One woman’s story shows just how diverse the Chinese community actually is.
Paula Williams Madison, a retired NBC Universal executive who’s Jamaican-Chinese-American, decided to begin actively looking years ago for ties to her Chinese grandfather, Samuel Lowe. In 2012, her search led her back to Lowe’s home country, where she not only learned about his backstory but also finally connected with her Asian relatives.
The emotional journey is the subject of the 2014 documentary, “Finding Samuel Lowe,” which is currently streaming online for free until June 13 on PBS.org. In it, it’s clear that Madison’s Asian heritage has become a crucial part of her identity.
“It felt like a hole in my heart and my soul has finally been filled,” told CNN of meeting her Chinese family members, who are of the Hakka ethnic group.
Madison, who was raised in Harlem by her Jamaican-Chinese mother Nell, said she often asked about her family’s past but details were scarce. Lowe, a shopkeeper in Kingston, last saw Nell when she was about 3 years old, ABC News reported. He allegedly left Kingston and returned to China, where he died.
Armed with the little information she had on Lowe, Madison chipped away at her heritage on genealogy websites, uncovering more about the grandfather’s immigration to Jamaica and past as a sugar plantation worker, according to Poynter. She ended up with a huge lead after attending a Hakka conference in Toronto, where she met scholar Keith Lowe, another Chinese-Jamaican with her grandfather’s last name. She asked him to help attempt to connect her with her family in China.
Sure enough, the scholar reached out his family and gave Madison some eye-opening news ― his uncle’s father was Lowe, ABC News reported.
Madison made the trip to China later that year and met with her Chinese relatives. Today, she’s close with her Chinese family members and visits the country often. She said she feels comfortable in the country.
“(When I’m there) I’m very happy,” she told CNN. “I don’t feel like a foreigner. I’m feeling very at home.”
While Madison’s story is a rare one, her Jamaican-Chinese background isn’t all that uncommon. Hakka people, who hail mostly from South China, arrived in Jamaica in four main batches beginning around 1854. The Chinese Benevolent Association of Jamaica points out that although most Chinese immigrants who came to the country weren’t “coolies,” or indentured servants, those who arrived early were in fact brought there due to the “coolie” trade. They later established a social infrastructure that allowed for more migrants to follow.
Chinese workers were initially brought to the country to fill a labor gap that opened up when the European slave trade with western and central Africa drew to a close. While these contract laborers were paid, they lived and worked in poor conditions, often similar to what slaves were subjected to.
Several other waves of Chinese immigrants followed, many as workers from other parts of the Caribbean, establishing a chain of migration. And by the late 19th to early 20th century, when they became a significant part of the local retail sector.