaii.”  I knew from my aunt, her older sister, that they were born in China so it was very confusing.

My mother maintained her “born in Hawaii” persona most of her life and refused to offer any explanation as to why her maiden surname was Kam (Kam Sau Quon) while her sister’s last name was Louie.  At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Kam Sau Quon’s files revealed the story of a family with three young children who left Hawaii for China in 1924, then chose to return in 1937 as war was escalating in China. To learn of my mother’s early life, I read my aunt’s immigration transcripts.  She left China in 1931 in an arranged marriage so there was no subterfuge in her interrogation answers.

An ally in my investigation was my daughter, Alana.  She was able to break through her grandmother’s shell of secrecy by interviewing her for a school assignment. Out of it emerged a huge revelation.  My mother did not meet her father until he returned from Cuba when she was 15.  He’d left his pregnant wife and five-year-old daughter to find work there.  Chinese in Cuba?  That was new news to us.

Trips to Cuba and China followed in search of answers.  The most precious was a visit with my mother to Dutou, the village she’d left six decades earlier.  Like the Chinese couplet, a traditional poem consisting of two lines of verse held in contradictory and complementary balance, my family’s cross-generational tale encompasses a series of interlocked pairings: my mother’s secretive relationship to the past and the mother she left behind when she emigrated to America… my own fraught relationship with my mother… and my daughter Alana’s less-burdened curiosity about her Chinese ancestry and the bright hope it offers for healing the immigrant cycle of rupture, abandonment, denial and shame.

The turbulent times in which my mother came of age, the powerful challenges that all immigrants face, and the strength of the women, both my grandmother and mother, define my daughter and me.  It is their gift and our legacy–secrets and all.

Felicia Lowe is an award winning television producer, director, and writer with 40 years of production experience.  Her films “Chinese Couplets,” “Carved in Silence,” “Chinatown,” and “China: Land of My Father” have been broadcast on PBS and are used in classrooms across the country.  She’s long been associated with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation through her films and activism.

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