Nell Vera Lowe was no ordinary woman. Despite the fact she struggled to make ends meet after migrating to New York to settle on one of the most crime-riddled blocks in Harlem she had extraordinary dreams and perhaps that is why she is the subject of a documentary film featured during the recent Urbanworld Film Festival.
In a 59-minute documentary feature directed by Jamaican Chinese filmmaker Jeneatte Kong, Lowe’s revealing life-story unfolds to reveal the path she took at age 27 arriving in the Village of Harlem in 1945.
Born in 1918 to Albertha Campbell, a Black Jamaican woman and Samuel Lowe, an immigrant Chinese shopkeeper, the biracial daughter was determined to make good of her life. According to the film, Nell was deprived of her father’s guidance and she recalled seeing him last at age three. Although much of her growing years are not included in “Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China,” her three children made sure her adult years in Harlem are fully revisited. Nell allegedly relied on welfare checks to help her raise the dependents she bore. Howard, Elrick and Paula Williams Madison attended Catholic school. And although they assimilated into the then migrant community that accommodated Caribbean immigrants and others ‘yearning to be free’ the boys knew they looked different. They said they were teased about their Asian-looking, Black appearance.
Paula, the lone girl recalls that much was expected of her.
According to Paula, a grade of B was insufficient for her mother’s approval. She said on one occasion after showing her report card to her mother Nell, she was politely and nicely scolded for getting the second best alphabet.
“I did not come to this country for you to get a B,” Nell allegedly told her only daughter. “I want you to be rich.”
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If any school-age lesson ever resonated, Paula learned that one. Perhaps that is why she is now richer than she could ever imagine. Along with her brothers, formed Williams Group Holdings LLC, a Chicago-based, family-owned company, which has majority share investments in The Africa Channel. They ship Napa wines and Maine lobsters to China. They partner as investors in various real estate, consumer, financial and trading businesses. And recently the family sold the WNBA sports franchise, the Los Angeles Sparks to Magic Johnson.
Next year they will release a book about their journey from Harlem to China.
Nell died in 2006.
She was able to see her children grow to become accomplished, independent citizens. What she did not know was that her children would honor her by fulfilling the dream she harbored of knowing the story of her father and his family.
Paula was determined to make Nell’s dream a reality. After retiring at age 58 after working for 22 years at NBC Universal in 2012, she seriously committed to ensuring her family tree sprung from the roots.
Already, Paula and her brothers had some knowledge about their Jamaican background.
At least they thought they did.
Paula prospered as a successful media executive, but like African American Alex Hayles she wanted to know the beginning of her ancestry.
She thought she knew enough about the Jamaican beginning of her family tree but felt there was much more to its roots and even the branches and leaves that must have survived to find her and her sibling brothers with a single parent mother living in Harlem.
With a film crew, director Jong and her brothers she travelled to Jamaica. There, an entire history unfolded when they met Vincent Vincent Chang. As head of the Chinese Benevolent Association, Chang escorted Paula to the place her grandfather lived, worked and probably met her grandmother.
According to film statements, Paula’s journey from Harlem to Jamaica uncovered a rich legacy left by the immigrant post-slavery odyssey from Asia. That Lowe established a thriving business was revealing to Paula and her brothers.
From the downtown 48 Barry St. address in the capital city of Kingston, to St. Ann’s Bay, Mocho, Clarendon, Samuel Lowe’s path through the island became the beginning odyssey that ended for the newest addition to the Lowe family tree in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, China.
Shipping records states that the pioneering Chinese along with scores of Asians travelled to Jamaica seeking work in the booming sugar industry. Actually, it was revealed that Samuel Lowe actually left the SS Andresitas when it docked in 1933 after sailing from Hon Kong. Records show that Chinese immigrants were first to engage in retail trade on the island. Lowe allegedly established a local shop and quickly traded on the open market that demanded groceries and other products. While on the Caribbean island, Paula and her brothers learned that after 30 years her grandfather returned to his homeland with another of his daughters named Adassa.
Although bonded with new relatives and a wealth of family history, Paula and director Jong pressed for more clues to the Lowe mystery.
In her quest, Paula discovered the Hakka meetings in Toronto, Canada. Jamaicans of Chinese ancestry are as prevalent throughout the immigrant population of Canada the UK and the US as any. Among achievers from the island of Jamaica, they include the world’s top male and female supermodels Tyson Beckford and Naomi Campbell, Canadian billionaire Michael Lee Chin, CEOs of VP Records, Vincent and Pat Chin, Rockers TV reggae video pioneer Earl Chin, “The Voice” reality show winner Tessanne Chin, current Miss Jamaica World beauty queen, Laurie-Ann Chin and many others.
And while there are those who can be immediately identified by their Chinese ancestry, perhaps an equal amount or more are forced to straddle the most dominant cultural appearance and more often than not it is African.
In the northern city she met Chinese who gather from all over the globe in order to celebrate, validate and re-affirm their heritage and culture every four years. Inspired by the cultural ritual and the union of the race, Paula fully committed to a journey to China where her adventure led to exploration and discovery.
The mission seemed to unfold in Jamaica and eventually 20 family members travelled to the ancestral village Shenzhen province for the 95th birthday celebration of Adassa, Nell’s sister and Howard, Elrick and Paula’s aunt. While there, the enquiring family learned that official documents record 151 generations of the Lowe (Luo) family. They also found out that their lineage dates back 3,000 years to 1006 BC. She wept after visiting cemeteries, temples and the 300-room village the Lowe (Luo) name claims to their heritage. That the Luos time on earth predated the era Jesus Christ walked the earth seemed overwhelming.
The documentary “Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China” is making the film festival rounds and will eventually end up on television and The Africa Channel. Recently a few of all racial persuasions packed into a Manhattan movie theater to see and support the documentary. Screened during the 18th annual Urbanworld Film Festival, the film united Jamaicans and bi-racial individuals and couples who identify with the topic of retracing the family roots and origins that bind them uniquely with ancestors and fellows.
Now residing in Los Angeles, California with her husband, Paula is a member of the WNBA Board of Governors.
As the film rolled, Jamaicans of Chinese heritage dabbed away tears. Among them Francine Chin, a radio personality who specializes in promoting reggae music, family members of Vincent and Pat Chin, operators of VP Records, a company that distributes Jamaican music and Sonia Chin, an administrative assistant at a Manhattan hospital.
They all said they were emotionally moved by the familiar aspects of the film.
“I felt so connected because we have such familiar stories about our Chinese family, Wow!” Sonia Chin said.
Born in Jamaica to interracial parents Chin said the documentary relates to her in more ways than she can readily explain.
Two days after attending the public viewing she said “It is still in my head.”
Among the patrons in the audience was an individual who said she is now retracing her Jewish Jamaican roots.
It would not be surprising if one of the first multicultural societies in the world records all the nationals tracing the roots of Jamaicans with those of Syrians, Indians, Australians or Alaskans.
“Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China” is due to screen later this week in Trinidad & Tobago.
Jong’s hope is that Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) will obtain the rights to screen the document for television viewers. If this fails, look for the document on the Lowe family-owned Africa Channel.