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Chinese Puzzle

June 2024
1min read

In the April 1999 issue Bruce Edward Hall told about peeling back layers of his family’s history in New York City’s Chinatown. Since then, he writes us, he has made a further discovery:

“When, after a long search, I finally found a picture of my great-grandfather, dead for eighty years and remembered by no living relative, I was ecstatic. Here he was, pinned to a fragile 1906 government document, long buried in the National Archives. At fifty-six, he had been in this country some thirty-five years and was every bit the assimilated gentleman. He looked remarkably like my uncle. But when poring over a collection of Jacob Riis photographs sometime later. I was startled when it seemed I had found him again. Riis was the social crusader who documented the slums of New York for his groundbreaking 1890 book How the Other Half Lives . This picture is labeled “The official organ of Chinatown,” a reference to the telegraph pole plastered with community announcements, and would have been taken in the late 1880s. But it is the man standing next to the pole who grabbed my attention, for placing the newly found 1906 photograph of my great-grandfather next to him, I found the resemblance uncanny: the nose, the lips, the same almost-smile. He is the right age, and the photograph was taken virtually on the doorstep of the building that he helped build and where he lived at the time. The man is dressed in the hybrid style that marked many a Chinese’s gradual integration into Western culture. His long queue, in this instance wound around his neck, is a sign that he has not yet made the decision to drop his allegiance to the emperor back in the Middle Kingdom. Great-grandfather finally cut his braid in the 1890s.

“Of course, inasmuch as Jacob Riis left no clue to his identity, it is impossible to prove that the man in this picture is my ancestor. However, since in 1890 there were only about two thousand Chinese living in New York, it is within the bounds of probability. And so I am choosing to believe that it is my great-grandfather, Hor Poa, staring at me through three generations and over a century of time.”

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