Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, February 20, 2015

Big questions from Uncle Georgie

So we are sitting in the kitchen talking about old times. Isn't that what you do when you haven't connected with someone in donkey years? And the burning question turns out to be, "why did the old man choose Trinidad?"

The "old man" is his father, my paternal grandfather, who - we think - first left China in the late twenties (1929?). What was he looking for when he made that trip - by boat across the Pacific, by train across Canada, and by boat heading south in the Atlantic - to Trinidad? When he returned to China in the early thirties, the Sino-Japanese war was heating up. He would bring his family (wife, three sons and a daughter) out of China to Trinidad by the end of the thirties, just as World War II was starting.

What were the choices for Chinese leaving China in the thirties? The west coast of North America - Vancouver, San Francisco - may have been too cold. He was from Guangzhou in (then) Canton province, sub-tropical, and a busy sea port. Panama may have been too hot. But Trinidad in the south Caribbean might have felt like home.

Uncle Georgie (as we always called him) was the first of the Tai Yow's children to be born in Trinidad, in March 1940. Since that first trip in the late twenties, it seems the old man had already started another family in Trinidad, in Belmont: Gladys's children - Leslie, Moy, Buck and Kenneth - were growing up "in parallel" with the newcomers from China.

He remembers the shop on St Francois Valley Road. His mother ran the shop - with dawn to dusk work and little or no English - and anchored the family. Two younger sisters were born here. He remembers the cooking-living area behind the shop, the one bedroom with its bunk beds and roll-out cot, the basic sanitation. His real boy days were outside on the streets where he joined friends - Telemaque, Matura, among others - to do what teen boys do: fish in the St Ann's river, catch birds, go to the movies, and form a panside. They were the original All Stars steelband. Georgie - "I couldn't carry a tune" - played the bass. Towards the end of the fifties, a meeting over "some drinks" with jefes resulted in a splinter group from Invaders taking over the All Stars name and band.

By the time George Michael Wong Chong graduated from St Mary's College, his brother my father Cecil was moving to Santa Cruz to be a poultry farmer. Uncle Georgie came to live with him and to help out on the farm. It was during that time that an expedition to Matura for leatherback turtle ended in disaster. My father had to hustle to the site of the accident that left three or four of the "hunters" scarred for life. "Caldong" became the byword for something to be survived, illicit, dangerous and a warning.

When he lived with us on the farm, Uncle Georgie occupied the top bunk in the second bedroom of the small refurbished farm house; I was on the bottom, my sisters on the double bed.
Yvonne, my mother and Georgie in the mid-sixties (?)

Uncle Georgie and my mother used to laugh a lot!

Some fifty years later, he reflects, "What models did I have? My father with his two families, walking distance apart, in Belmont. Two older brothers with failed marriages, and children that Amo (mother) raised. And your father (the third brother) who had quarrelled with the old man. Your parents were the best model that I had." And so, Uncle Georgie went off to university in Canada, where he met and married Mari-Lou Santiago from the Philipines, and with will and determination, made it through graduate school, and a life far from Belmont.

They were living in Dayton Ohio when I went to university in Virginia. In December 1970, I travelled by train from Roanoke to Cincinatti. We met in the dreary station, me with eyes blue-black from a car crash a few weeks before, Mari-Lou heavily pregnant. Their first daughter Micheline was born a few months later. That Christmas, it snowed in Dayton. Mari-Lou made avocado ice cream. And I returned to Virginia and mid-winter snows, a little warmed.

The next forty years were punctuated by cataclysmic and minor family events: deaths, marriages, births and careers. Georgie spent most of his life as an environmental engineer, designing and retro-designing industrial waste systems, living in Pennsylvania, travelling to many places including a stint in China. Recently, he and Mari-Lou moved to a retirement/ resort on the coast of North Carolina, where he is a master gardener, a teacher and a volunteer. Alexine and her family live in New Jersey. Micheline is the lawyer in Seattle Washington.

The whole family came to Trinidad for Carnival in the early 1990s. George and Mari-Lou renewed their vows for their 25th wedding anniversary, in the chapel of St Mary's College, where Fr Lai Fook officiated. Fortunately for so many of us, it was school that saved us and prepared us for lives beyond the immigrant experience.

This weekend (Carnival 2015) George renewed ties with his older brother Henry; and friendships with siblings of the other mother, Kenneth, Yolande and Carol. It was a time to settle the issues left by the old man; to assuage some of the pain inflicted as he made his way in the world, an adventurer, a charmer, an opportunist, a procurer, a "smartman," a smoker (harsh Anchor cigarettes) and a drinker.  We believed he died of tuberculosis, but it turns out, stomach cancer did him in.

So many questions remain. What was his occupation in China when he met and married Young Tai Yow, just 17 or 18 and a rice field worker? Why did he come to Trinidad?

George and Mari-Lou
Carnival Monday 2015: Maracas

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