Meet CAAM’s newest board member: Paula Williams Madison. Paula is an award-winning journalist and Executive Producer of the documentary, Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China, which documents her incredible journey to her maternal grandfather’s home in China. The film aired nationally on PBS during APA Heritage Month in May 2017 and continues to screen globally. She is Chairman and CEO of Madison Media Management LLC, a Los Angeles based media consultancy company with global reach and the previous Executive Vice President for Diversity at NBCUniversal. Her memoir, Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem was published by HarperCollins in 2015. Paula is a native of Harlem, and now resides in Los Angeles with her husband, Roosevelt. Below, she answers some questions about her passion for telling mixed race stories from the African and Chinese diasporas and her journey to connect with 300-plus family members in China.
Can you tell us a little about your personal background – where you grew up and how that has shaped your understanding of the world?
Harlem, NY, is my hometown where I was born to a mixed-race Hakka Chinese Jamaican mother and an African Jamaican father who immigrated to the US in 1945.
What would you say drives your work as a CAAM board member, and in all of your work?
Straddling races and cultures and growing up in a majority Black community with a mother who looked Chinese definitely gave me early insight into race and racism directed towards both Blacks and Chinese. The fact that I don’t look Chinese actually gave me unfettered exposure to anti-Asian discrimination which I challenged as ferociously as I challenged anti-Black discrimination. Imagery in the arts and media are arenas that I began tackling at an early age and continued to address during my tenure as a journalist, media executive and business owner.
What drew you to CAAM?
CAAM’s interest in my documentary and understanding that Finding Samuel Lowe is important viewing in order to get a contemporary look at who is Chinese and what the Asian diaspora has produced in the way of its progeny and descendants.
Can you talk about your involvement in media organizations over the years? And also what your passion is, as far a stories you would like to tell.
My career began as a newspaper journalist in New York and Texas. After seven years, I became a television journalist, finishing that career path as the News Director of the NBC flagship TV station in New York City, WNBC. I was promoted to President and General Manager of the NBC station in Los Angeles, KNBC and was regional GM for the two Telemundo stations NBC owned in LA. My family also has majority ownership in a TV network, The Africa Channel. I retired from NBCUNIVERSAL in 2012 as Executive VP for Diversity and General Electric Co. Vice President.
My passion is giving voice to the mixed race members of both the African and Chinese diasporas, with the intention of furthering collaborative and collegial relationships between them.
Your documentary Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China and your accompanying book about the experience, follows your journey to learn more about your maternal grandfather’s (Samuel Lowe) life and connect with family members you hadn’t met before. Can you tell us more about your experience researching your family’s history and how it has impacted you?
Beijing, Summer 2008. Standing on a corner near the Silk Road, just a few blocks from my hotel, thousands of Chinese passed me by. They were all hurrying somewhere. Not me. That day, I had no destination; I just wanted to see if a Chinese metropolis like Beijing had the hustle and bustle of my hometown, New York City. I was an NBC Universal executive vice president, in China to attend the Summer Olympics. Me. I was a Harlem-born, daughter of Jamaican immigrants just standing on a street corner in China. My brown skin and curly Afro did attract attention but even if the passers-by cared to exchange pleasantries, I don’t speak Mandarin and mostly, they don’t speak English.
And yet, I felt a deep kinship to these people.
My grandfather was Hakka Chinese.
And somewhere in this nation of 2 billion people, I had family. My heart ached because I needed to find my long-lost family, but where would I start?
At that moment, a beautiful and statuesque Chinese woman about 5’7″, caught my attention and took my breath away. This Chinese stranger with fair skin, upturned eyes and straight black hair, who as quickly as she appeared, disappeared into the crowd, first reminding me of how my mother looked when I was about 10 years old! My chest tightened. Tears welled in my eyes. And then, I felt invigorated. Seeing this apparition of my already deceased mother was a sign. I would find them. I would find my grandfather’s descendants in China. And so I began the quest to find the family of my grandfather Samuel Lowe; a quest that forever changed my life.
Just two days later, in my hotel room, an English-language documentary was on television. I was busying myself getting ready to head out to the Olympics competitions. The documentary was about the construction of The Great Wall of China, which had long fascinated me but today I just didn’t have time to sit and watch. Half-listening to the documentary’s narrator, I heard the voice explain that The Great Wall had been built section-by-section by local people living along the 5,500 mile route. This section, he said, was built by people who lived in a village named for the Lowe family. What was I hearing??? I ran to the TV but the narrator had moved on; no more about the Lowe village. I couldn’t rewind or record!!! TVs in hotel rooms don’t have such features. My grandfather’s surname was Lowe; just what the narrator said but how would I learn more? Who would I ask? And still, I took this as yet another sign.
First my mother, then this voice from a documentary that I couldn’t rewind.
China was where I knew they were. China was telling me to find them.
Over the next three years, in fits and starts I would attempt to trace my genealogy. I worried it was too late because my tight-lipped Chinese Jamaican mother (who knew just a little about her father) had died in 2006 at the age of 87. My Jamaican dad was racially Black and he’d known nothing about my mother’s Chinese roots. He too was deceased by then.
