Had it not been for her big brother, Paula Madison’s reconnection with her maternal grandfather’s relatives scattered around the world, including China, might not have been brought to the screen.
Raised in Harlem with brothers Elrick and Howard Williams, Madison recalled being often told by their Jamaican-born mother, Nell Vera Lowe, that she was separated from her father, Samuel Lowe, a Jamaican-Chinese shopkeeper, at age three. He went to China in 1933 and never returned.
Nearly four years ago, Madison quit her high-profile job as an NBC Universal executive vice-president to research her family’s roots.
In December 2012, she and her brothers, along with 16 family members, went to China to meet with relatives there. The trip culminated in a reunion with a documented lineage dating back 3,000 years to 1006 B.C. The reunion led to Madison and her brothers going into business with cousins in China, some of whom plan to come to Toronto for the first time this summer for a family gathering with relatives here.
With Jamaican-born Canadian-based Jeanette Kong as director, an 88-minute film was shot in Toronto, when Madison and her brothers were here for a Hakka conference in the summer of 2012; Mocho in Clarendon, Jamaica where Lowe owned his first shop; in St. Ann’s Bay, where he ran a successful business and in Shenzhen and Guangzhou in China.
Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China, was the ReelWorld Film Festival opening night movie last week.
Elrick Williams, an entrepreneur and investor, is the president and chief executive officer of the Africa Channel, the first American television network to showcase English Language programming from Africa.
He convinced his sister that the family’s history was worth sharing with a wider audience.
“In truth, I resisted it because I figured it was going to be very personal and difficult for me to emotionally get through,” Madison told Share while in Toronto last week for the premiere. “It turned out to be all of that, but still my brother insisted we shoot it as a documentary because he felt there were so many of us who are the descendants of Chinese labourers who went to the Caribbean and don’t know how to connect with their families in China. He thought it would be instructive and illustrative for us to shoot it not just for ourselves, but for at least another half million Black Chinese roaming around the Americas.”
Madison said her mother, who migrated to the United States in 1945 at age 26, had a longing to find out what happened to her father.
“Our mother raised us to believe that nothing was more important than family,” she said. “The irony was if that was the case, where was our family? I decided to answer that question not just for my brothers and me and our own descendants, but because at the point where I found them in 2012, my mother had already been dead for six years. I am however a believer in that a person is not just physically present here, but that doesn’t mean that they are really dead.
“As long as you have good memories and thoughts about a person, then they cannot possibly die. So I felt that even though my mother is not alive, that by finding or reconnecting with her family, it would bring my mother some peace. I majored in history and Black Studies at Vassar College and studied the Caribbean and China. What I realized in 2012 was that I was probably preparing myself my entire life to undertake this search for my grandfather’s descendants.”
Madison said a book on the odyssey, which will be released on April 14, will be different from the documentary.
“I have actually researched and documented my grandfather’s life not only in Jamaica but when he returned to China in the middle of the Japanese War,” she said. “Because he was an overseas Chinese and a capitalist, I talk about the targeting that the government subjected him and his family to. I also talk more about my mother’s life and how she came to be one of the first to enter the United States under the listing of the Chinese Exclusionary Act which the U.S. passed in the 1800s…it just gives a look at my family in the past and present. We have history that goes back 3,000 years and for every generation, the people are listed, where they lived, what were their occupations and who was favoured by what emperor. All of that is part of our family’s history.”
The Toronto Public Library has shown an interest in hosting a book reading and tour in addition to screening the film.