Sunday, January 26, 2003

‘The Road Home:

Excerpts from a
Chinese-American Childhood’

O Pioneers!

By Lara Mui Cowell

This excerpt is from a chapter of "Chinese Women Pioneers in Hawaii" written by Lara Mui Cowell. Tai Po refers to her great-grandmother Lai Cho Hee Luke, Popo is grandmother Jannie Luke Thom, Goong Goong is grandfather Wah Chan Thom, and Mother refers to Lois Mui.

When I was 9, I traced my family tree and discovered something startling. All women preceding the great-grandparent generation are nameless. Their sole identity stems from their roles as wives and daughters -- their husband's and father's surnames plus "shee," an honorific title roughly equivalent to "madam." No record of these women's given names or any traces of their lives remain -- a bitter legacy of my Chinese heritage.

I cannot raise these women from the dead or command them to speak. What is lost cannot be regained. I savor the stories that remain -- my inheritance -- passed from Tai Po to Popo to my mother to me. More than mere genetic residue, they run deep in the blood. ...

An old Luke family photograph (shown on the cover) has fascinated me since childhood. A formal studio print, taken circa 1904, it shows the family, stiffly posed in an oddly cross-cultural mix of Chinese and Western dress. Tai Goong, dressed in robes, has a fan in his hand and looks like a mandarin, as were his forebears. The two boys, Hing Kai and Hing Chun, wear caps and have chrysanthemums in the lapels of their Western suits. Popo, a baby in silk pajamas, sits in a highchair and appears distracted by something in the background. Tai Po wears a silk robe, embroidered with birds, plum blossoms and chrysanthemums, her long elegant fingers folded on her lap. Underneath the hem of her robe, if one looks closely, one can see her tiny bound feet. Popo still has a pair of Tai Po's shoes which she keeps in her camphor chest -- embroidered doll-size shoes, about 3 1/2 inches long. ...

The Chinese characters printed at the bottom of the photo read "The Luke Family's Age of Innocence," an ironic caption for Tai Po, an immigrant, uprooted from her family, who sailed to a land with people and customs that always remained alien to her. I see her as a pioneer, leaving a protected, sheltered life to settle in the "wilderness" of old Hawaii, on the frontier of civilization.

Crippled since childhood by her bound feet, Tai Po had two mui jai, or female indentured servants, who bore her on their backs. Her family sent these women with Tai Po, but shortly after her arrival in Hawaii, Tai Po freed her servants and arranged good marriages for them. Family myth has constructed this release as a symbolic action representing Tai Po's recognition of entering a new, free country and her acceptance of change.


Lara Mui Cowell attended many Chinese society events with her grandmother Jannie Luke Thom and grandfather Wah Chan Thom, a master calligrapher.

I wonder, however, whether Tai Po realized the full implication of releasing her mui jai. By giving her women freedom, opening new doors for them, Tai Po closed opportunities in her own life. One can only imagine the bitterness of giving freedom to others, only to find one's feet are rooted soundly to earth, unable to move. This story has a twist to it. Tai Po's best friend from China had come to Hawaii to marry a young man from a wealthy, respected family. When Tai Po arranged her mui jai's marriage to the patriarch of that family, she surely did not realize that the servant she released would become an abusive mother-in-law who was to torment her more patrician daughter-in-law.

After the freeing of her servants, Tai Po found herself trapped within the confines of the Luke family home. My Goong Goong now adamantly states that it was "criminal" of Tai Goong to take this woman and push her into a life of hardship that she was unprepared for. I think that Tai Po, because of her bound feet, could never share fully in Tai Goong's life or participate in community activities, and this created a tension in their relationship, a sometimes "stormy" marriage, according to my mother. Tai Po had limited interactions with Hawaii and its cultural diversity, and the outside world frightened her. ...