But in 2011, finding my Chinese family moved into my focus. At the time I’d had a very demanding career that left little time for any primary research. So I did what I knew I had to do: after 22 years, I retired from NBC Universal, ending my work life as executive vice president for diversity. It just seemed that working someone else’s agenda would be too distracting. I knew myself well enough to expect this journey would involve endless research, countless conversations and a deluge of emotions.
With little else to go on, I contacted my father’s siblings and cousins, hoping they might direct me and in a remarkably short time, an elder cousin said a huge Chinese Jamaican population had immigrated to Toronto, Canada. He said would ask friends and acquaintances for help.
By April of 2012, that cousin, John Hall, had told me about a Toronto conference which occurs every four years — the Toronto Hakka Conference. First organized in 2000, this gathering is an international conference of the Hakka Chinese who are racially Han and are a minority cultural group in China. Worldwide, there are an estimated 70-80 million Hakka. The name translates to “guest” but I think of it as a gentler way of describing these migrants who were sometimes invaders, sometimes aliens. This migratory tribe originated in Central China and over the millennia, because of wars and conflicts, settled mostly in the far southeastern region of China, Guangdong Province. My grandfather was Hakka.
I decided to register myself and my two older brothers, Elrick and Howard, for the Toronto Hakka Conference, hoping we’d uncover clues about our grandfather. Back in 1921, three-year-old Nell was forever separated from the father she recalled as kind and loving. Her jealous mother vowed to keep them apart because Samuel was to marry sight-unseen a Chinese bride sent from China by his parents. And the rift in my family began. My mother, Nell, always melancholy yet beautiful, spent the rest of her 87 years fatherless. She never saw him again. We never had our grandfather.
End of June 2012 and we were among the 400 conference attendees. Our cousin, John Hall, joined us from his Toronto-area home. The four of us and maybe a couple of others stood out from the crowd because of skin color, more caramel to chocolate in tone, darker than the creamy tones of the Hakka Chinese.
There, I met Carol Wong a/k/a “the Dragon Lady” and a leader in the Toronto/Markham Hakka Chinese community. I’d been introduced to Carol on email a few months before. She was co-chair of the conference and I’d contacted her to get more insight into the conference and the Hakka people. Carol explained that she came from a family of Chinese shopkeepers in Jamaica and that many of the Caribbean Chinese descended from indentured workers who began arriving in Jamaica in 1834, after the British abolished slavery. The emancipated Africans refused to work for the British and U.S. sugar plantation owners who had enslaved, brutalized and murdered them. So the owners faced East to India and China, attracting laborers who signed contracts ensuring them passage to Jamaica and three years of indentured labor.
I also met Jeanette Kong, a Chinese Jamaican filmmaker, who I quickly hired to produce and direct my film. We were joined at the conference too by Martin Proctor, director of field productions for The Africa Channel.
The chair of the conference, Dr. Keith Lowe, also was Chinese Jamaican. When I was able to get a few minutes with him, I told him why we were there. He encouraged me to stand and tell what I knew of my mother’s and grandfather’s lives. And so, before 400 mostly Chinese people and said, “I am Chinese and am trying to find my grandfather’s descendants in China.” For the very first time in my life, no one laughed or snickered. To pronounce that I—clearly Black—am Chinese didn’t produce even any head-shaking. That was my huge surprise; these Chinese people believed me. And so I began to have hope.
Almost a week later, Keith Lowe capitulated. Jeanette convinced him to help me. And so Keith decided to send an email to his nephew in Hong Kong. A Black Chinese-Jamaican woman is looking for her grandfather’s family in China. Grandfather’s named Samuel Lowe. Can you ask the Lowe family in mainland China if anyone has ever heard of him?
Next day, the return email read, “my uncle says Samuel Lowe was his father.”
And now to update my story. Both of my beloved uncles—first Uncle Chow Kong and about 18 months later Uncle Chow Woo — died. In between that time span, my Aunt Adassa, mixed race and one month younger than my mom, died. So within four years of finding my mother’s five remaining half-siblings, I had to say goodbye to three of them. People wondered why I visited China so often and this really is the reason. I found, met and loved them over such a short time — and when they were in their ‘80s and ‘90s — that I wanted to spend as much time with them as possible. And so my cousins, brothers and I were going back and forth to China the way some folks go home for holidays!
My Aunt Barbara and my Aunt Anita Maria, the two youngest of my grandfather’s children, are in their ‘80s and in good health, thank the ancestors! Just this October we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the completion of our ancestral village, Lowe Swee Hap, in Shenzhen. And as part of this journey, we traveled from Guangdong Province to Fujian Province to visit tulous, iconic Hakka rammed-earth buildings hailed for the eco-friendly footprint by UNESCO.
As a child, teen and as an adult, I never could have imagined leading this life… this type of Chinese life. This is my journey on the way to being Chinese.