A spirited pursuit of her mother’s roots takes one African-American woman from Jamaica to Harlem to China.
A former NBC executive who is now CEO of a family investment group based in Chicago, Madison (who lives in Los Angeles) proves a formidable, dogged detective in tracing the complicated ramifications of her Chinese grandfather’s work in Jamaica and return to China in the early 1930s. A teenager when he arrived in Jamaica in 1905, Samuel Lowe came from the Hakka minority ethnic group noted for its entrepreneurial drive; soon, he set up one thriving “Chiney shop” after another. He developed romantic attachments with the local ladies; in liaisons not unusual in Jamaica at the time, he fathered several children by different women. The first of these “outside children” was the author’s mother, Nell Vera Lowe, whose distinctive Chinese look would cast her as a kind of pariah in her community. In time, Lowe married a family-designated Chinese bride sent from home, who bore him several more children. Thus, when Lowe returned with his wife to China during the business-stifling Depression, he left Nell behind, among other children, who scarcely knew him or each other. Badly treated by her mother, who resented her Chinese looks, Nell eventually immigrated to New York and became a citizen, raising her children largely on her own when her Jamaican husband proved troublesome and unfaithful. Madison traces this tale of loss through her mother’s story: Without education, Nell was doomed to a hard life of work as a seamstress, and she endured welfare and marginalization with a ferocious protectiveness toward her children. As the author pursues Lowe’s family in China, arranging visits and sifting through minute ancestral details, she proves a valiant avenger of her mother’s difficult past.
A well-structured memoir told in brief, punchy vignettes alternating between past and present.