In an unmarked manila envelope that smells of mildew, I discover letters from opposite sides of my family’s Chinese-American divide. One is from my paternal great-grandfather W. Herbert Trescott, the other from my grandfather Liu Chengyu. These two consolation notes are emblematic of the divisions within families that so often occur as a result of what I’ve come to call migration estrangement.
Especially in the last century, when one generation set sail for a foreign country, many lost forever the family members left behind. In my family, this estrangement began even before geographic migration, with the crossing of cultural boundaries.
Lost in America
The note from Doc Trescott, penned on stationery labeled “Naturopath Physician, nervous and chronic diseases,” is addressed to his daughter, my grandmother Dolly, in Berkeley, California. It’s dated March 1911, five years into Dolly’s marriage to my paternal grandfather, Liu Chengyu, a.k.a. “Don Luis”.
“Don,” my grandfather, edited San Francisco Chinatown’s revolutionary newspaper Ta Tung Daily and was a protégé of Dr. Sun Yatsen (now recognized as the Father of Modern China). When Sun came to America, Don organized audiences of hua chiao — journeymen and merchants of the Chinese diaspora — to hear him speak of the great democratic revolution happening back home.
In 1911, Dr. Sun and my grandfather worked their way north to Victoria, Canada, and through the nearby mining and timber towns, anywhere Chinese had numbers. They sold $70,000 worth of Hong Kong bonds to fund the next rebel action. All went well until Don and Sun sailed back from Vancouver with a trunk…