Within her own house, Tai Po's influence pervaded every aspect of their children's lives. She imposed standards for her children's behavior that were more in keeping with the old country than for Hawaii and were out of sync for the time and place. ... Providing the best possible education for her children was primary among her goals for them, and she expected them to assume positions of responsibility and service in the community. Her children apparently fulfilled Tai Po's wishes: two doctors, a microbiologist and four teachers who have also been active in community life.

WHEN MY MOTHER was 3, Tai Po died of peritonitis at 58, following an operation for a tumor. As the first grandchild born in Hawaii, my mother occupied a special position in Tai Goong's and Tai Po's lives and spent a lot of time with them.

A few months before her death, Tai Po was baby-sitting my mother. Carrying the toddler down the back steps, Tai Po slipped and fell. They tumbled to the bottom of the stairs, blood spreading darkly on Mother's yellow dress -- whose blood it was Mother cannot recall. She remembers both of them crying and the voice of my Popo scolding Tai Po for carrying my mother, something she shouldn't have been doing anyway. ...

As a young child, I loved spending time with Popo and Gong Goong at their house on Manoa Road. They spoiled me rotten. ... Once when I was 4, when I had just had a spat with my mother and knew I was in the wrong, I told her I was running away, "to Popo's and Goong Goong's house!" Not in the least ruffled, Mom laughed and said, "Oh, but honey, that's not running away." Truly, their house at Manoa Road was my second home. ...

When we were little, my siblings and I were convinced that practically the whole world knew Popo. No matter where we went -- Chinese society functions, the Academy of Arts, Ala Moana, the beach -- inevitably at least one of her former students would spot her and come up to chat: "Hello, Mrs. Thom! Do you remember me?" ... Then the person would turn to us and say, "You know, your grandma was one of my favorite teachers." ... Even more amazing, Popo always remembered her students -- where she taught them, who was in their class and the year she taught them. ...

Both grandparents have given me a wealth of memories: society dinners -- I was thrilled when I learned enough Cantonese to finally understand those long-winded (!) speeches; picnics, with crayfish hunting and lucky-number drawings; Chinese lantern-making; and nights in Chinatown. Our family celebrations provided a constant rhythm to my Chinese-American childhood. Before Chinese New Year, we'd give the house a thorough cleaning and posted chun tip, red paper strips with good-luck sayings, on the walls and doors.

Goong Goong would be in the kitchen making jai (monk's food) while Popo, me and Mother stacked pyramids of tangerines, oranges and pomelo. I remember our whole family drinking tea and eating tong gwo (candied fruit), each with a particular lucky significance. My pyromaniac Uncle Roland and my brother Eric would set strings of firecrackers popping to usher in the New Year while the rest of us watched timidly from inside. ...

Lara Mui Cowell and her mother Lois Mui continue to carry on the traditions of their ancestors. They're on the Punahou campus, where Cowell teaches.

I have a special role in my family as the grandchild most bound to the past, expected to carry on and convey Chinese traditions to others -- traditionally a masculine duty. In college, I double-majored in Chinese studies and English, a combination of East and West, which might even serve as a symbol of my dual identity.

Growing up in Hawaii provided a nurturing environment in which I could discover my Chinese heritage. Until I went away to college, it had never occurred to me how lucky I am to have the links that I do to my past. Talking with Chinese-American friends who grew up on the mainland, I sense their general feeling of rootlessness. Overall, they've confronted much more difficulty, both in discovering and coming to terms with their Chinese identities. Some feel that much of their history is lost, and while learning about one's past academically fills in some gaps, it cannot retrieve what has been lost. As one friend pointed out to me, it also feels artificial.

Even when one has some fragments, as I do, reconstructing the past from those scraps of family history, shaping them into a cohesive, living whole poses a challenge. Stories alter as they are passed from generation to generation, spun out in endless versions according to the teller. As I write this, I realize it is my particular perspective of family events, yet not written by me alone, but by many voices, their stories interweaving and merging into mine.

Lara Mui Cowell is an English teacher at Punahou.

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