On Hometowns: Familiar Faces in Distant Places

A few weeks back I read about someone tracing her genealogy by accessing town records in her family’s hometown. I marveled at the idea having access to such records. More still, at having generations of family living in a single hometown. One place. One region. One country.

I’ve lived in a few different places myself. It wasn’t by intent. I didn’t grow up thinking I’d travel the world. When I was young I had smaller aspirations. I remember thinking “It’d be nice to fly in an airplane just once. One time, just to see.”

That was when I living in my birthplace, in my original hometown, in Kingston, Jamaica.

At this point, if you were looking me in the face, you’d say “But you don’t look Jamaican.” It’s the reaction I normally get. Since you’re not looking at me, I will say that “I don’t look like a typical Jamaican.”

Jamaica is known for many things. Bob Marley. Reggae. Jerk Chicken. Usain Bolt. Not so well known is it’s native Chinese community dating back a hundred years ago. They were Hakka Chinese who came by way of Hong Kong and the Panama canal.

According to a friend of mine, in the late 1800s families of brothers and cousins would travel together on these voyages to the new world. They went to work on the canal and later, on the sugar plantations. At the first port of call in Jamaica, some would get off while others stayed on. The final port was in Suriname. As a result, many of the Chinese in Suriname are distantly related to those in Jamaica.

“We are cousins!” he’d say. “Maybe, probably,” I’d smile back.

The Hakka Chinese are called the guest families in China. They have a history of migrating to different regions according to need or persecution. Today Hakka people are found all over, with strong presence in places like Taiwan, Mauritius, Calcutta, Malaysia, Suriname and Jamaica.

When I lived in Singapore, I used to explore Eastern Asia with short trips to Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar etc. For the most part, I found these places exotic, new and unfamiliar. Once in a while though, something or someone would remind me of my home town.

In Saigon’s Cholon market I once saw a lady who was the splitting image of my father’s late mother. On another day, I met a gentlemen who reminded me of my grandfather on my mother’s side. Both were strangers, encountered at different times but they looked familiar. It seemed as if they had a connection to people half a world away.

A little research showed that the Hakka diaspora spread into South East Asia, well into Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. Who knows, maybe just like my friend from Suriname, these people were my cousins too!

What about you? Have you lived in one or many home towns? Have you ever found unexpected connections in unfamiliar places? Join the conversation with Amanda and me on Hometowns.

September 2020

13 Comments

  1. I think heritage is alsays interesting. What makes us who we are? What mix of places coalesce to bring us to our birthplace? Most of us have travelled from far flung places even if it is from centuries ago. Thinking about our parents coming together and who we end up being, depends often on pure chance, don’t you think?

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    1. One of the benefits of travel and living elsewhere, is appreciating how much our lives are determined by chance. When I was a child, I couldn’t imagine a life different from the one I knew. When I was an adult, I worked with rapidly changing technology, I couldn’t imagine living in a world bound by traditions & culture. Only when I traveled did I come to think about … what happened in this place when I was a child, youth or adult? What chance of fate allowed me to live my life there and not here? How many chances of fate affected my parents & forefathers before me. It’s mind bending.

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    1. The Chinese in Calcutta are Hakka. Only in the last 5 years did I discover this in Toronto. I kept seeing restaurants specializing in Hakka food but when I tried it, it was so different from anything I’d ever tasted at home. These Hakka restaurants were owned by Chinese from India and I learnt that they’d adjusted their cooking to Indian tastes – amped up spices & chilis with Chinese style cooking techniques. Now I love Hakka Indian food – we have it regularly & my family looks forward to Chili Chicken nights.

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