How a black woman tracked down her Chinese grandfather

Updated 2017-09-27 15:30:52 CGTN
Paula Williams Madison.

Paula Williams Madison.

A former reporter and media executive walked away from her career to investigate the biggest story of her life – the search for her maternal grandfather and her own self-identity.

Paula Williams Madison was senior executive vice president at NBC News in 2011 when she made the shocking decision to step down.

"At six, I concluded my mother was sad because she did not have a family," she told CGTN Digital. "I vowed to find them."

Growing up, Madison resolved to reconnect to her mother's family. When they were children, Nell Vera Lowe had revealed to Madison and her older brothers, Elrick and Howard, that their maternal grandfather was a Chinese man who had spent time in Jamaica.

Sadly for Madison, her mother, Nell Vera Lowe, died in 2006, five years before she embarked on a journey that would change her life forever.

"At 21, I got my first full-time job and learned that retirement is 65," Madison said. "Seven is my lucky number so seven from 65 is 58. I retired then and found them."

Stringing together information from her mother and further research, an intriguing and complex family tale emerged – one that would take Madison from New York City's Harlem neighborhood to the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

Family ties

In 1905, Madison's grandfather, Samuel Lowe, originally named Lowe Ding Chiu, traveled to Jamaica from China to labor on sugar plantations. Chinese workers usually went there on three-year contracts, but Lowe stayed on. He became a successful businessman, setting up several grocery shops and buying land on the island. Lowe started a relationship with a Jamaican woman from which Madison's grandmother, Nell, was born. Samuel Lowe ended up returning to China.

In 1945, Madison's mother took advantage of relaxed US immigration laws and moved to New York City.

Madison and her two brothers were born in New York. They grew up in Harlem, a predominately black neighborhood. They did not look like most of their neighbors. They had no relatives there. These are all reasons why Madison believes her mother stressed family first.

"My mother was always very sad, a very melancholy behavior," Madison said. "She always said 'family is very important and we have to stick together.'"

Madison and her brothers are now a long way from their humble beginnings in Harlem. All have had very successful careers. Madison became a producer at American broadcaster NBC and went on to become an executive vice president of the network. At one point, the three siblings owned Women's National Basketball Association franchise the LA Sparks, and they remain majority owners of the Africa Channel television network, and have a vacation home on the affluent island of Martha's Vineyard off the coast of the US state of Massachusetts.

Despite the material wealth and career achievements, Madison knew she wanted more.

Speaking of a conversation she has had in her head with the grandfather she never got to meet, she said, "I promised my grandfather I would reunite this family."

All in the family

Not giving up on her promise, Madison found out that many Chinese-Jamaicans had come from a group of north Chinese who migrated to South China. They were called the "Hakka" and every four years the Hakka descendants held a reunion. Only a couple of months after her search began, Madison and her brothers hustled to attended one of those reunions in Toronto, Canada, where they met with a group of Hakka who pledged to help her find her Chinese family.

Madison's new Hakka friends told her there were only two villages in south China where one would find the Lowe name. One of them was called Niu Fu and the other Lowe Swee Hap, which included the family name. Her Hakka friends began contacting relatives in China and within a matter of weeks, the lines were connected. Madison found that she was related to a cadre of previously unknown aunts, uncles and cousins living in Shenzhen, China.

Family reunion

Eager to meet her unknown family, Madison boarded a plane to Shenzen in August 2012 for the first of many family reunions.

She said what she found most amazing was that her mother looked more like her grandfather than his other children.

Her Chinese family welcomed her with open arms and shared stories about her grandfather.

Madison returned to Shenzen that December with her brothers. She said she never doubted her Chinese family would be anything other than welcoming to her and her brothers. "The face of our mother was a Chinese woman who always taught us the importance of family," she said. "It gave me a sense of completion."

Since meeting her new extended family in China, Madison and her brothers have gone into business with cousins shipping wines from Napa Valley, California to China. She also released a book and documentary, "Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China", on the journey to find her family.

Having not grown up with an extended family, Madison said that prompted her to visit often once she found her family there.

"I go to China all the time. My brothers and I grew up with no family and now have 45 cousins. We've taken other people to China to experience it," she said. "They love it and my family has adopted them."

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