Monday, December 20, 2010

A Boxer-Murder Mystery in Hainan: Part 1

by Maple, guest blogger

[in translation, 阅读中文原文]

Hainan, China –  One evening near the end of November, I got a call from Beijing. My friend DL asked if I could help an American trace his ancestor in Hainan.

DL's friend, Doctor Cai, who practices Chinese medicine in the US, is the nephew of Chen Lifu and Chen Guofu, brothers of one of the "four big families" in Nationalist China. Many of Doctor Cai's patients are Americans fond of Chinese traditional culture. Every year, a portion of those follow Doctor Cai to visit China, hoping to learn about this age-old and mystical country through first-hand experience.

This November, as usual, Doctor Cai brought a dozen or so Americans to Beijing. After the group activities were finished, all but one returned to the US. Karl, a Los Angeles real estate developer, stayed for a reason.

DL told me that, in the late Qing Dynasty, Karl's grandfather came to China as a missionary. He was murdered by Boxers in a Hainan town called Jiaji (加积镇). At the time, Karl's father was only seven years old. Karl's grandmother brought three children back to America, and never visited China again. This time, Karl was determined to find the church in which his grandfather had preached. However, the only clue he had were two old black-and-white photos from the 1920s.  My friend asked if I knew anyone in Jiaji who could help.

I told her I'd be willing to take the American to Jiaji myself. It was an exceptional situation and I ought to help.  DL was very pleased. She offered to send me travel money; I politely declined.

"Just one thing," I said, "I hope this has nothing to do with politics. I'm sick of those things. American politicians take China as their hypothetical enemy, always bullying us. We Chinese are like what Mao said, being behind leaves us vulnerable to attack. I better stay away from what I can't fight."  DL told me not to worry. "Dr. Cai is a Taiwanese who loves China very much. Although he has taken U.S. citizenship, every year he brings Americans to Beijing and Shanghai, to show them the real China, a country in development. He too thinks the US government misleads American people about China."

Three days later, Karl arrived in Haikou, accompanied by his friend Situ Keli. Karl looked a bit old, very kind, gentle, low-key, and non-talkative. I couldn't imagine how he did real estate business in a place like Los Angeles. Situ was a lot more active and looked like a typical Chinese-speaking foreign businessman. Although his Chinese had a queer tune, by half hearing plus half guessing, I was able to have a basic understanding of what he said.

Around 9 am next morning, we started the trip to Jiaji town in Qionghai city’s jurisdiction, over 100 kilometers away from Haikou. My husband drove; I tour-guided. The two Americans looked out the car window and exclaimed, "Wow, Haikou is so tidy, beautiful and warm! Very much like Hawaii." I tried to be modest, "No way it's comparable to Hawaii. Hainan is one of the most backward provinces in China. In ancient times it was known as a remote destination for sending people into exile. Not until the 1980s did it become a province, and today is still a third-rate place. Only in the recent one or two years is Haikou having a bit of development."

Our car got on the highway. Situ and I exchanged questions; Karl sat quietly and listened. Now and then he took pictures of the coconut trees and farm fields flashing across the window.

Situ liked to start a sentence with "therefore": "Therefore why did you come here from Chongqing? Why are you settled here?"

I told him that I liked the backwardness of Hainan. "It has the atmosphere of a European small town. At street corners are casually placed coffee seats; locals wear a silly smile all the time. Eat a bit of pastry, drink a cup of tea, and make a little business along the way. Though not for getting rich, there's plenty of contentment and leisure. It suits my life style."

"Now my question for you," I said, "I'm sure many Chinese would ask: why do you have the Chinese name Situ Keli?"

"Therefore you think this name is strange? Ha ha, indeed many people think it's amusing. Actually it's just because my last name is Strickler, therefore a Beijing friend gave me a similar-sounding Chinese name. I have been living in China for a long time, therefore my Chinese is okay. Karl and I are friends of 35 years, therefore this time I accompany him as his one-time interpreter."

He then asked, "Therefore do you want to hear Karl's story?"

"Of course. Please tell!"

 In 1904, American Presbyterian missionary Karl George came to a Hainan town, Jiaji. While he proffered the Bible and preached, he donated medicine. Through his effort and an American church's support, in the town of Jiaji a church hospital and a school were built. The locals could see doctors and go to the school for free. George became acquainted with an American girl who worked for the church school. They fell in love, married, and had children.

In 1924, Jiaji Church was built. The same year, George was killed by Boxers. He was 49.  George's wife took the three children, including Karl's father, then seven, back to America.

Karl's father spent his first seven years in Jiaji, had a carefree childhood, and spoke the local dialect fluently. When Karl was young, he often heard his grandmother and father mention the faraway Jiaji, Hainan, China. They taught him the 1920s hymn and obscure Hainan dialect; they showed him old photos of where his grandfather had worked and lived for twenty years.

For various reasons, they never returned to China again. Karl's grandmother died 38 years ago, his father 18 years ago. On his shoulder was the wish of two generations.

Karl was 59. He had four sons and a daughter. He hoped to find his grandfather's footsteps in Jiaji, Hainan, China, and later bring his family to visit.

As soon as Situ stopped talking, my husband questioned, "Are you sure he was killed by Boxers? The Boxer movement was in Qing Dynasty, which had been gone in 1924. Sounds impossible."

Situ sighed: "Therefore someone else has said so. But China was in chaos then, therefore Karl's grandmother was probably confused." He speculated that, perhaps Karl's grandmother had heard that Boxer killings were aimed at Christians, therefore mistook it as such a case.  It might be that local heretics did it.  Because there were many Buddhists and Taoists in rural China then, wouldn't it be possible that they murdered George because of their hatred toward the foreign Christian?

I thought that possibility was small. Besides the fact that Buddhism itself came from a foreign country, both Buddhists and Taoists were non-extreme, mild people. Their doctrines stress concepts such as treating others with kindness, accumulating virtue, good people rising to heaven and bad people going down to hell, and so on. A hatred-murder was unlikely also because George was doing charity work and got along with locals well. So I was inclined to think it might have been an accident.  (To be continued here)


Anonymous said...

Very interested in the ending! Especially as I live in Haikou...

Xujun said...

Stay tuned...:-)

Unknown said...

This is a very interesting story. Maybe you can even developed into a novella of sorts.

BTW, this comment is coming from a hometown girl....but I have never gone back to visit Chongqing and have very little (but fond) recollection of the place.

I had searched your book. Not sure if you are aware of this, it seems that it is not available in Kindle.

Xujun said...

Hi, thanks for your comments. Actually, my book is available in Kindle. Here's the link:

Anonymous said...

The deeper story is the basis of "the widow's quest" by Kathleen Lodwick, (2003). I am surprised Karl did not clarify that the murder of his grandpa was an accident following a bungled kidnapping for ransom. It had nothing to do with Boxer's who were in the north of China or anti-foreigner sentiment.

Anonymous said...

Keep reading, the connection to the boxers is clearly shown to not be a real one. Interesting about the book.