Meet the black Americans going home to China
Updated 10:25 AM ET, Tue December 27, 2016
Chat with us in Facebook Messenger. Find out what's happening in the world as it unfolds.
(CNN)Paula Madison grew up knowing she was different.
Born in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Harlem, New York, she was raised by a single mother who looked Chinese.
"When my mother opened the door and told me that dinner is ready, other kids would be very surprised," Paula says. "Sometimes, they'd start using racial slurs."
Madison's father was African-Jamaican and left her mother when she was three.
"My mother always looked sad because she was away from her family," she says. "I've known for my whole life that my grandfather is Chinese. I thought helping my mother find her family would make her happy."
Paula knew that her grandfather had gone to Jamaica from China in 1905 to work on a sugar plantation and after his contract was fulfilled, he stayed in Jamaica to open a store.
She was determined to find out which village he came from and if he had any living relatives in China, but the only clue she had was her grandfather's name: Samuel Lowe.
'Hole in my heart'
Madison said she traveled to Jamaica "maybe 20 times" without much progress. Her luck changed when she went to Toronto in 2012 for a conference on the Hakka, an Chinese ethnic group that emigrated widely, and met scholar Keith Lowe.
"I said, 'Oh my god, you're the only Chinese Jamaican I've met with the same last name as my grandfather'," Madison recalls.
Madison begged Lowe to investigate, and Lowe promised Paula that he would contact one of his nephews in Hong Kong, despite having never heard of a Samuel Lowe.
The next day, Lowe emailed Madison telling her his nephew had another uncle living in the southern Chinese town of Shenzhen; the son of Samuel Lowe and his Chinese wife.
Madison said the discovery of her mother's half-brother took her breath away.
A month after the discovery, she traveled to China to meet her uncle and her extended family although her mother, who died in 2006, never had a chance to meet them.
She learned that her tiny family in Harlem has 400 living members in China and she had a family tree going back 3,000 years.
"It felt like a hole in my heart and my soul has finally been filled," she says.
Large numbers of Hakka migrated to the Caribbean in search of work in the 19th and early 20th century, and inter-marriage rates were high. By 1920, at least 4,000 Chinese immigrants lived in Jamaica, Madison found through the course of her research.
Since she found out about her family in Shenzhen, Madison has been back to China 13 times. This year alone, she's traveled to China four times.
Because she wanted other people in her position to have the same experience, on her most recent trip in November of this year she invited two more African-Americans with Chinese heritage along -- including her cousin, John Eckel.
Eckel's grandfather was from the same village in Shenzhen as Madison's grandfather and also traveled to Jamaica, where he wed Eckel's grandmother in an arranged marriage.
"I'm very close to my extended family in Jamaica," he says.
Eckel's mother was born in Jamaica and went on to pursue a degree at Boston College when she was 16. After she graduated, she moved to New York City, where she met her husband, who is Trinidadian.