My Great-Grandfather

As a photojournalist, I am fascinated by the more enigmatic elements surrounding memory and storytelling. So much can be learned from the act of remembering itself. I’m 24. The few chances I’ve visited Taiwan, my parents’ birthplace, I’ve sensed a rush of connection to some familial entity far greater than myself. It has something to do with how responsibilities and the reverberating repercussions of individual decisions carry a different weight there. As someone American born and bred, this was foreign for me. I’m using my present understandings to reverse-engineer experiences with my parents that I failed to appreciate in my childhood. I’m recognizing my hunger for family history and wish I knew more.

Recently, I had the sudden thought to ask my father more about my great-grandfather, whom I’ve only heard a few anecdotes about. Maybe it’s something about being on lockdown, an ocean away from family, that has made me want to hold on to them more. My grandfather had passed away just before my older brother was born, and with us growing up in the US, we missed the greater sense of family that is so important in Chinese culture. My father, the memory keeper and historian that he is, wrote back an incredibly special piece. I’m sharing it as is because it is far better written than what I could ever produce.


Hi Kang-Li and Kang-Chun,
 Since Mei Mei wanted to know more about your great grandfather, here I try to write down what I know and send to both of you.

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 Your great grandfather’s name is 鄭鏡湖(pronounced as Zheng Jing Hu). The first thing I know about him is his early adventure in life: One of his uncles, a prominent scholar in the Qing dynasty, who was sent by the Chinese government as a high-ranking diplomatic representative to the United States. Great grandfather Jing Hu was eager to explore the New World, but apparently he had not convinced his uncle to bring him along. The day before the ocean-crossing ship was about to leave Guangzhou for San Francisco, great grandfather went in the big ship and hid himself in a secret place. He came out a couple of days later when the ship was already in the middle of the Pacific. His uncle was very mad at him, but there was no way to send him back at that time. So he fulfilled his first dream of coming to the United States.

We know very little about his adventure in the United States, but Grandpa mentioned that his dad’s first observation of American people in San Francisco was very interesting: young girls (in San Francisco) worked very hard to make a living. They were hired to work in the kitchen when the ocean liner anchored at the harbor. Besides earning meager wages as kitchen helpers, the American girls did not even throw away the potato peels but took them home for food supplements.

While in the United States, your great grandfather learned one trade well: how to make canned food and run a factory. After he returned home, the first canned food company in China 大中華罐頭公司 was established in Shanghai (上海). Your great grandfather Jing Hu was hired as the general manager. The canned food was a new thing and a great hit in China, and your great grandfather was richly compensated in that position during his tenure. Unfortunately, a few years later, he had several clashes with the board of directors of the company, mainly due to his hot temper and pride. The fight was so bad that either he quit or was let go, So he left Shanghai and moved to Fuzhou (福州), where my dad was born (1911), as well as his siblings (one younger brother and sister). [Your great grandmother, her name was 陳珍, passed away before my dad grew up, so he had very little recollections about her.]

In the next few years after your great grandfather settled in Fuzhou, his career was not going well (one of the reasons was his pride and strong personality. He did not seem to have changed at all), and his accumulated wealth from Shanghai started to dwindle. He became an alcoholic, and also treated grandpa very harshly, kind of venting his frustration in life on his oldest son, but strangely, not on the younger son and daughter. As early as in his early teen age years, Grandpa was asked to cook for the whole family. Then the health of your great grandfather deteriorated further (maybe due to depression and alcoholism) and he died when my dad was about 18 years old.

Because grandpa had no close relatives in Fuzhou, a few years later he moved back to Guangzhou and Hong Kong area where he had many uncles (from the paternal side). That was the period before Japanese started the full invasion of China in 1937. During that few years grandpa made many friends, learned the basics of Chinese herbal medicine in his uncle’s herbal medicine shop, and got a good job in the county government in Pan Yu (near Guangzhou in the rich Pearl River delta). When the conflict broke out in Lu Gou Qiao (盧溝橋) near Peiping (北平)(now called Beijing) on July 7th, 1937, Grandpa decided to let go everything there and to join the army. He did not hesitate to give all he had in order to fight for the country against the brutal foreign invasion.

A final note: Your great grandfather were very harsh, even abusive, in treating his oldest son (your grandpa), and it had left a very deep wound in him. But grandpa was healed to a large extent after he accepted Christ Jesus before marrying Nai Nai two years after the end of World War II.

All I know about your great grandfather is in bits and pieces. One of the reasons was the fall of Mainland China to the Chinese Communists. We grew up in Taiwan without any relatives during the cold war era. There were many things kids were “not supposed to ask” in those years. Partly due to political sensitivities, partly due to the a whole can of sadness may be opened up if we naively asked this and that. We children learned to hush when parents signaled us not to ask any further.

Maybe I can get a little bit more if I talk with San Bo and Er Bo.
 Thank you for asking.

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