My Biracial Father’s Family Secrets, Decoded at Last
Barriers of language and immigration helped hide the truth about family left and lost in China for 80 years.
My father was his family’s gatekeeper. Born in Shanghai in 1912, the eldest of his biracial siblings, he was raised to straddle East and West. He kept the peace between his Chinese father and American mother. And as the one member of his family who corresponded with those he’d left behind after moving to America in the 1930s, he alone held the secrets that could wound, shame, and inflame the relatives who’d immigrated with him.
Those secrets lay buried in the mass of junk that Dad hoarded throughout his life. After he died in 2007, I took the lead in curating this tangled mess. Both as a writer and as his daughter, I was fascinated by the mystery surrounding my remote, taciturn father. I hoped that in all his stuff, I’d discover the reasons why he claimed to remember so little about his past in China. Fifteen years later, I’m finally beginning to decode the evidence he was shielding.
Few of my father’s possessions originally belonged to him, but almost all reflected the division that had cleaved his identity for nearly a century. Half of his acquisitions smacked of his father’s Chinese lineage, and the other half were as British as his American mother’s English forebears. As I piled statuettes of Kuan-Yin and delicate calligraphy scrolls alongside Fortnum and Mason butter knives and Smithson of Bond Street leather goods, I was struck by both the contrast and the impossible longing these objects symbolized.
My father could never quite secure his place in the world. He’d been unable to satisfy his British schoolmasters and classmates in Shanghai that he was “one of them.” Nor could he ever measure up to his Chinese ancestors’ standards as “eldest son.”
After he moved with his mother and siblings to Los Angeles in 1932, Dad tried to cast himself as the best of both worlds by playing Hollywood exotics with English accents — the Hawaiian groom in Waikiki…