Panamanian's journey to China reconnects branches of family

Updated: 2012-08-24 11:00

By Wang Jun in Los Angeles (China Daily)

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 Panamanian's journey to China reconnects branches of family

From left to right: Sol de Leon in Panama with her sister Nela Leon, their father Jaime de Leon (Liang Tai Man), and daughter Amy. Provided to China Daily

Sol de Leon, an immigrant to the United States from Panama, lights up when recalling the "incredible" meeting with her extended family in China.

Her grandfather Liang Tick Fe left the village of Fa Yen -later renamed Pingshan - on the outskirts of Guangzhou for Panama in 1918 when he was 24, leaving his wife and two sons at home. China was in chaos, ruled by warlords following the overthrow of its last emperor.

Ninety-three years later, de Leon traveled to China the first time.

The reunion in October 2011 brought happiness for different generations of her family living in Panama, the US and China.

De Leon said she always wanted to visit China. With an old document her father had provided - her grandfather's certificate of registration with the Chinese consulate in Panama - de Leon was able to find the village formerly known as Fa Yen.

"I went with my sister on the trip," she said. "I didn't expect to find a family but only to see the place."

Athena Liang, a college student who is part of the Liang family in Pingshan, recalled the reunion.

"I wasn't at home when they arrived; my mom called me home. I saw everyone was full of excitement," she said. "(De Leon's) grandfather is my grandfather's grandfather. The only thing I have heard from the older generations was that he moved to Panama."

De Leon told the whole story: Local authorities in Panama registered her grandfather as Felix Leon. "When you pronounce Liang, it sounds like 'Leon' in Spanish. So they 'adapted' his name to Spanish," she said.

Leon had an eventful life in his new country. He imported the first convertible cars to Panama and opened a bakery, ultimately prospering and enjoying an affluent life. He became part of what the Panama News called "the biggest of Panama's Chinese fraternal societies" - expatriates from Fa Yen.

But Leon's good fortune didn't last. He fell on hard times, for reasons his granddaughter can only speculate about. "Somehow my grandfather lost everything and started to struggle. He kept looking for jobs and worked in different cities in Panama and moved very often from place to place."

At the time, most Chinese immigrants in Panama were hardly doing better than Leon, partly due to strict Chinese-exclusion laws in the Central American nation.

The first Chinese arrived in the mid-19th century by way of Canada and Jamaica to work on the Panamanian railroad, according to Juan Tam, a historian and writer with the Chinese Association of Panama.

In 1903, the government declared Chinese "undesirable citizens." Ten years later, just before the Panama Canal's completion, a "head tax" was imposed on the Chinese community. The 1941 constitution stripped citizenship from all Panamanians of Asian ancestry.

Arnulfo Arias, Panama's president at the time, ordered Asian immigrants' property to be confiscated. That year, Arias was deposed in a coup. (His two additional presidential terms, in the 1950s and 1968, met a similar fate.) But the persecution didn't end, as Arias' followers forced many Chinese-owned stores to close.

"But they couldn't expel my grandfather because he had a Panamanian wife and children," de Leon said.

Her father, Jaime de Leon, was born in the 1930s, along with two sisters. Besides his Spanish name, he was given a Chinese one - Liang Tai Man.

"My father, Liang Tai Man, took care of his father, Liang Tick Fe, until he died. He lived with us - my father, my mother and I in our apartment," she recalled, "I was the first grandchild to my grandfather.

"Every day he used to bring me something to eat, like steamed buns filled with sweet black beans." De Leon still loves the Chinese snack and cherishes memories of her grandfather.

From kindergarten through high school, she attended a Jewish school where she received scholarships. It's natural for her to relate to the Jewish diaspora and the overseas Chinese communities in suffering and more, she said.

Starting in the early 20th century, the Chinese played a crucial role in Panama's economy. They are said to have owned over 600 stores, on which the country depended.

According to the English-language Panama News, the Chinese community currently accounts for between 5 percent to more than a third of the Panamanian population.

"There are about 150,000 people in this country who can speak Chinese, who look Chinese and who know something about Chinese culture, but there is a much larger group that has at least some Chinese ancestry," explained Tam, the historian.

New immigrants from China are adding to that number.

People from Pingshan, including two classmates of Athena's, have moved to Panama. Today's immigrants aren't leaving China out of desperation, but as with the newcomers Athena knows, for new experiences and opportunities.

"I may go to live and study in another country for a period of time and experience the cultural difference when I don't need my parents' support," she said. "Experience is important for our generation."

De Leon received her college education in Mexico. With a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, she moved back to Panama, working in the IT industry. Ten years ago, she married an American and immigrated to the United States.

In Guangzhou, she and her sister hired an interpreter, a young woman who spoke Chinese, English and Spanish. The group of three arrived in Pingshan on Oct 3 by motorcycle taxis on a dirt road.

After an hour's search, someone took them to a family temple with a huge "Liang" in Chinese engraved above the entrance. From the temple, the group was taken to apartments nearby. All of the families had kept genealogical records. Liang Tick Fe was identified from the Liang family tree.

That moment was surreal, de Leon said. A local resident pointed to a man in his 70s and said to her in Chinese: "He's your brother!"

"In Chinese culture, a cousin is a brother or sister," de Leon explained, still feeling the excitement of that moment. Pointing at her 73-year-old cousin in a photo, she observed: "He has my grandfather's forehead!"

Someone in the Panama branch of the Liang family gathered the whole family - old and young, including de Leon and her sister - and took the group to a village restaurant for a celebratory feast and plenty of picture-taking.

De Leon called her dad in Panama from her hotel room that night. "I could tell my father had tears at the other end of the telephone," she said.

Her father, who turned 80 last year, has begun studying Mandarin. He sends video clips of his practice to his children and grandchildren.

Later this month, de Leon and her husband, Dennis Bress, are leaving for another trip to China. Bress has traveled extensively throughout China since the late 1970s on business and pays close attention to news from China.

The couple will be taking de Leon's two children - Paolo, 21, who just graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a major in global studies, and Amy, 19 who finished high school in Southern California and returned to Panama for college two years ago.

"They're very interested in studying the Chinese language," de Leon said. She and the children have been in touch with Athena through QQ, a Chinese Internet conferencing service similar to Skype.

Both Paolo and Amy were recently granted a scholarship from the Chinese government and accepted to Nanjing University. "After our last trip to China, a whole new world has been opened for all of us," de Leon said.