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.
Once there, she unearthed a 3,000-year-old family legacy, more than 150 generations well-documented in a jia pu (written genealogical records) that survived China’s Cultural Revolution. And flowing through her veins has been the entrepreneurial spirit of the Hakka Chinese—the same people who built the first transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal—a discovery that may account for Madison’s and her siblings’ business success. They were the majority owners of the Los Angeles Sparks until they sold the WNBA basketball team to Magic Johnson this year.
“By nature, training and blood, we’re entrepreneurs,” she says.
A film highlight for Madison is when she and 60 of her relatives—black, Chinese and Chinese Jamaican—posed for a group photo. She says what the camera didn’t capture was when all 325 descendants of Samuel Lowe gathered in one room on that December day in 2012.
A language barrier notwithstanding, Madison says that her years as a professional journalist have enabled her to intuit the meaning of her eldest family members, who speak Hakka and Cantonese, and, she adds, “There’s always someone around who can translate.”
In addition to returning to China every six months to visit, Madison, along with 40 of her first cousins, has launched Ding Chow Enterprises in honor of Samuel Lowe. The company exports Napa Valley wine and Maine lobster to China with the promise of “teaching the next generation how to have multinational, profitable businesses.”
Finding Samuel Lowe is revelatory for many, especially black Americans, since it sheds light on deep ties between Chinese and blacks that date back to the 1850s, Madison says.
“There are some people thinking this is a new phenomenon. It’s not new at all,” she says. “Chinese have been falling in love with black people and vice versa.”
For Madison, her uncle Chow Woo Lowe giving her the name Xiao Na Lowe is illustrative of that long-standing affection. Na, his choice for her given name, means beauty.
She doesn’t take her new name lightly; it underscores that “worlds away in another nation, in a different culture, that’s how I could be seen by a Chinese man”—as beautiful.
“That’s important, particularly for African-American women to know, because we have been told, and unfortunately reinforced by media in Western countries, that we’re not considered beautiful. We’re not the standard of beauty,” she notes.
Madison hopes that black viewers—even those without any Chinese ancestry—take a message about identity from her story.
“Every one of us has a history that’s tens of thousands of years. But for blacks, especially in Western society, our definition of ourselves is frequently built around slavery,” she says. “But it can’t be how we continue to define ourselves because it will just hold us down …. Once you know that, then you break free.”
Erin C.J. Robertson is a summer intern at The Root.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to correct the names of Wei Min Chen and Siqi Luo.