A Black Woman’s Search for Her Chinese Roots

Paula Madison knew she’d one day reunite with her long-lost grandfather’s family; but she had no idea that tracing her ancestry would steep her in thousands of years of Chinese history. A new documentary chronicles her journey.

Paula Madison with relatives Wei Min Chen and Siqi Luo in Guangzhou, China, in January 2014
Paula Madison with relatives Wei Min Chen and Siqi Luo in Guangzhou, China, in January 2014 Courtesy of Madison Media Management

During their childhood spent in Harlem, retired NBC Universal executive Paula Madison and her two brothers knew they were different. On strolls through their predominantly black neighborhood with their mother, Nell Vera Lowe—who was half Jamaican and half Chinese—their obvious Asian heritage made them magnets for stares and questions about their ethnicity.

Madison remembers her mother as a melancholy woman whose gloominess stemmed from a sense of abandonment that lingered from her childhood in Jamaica. After her own parents split, Lowe’s father—Madison’s grandfather Samuel Lowe—returned in 1933 to his native China with wealth acquired from his successful retail business in Jamaica, unable to have contact with his daughter again.

Eventually immigrating to New York City in 1945 and becoming a single parent to a family of her own, Nell Lowe persistently instilled in her children that family should always come first.

“If family is the No. 1, most important thing, then where’s our family?” Madison, who knew few of her relatives and could sense her mother’s sadness around this absence, remembers asking.

“I don’t know,” Lowe would respond.

That unanswered question led Madison, now 62, on a quest to find her long-lost Chinese relatives; a journey she documents in Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China. Making the film-festival circuit, the documentary made its Canadian debut Saturday at the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto.

It’s an eye-opening story about the relatively unknown, yet long-standing relationship between blacks and Chinese, that touches on separation, identity and the universality of familial love.

Madison, who embarked on her mission after retiring from NBC at the age of 58, recalls, “From my early youth, I have believed that I’ve communicated with my grandfather, who communicated to me that I just need to come and find him.”

Her husband was skeptical. She recalls him saying, “‘You know you’re black?’”

“Of course, I know I’m black. What does that have to do with anything?” she says she responded. Then the light bulb went off, she says—he was bracing her for the possibility of rejection by her Chinese family members.

“I had no expectation that when, not if, I found them that they would reject me because I’m black,” Madison says. “I never considered for a moment that would be a possible outcome.”

Following a lead from her first cousin on her father’s side, who noticed a sizable Chinese-Jamaican community in Toronto, Madison attended an international conference held there every four years by the Hakka, a Chinese minority in southern China who are known for migrating overseas.

Madison’s trip to Toronto introduced her to Jeanette Kong, a Chinese-Jamaican documentarian, who would serve as her envoy to that community and eventually direct and produce Samuel Lowe. Leaning on her training as a newspaper reporter and historian, Madison worked alongside Kong, scouring databases and records such as ship passenger registers, birth certificates and newspaper articles—tidbits of information that “five, six, seven years ago weren’t online,” Madison says.

In less than a few summer months, Madison, her siblings and 16 family members flew to Lowe Sui Hap, her family village in Guangdong province, China, to meet three aunts, one who is Chinese Jamaican, and an uncle related to Samuel Lowe.