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Tracing a Family Tree, From Harlem to China

Paula Williams Madison is the epitome of success: Vassar College grad, award-winning journalist, former TV executive, entrepreneur, community activist. But the Harlem native was also driven toward another goal — finding more about the Chinese grandfather she never knew.

Paula Williams Madison and cousin
Madison (right) with cousin Kim Yuet Lau

Madison, 62, details her multicultural family odyssey in her new book, Finding Samuel Lowe, due April 14. A documentary by the same name is making its rounds at film festivals, including a recent screening at the International Black History Month celebration in Hong Kong. Madison, along with more than 30 Chinese family members, attended the showing.

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At film screenings, she meets “relatives who we never knew existed. We find some who are mixed with black, just like us. That’s the most spectacular part of it all.”

Madison’s journey to find her grandfather, Samuel Lowe, has been spectacular, too. Soon after retiring from NBCUniversal in 2011, she reached out to her family in Jamaica where her half-black, half-Chinese mother, Nell, was born.

Many Chinese came to Jamaica as laborers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most were from the Hakka people who lived in southern China, a group known as migrants and adventurers.

While in Jamaica, Madison learned about a Hakka conference in Toronto, which draws people of Chinese-Jamaican descent. Filled with excitement, she and her two brothers, Howard and Elrick Williams, jetted off to Canada for the confab.

Within weeks, Madison was able to locate family members connected to her grandfather in China. She, her brothers and her late mother all “had a burning to find out what happened to him,” she says. “The time was right, the people who helped us were right on time. It was just amazing.”

Madison’s family members, who own cable TV’s Africa Channel, decided to film their quest to share with others. “I knew it was going to be a very private and painful journey,” she says, but worth it. A crew followed them around the world capturing memorable moments such as meeting her Chinese family for the first time and bringing 20 members of her black Chinese family from the United States to a reunion in China. They found that they could trace their family and their occupations back to 1006 B.C., something that’s unheard of among African Americans.

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She’s now working to get the documentary into wider distribution and preparing for a book tour. And she’s helping a younger generation of cousins in their new business, Ding Chow, which exports Napa Valley wines to China and Hong Kong. But Madison isn’t finished with digging into family history.

“I am by nature a curious, inquisitive and somewhat skeptical person,” she says. “Now I’m going to work harder on Daddy’s family. I’m going to figure out how to get that done.”

Photo: Madison Media Management

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