Saturday, January 17, 2009

A bit of family history

So, my grandfather was a drug dealer. My sons think it's pretty funny that they can tell people this fact about great-grandpa. He ran a store in the late 1800s to early 1900s that manufactured and sold opium.

Opium was legal back then and the 1903 newspaper advertisement for the store stated they were "Importers and Exporters of Chinese and Japanese Fancy Goods" and "Rice and Opium Manufacturers". In all other respects, it was a regular general store.

It's all chronicled in the book, Yi Fao: Speaking Through Memory: A History Of New Westminster's Chinese Community 1858-1980. The book highlights four of the pioneering Chinese families in New Westminster.

The first I'd heard about this book was after my aunt died last year. It was mentioned in her obituary that she was one of the people interviewed by the author of Yi Fao. Unfortunately, she died before the book was published. I tried to get hold of a copy, but the Chapters/Indigo store I frequent said it was unavailable to order and an email to the publisher resulted in no response. I've been checking availability ever since and was finally rewarded a few weeks ago when I found it at the same Chapters store.

Reading the book has been an eye-opening experience. Not only did I see pictures of my aunts and uncles as children and young adults, but I saw pictures of my grandfather as a young man. It didn't take much effort to recognize my aunts, father and uncle in those early photos; but I never would have guessed the handsome young man standing on the deck of a ship was my grandfather.

I'd only known him as an old man from his late eighties to the age of ninety-three when he died of a heart attack. At ninety-plus, he was still alert, playful and loving. Grandpa, or yeh-yeh as I called him, still walked or bussed to the barber for his weekly haircut, swept the front porch every day whether it needed to be done or not, and supervised my Chinese calligraphy practice. He insisted that I learn to read and write my Chinese name because, he said, it might be the only way to show another person from the Middle Kingdom to which family I belonged. He'd perch me on his knee and read stories from his huge collection of Chinese books. Sometimes, if he hadn't shaved, he would rub his stubbly beard against my cheek and have a hearty laugh as I cringed.

He knew Latin, read both English and Chinese language newspapers and was endlessly curious about the world around him. His everyday conversation was often interspersed with quotations from Confucius. He reveled in telling and re-telling stories about the old days and he loved to laugh. I always remember him as a gentleman and a scholar.

Now, when I look at the picture of my grandfather at age twenty-one, I can see the same intelligence and humour in the eyes and smile. I wonder what it was like for him to strike out on a new life in a new country at such a young age. I wonder what family circumstances allowed him to be so well-educated for the times. I wonder how he chose (or had chosen for him) his two wives; the second of which was my grandmother. I wonder about his father (my great-grandfather). Questions. Questions.

So many unanswerable questions. My aunt was the last repository of that portion of our family history. What's left is supposition and hearsay.

I'm sharing this book with my sons and will pass on my own personal recollections of not only their great-grandfather, but of their grandfather whom they didn't know very well. Then, maybe they won't have quite as many unanswered questions.


Anonymous said...

This is fascinating! I know what you mean about all those questions. When we get old enough to appreciate our family history, too many of them are gone who could answer our questions. My cousin and I have talked about this and wish we'd asked questions while we had the chance.

I wonder all that about your grandfather, too, and wish you knew.

Anonymous said...

Joy, I remember thinking years ago that it would be a good idea to sit down and ask my father some of these questions, but as is often the case, other things got in the way and I never got around to it.

Anonymous said...

I just loved this post. I havae seen the old catalogs and newspaper adds for herbs mail ordered for legitimate panaceas, aphrodisiacs,and little old ladies like my grandmother bought them without a second thought. I always thought that hilarious after I grew up and learned about it in history I checked out my grandmother's famous shed off the kitchen as i was always fascianted with hher odd collection of old bottles all dusty and cobwebbed. Sure enough...there they were...those old mail order concoctions with some of the labels still legible. It was all true.
Thanks for sharing this. How personal but how droll as well.
xoxo Charlie