I am not biologically related to these people, but their family and cookbook connect me to a part of my heritage that I am unable to fully access. Tracing a family tree from the last years of nineteenth century China is not an easy task. Language, documentation and a host of other issues makes it difficult even with today’s technology.
I’ve provided a link to the Leung family’s website. Click on their photo to read about them and their culinary heritage.
I have very few tangible things that connect me to my father’s side of the family. His mother’s family immigrated from Guangdong, China in the late 1890s. His grandfather came first and then his grandmother. The only date I have to begin documenting their life in Hawaii is their marriage in 1894. What I do know seems mysterious and romantic. In fact, they most likely worked long, hard hours and did their best to raise their children. By 1926, my grandmother, her sister and her mother had all died. The two sisters both died from tuberculosis and their mother drowned under mysterious circumstances that was later ruled a suicide.
I wonder about their life. Did they maintain their Chinese language and traditions? How much of the Hawaiian culture crossed over and affected them. What did they eat? Food is such an important part of family heritage. We gather around food and celebrate the connection we have. New people come into our life and those traditions change and new things get added to the family cookbook. What kinds of meals would have been passed along from Nellie to my dad and then to my generation? I suspect that inside the home lived a very traditional Chinese family of the time. I envision them speaking in their native tongue, cooking and eating the food from their home. Outside, in the changing world following WWI, they were business people contributing working long hard hours learning to function in a new society.
I don’t know what kind of work my great grandfather did, but I have found links to their address which was a souvenir shop in the Punchbowl area of Honolulu. I also know that my grandmother worked at this shop. Maybe that is where she met my grandfather?
This is one of a very few cherished pictures of my grandmother. In this one she is sitting on a motor bike on a country road in what looks like a school uniform. She might have been around ten years old, maybe older. I pictured her as having to work in a family business at that age, but it seems she received some education.
I also have pictures of her as an older teenager posing with men. She wrote in a photo album that she showed one of them around Honolulu. I’m not sure exactly what that means and if was a friend or if this was some sort of paid arrangement. I simply have no idea what kind of person Nellie Liu Perkins was and what she would think of who her son became…and of me and my brother. And, since there is no evidence, I get to make her story, our story, whatever I want it to be.
My grandfather was in the Army, stationed at Schofield barracks north of Honolulu. How did they meet? Did they “date” or “court” in anyway? How long did they know each other? What did her parents think of her marrying a “haole” (a slang, and now derogatory term for someone who is not native Hawaiian; generally applied to white or European people)? I think the fact that they were not listed in a newspaper story of the wedding could be a clue. Or, were the two witnesses simply the only ones listed in the article. I will never know.
I often thought she might have been pregnant with my dad and the marriage was forced. I used it as an excuse for my grandfather never talking to his son about his mother. I believed that could have been the reason grandparents were not involved in their grandchild’s life. My father and grandfather lived in Hawaii for thirteen additional years before coming to the mainland. Research on Ancestry proved this theory to be wrong. The date of their marriage was one full year prior to my father’s birth. As an adult, my dad went in search of one of his uncles. I don’t think he every made contact. I don’t know that he every really knew any of his biological family. Such a tragedy for all concerned.
So many questions and no one to ask. My grandfather never talked about Nellie to my dad. Communication was never a strong suit of either man. I asked dad, as my mother had before me and all he said was that he really didn’t know anything about her. Fortunately, before my grandfather died, I asked my him some of the questions. We weren’t close, so this took a great deal of courage on my part. This conversation, which took place approximately sixty years after Nellie’s death, was as difficult for my grandfather as it was for me. At twenty six my grandfather suddenly became a single father to a one year old son. With no family support and in a time where men were not seen as nurtures or care givers, I have a feeling that my dad was on his own for most of his life. Grandpa didn’t have any answers. He said he had forgotten most everything. I was too young to ask the right questions. I asked for information on her family and their life. I should have asked, “What kind of person was she?” “Why did you want to marry her?” “What made her laugh?” “What is one thing you have always remembered about her?” He may not have been willing or able to answer those questions either. I accepted that he locked all of this part of his life away in a box, buried it, and threw away the key. That generation didn’t wallow in emotions. They survived. Life was different. Attitudes towards children were different.
I want to romanticize their relationship and attribute his distant, nearly nonexistent parenting to grief. A more likely answer is that a young man, free wheeling and single one year found himself with a newborn baby and a wife in a tuberculosis hospital the next. Experiences like this change a person. Knowing my dad, and his similarity to his father, I think everyone just dug in to survive. We all have wounds and baggage. Some of those things make us stronger and better; other times they beat us down until there is no tenderness left to share. I think, at that moment in time, that was my grandfather.