Soon after immigrated to Hong Kong from Beijing in 1979, I spotted a newspaper ad about a stamp convention. Knowing it is an hobby alright but I had no idea and intrigued by the notion that my idle hobby could merit such a gathering, I decided to stop by to meet fellow teenagers who shared my interest in peeling little pictures of Queen Elizabeth and Dwight Eisenhower and swap colorful candy wrappers.
The convention was held at a hotel, instead on a playground should have warned me. Stepping into the hotel ballroom, I was greeted by a sea of business suits amidst rows of tables that had been set up beneath a huge Victorian chandelier. I hesitated, intimidated by what I saw, but before I could slink away, someone noticed me.
“What kind of collection do you have?” a man asked in a kind tone of bass [baritone].
I looked at him vacantly.
He nodded at the album tucked under my arm, which opened to reveal a series of ragtag bits accumulated from correspondence with overseas relatives.
Chatting over drinks in the lounge, the Baritone asked how I started collecting. Sheepish, I confessed: “I was attracted to the pretty pictures.”
“Oh, that’s very normal,” he declared. “Chow Jin-jue, the King of Chinese Philately, started exactly the way you did, from those worthless foreign stamps.”
“Chow who? Is he in the room too?”
“Oh no. He passed away long before you were born.” Bariton said with an easy laugh.
“Do you like history?” he asked as we finished up our drinks.
“Nope,” I averred. History was for those with wrinkles on their faces. It was a subject I had to suffer through for the sake of passing school exams. Despite my views, he offered me an apprenticeship: he would pay me to sort his voluminous collection.
I soldiered on at my first job more for the fact that it financed the Italian shoes and handbags than for the love of philately. The Baritone was fond of regaling me with philatelic anecdotes and lectures on Chinese history, most of which fell on deaf ears. Somehow, I retained the stories about Chow and his role as the founding father of Chinese philately.
Chow’s standing was reinforced when, in 1982, the rarest stamp in the Eastern Hemisphere* changed hands at an unprecedented US$280,000. (As a sidenote, it was sold again in 2009 at over US$10,000,000.**) The King had been the first Chinese owner of this block of four, but was forced to sell it in 1947 for US$21,000 in order to bribe a judge. He died in 1949, heartbroken by what he had given up.
Alas, my mentor’s exuberance at having finally seen this great rarity in person did not last long when dire headlines turned to Hong Kong’s consignment back to China. Baritone’s travels to Shanghai became more frequent, I headed off to Europe, and we eventually lost touch. By the time I settled in New York in 1986, stamps were the last things on my mind.
I was born in Beijing as an only child. My parents met in the 1950’s while in the army, where Father captained the basketball team, Katyusha, for which Mother played forward. Faithful military service, however, proved insufficient to write off their bourgeois background, and when the fervor of the Cultural Revolution took hold, Mother was detained. Four months later she committed suicide. I was seven years old and Father, unable to cope, shunted me back and forth between relatives. The suicide loomed large, and my family history was a topic that was too painful for anybody to broach.
After my children were born in New York, I resolved to break the silence and unravel an obscured past. Jumping headfirst into the task of researching my ancestry, I began to piece together a family tree. After a few years of work, the results were remarkable. The New York Times spent the summer of 1895 covering the anti-missionary riots in Sichuan province, where one of my great, great grandfathers was Viceroy. Known to be a fervent anti-westerner, he was accused of instigation and insurrection. The Empress Dowager, given an ultimatum by the Western powers, was forced to strip him of his title under threat of British Naval intervention. Yet another great, great grandfather was founder of the celebrated Kaiping Mines, where his son employed a young American engineer named Herbert Clark Hoover. During the calamitous Boxer Rebellion, the enterprising Hoover managed to wrest away ownership of the precious mines. Needless to say, after these few revelations, my attitude towards history had changed.
Browsing in the library one day, a book with a pink spine caught my eye. Flipping through it, I found another long lost uncle. Incredulous, I raced to the computer to google him. Wei-liang Chow was an authority on algebraic geometry who chaired Johns Hopkins University’s math department for over a decade before retiring in 1977. To ensure proper placement on my tree, I called Uncle Jun-liang in Tianjin.
“Uncle, do you know Wei-liang?”
“Oh yes, the mathematician. He’s from da fang.” The first branch. Fang is room or family in China. In this instance, it refers to their sons’ family. Wei-liang’s dad was the oldest son hence the Big Branch. Jun-liang’s dad was the seventh son so he is from 7th Fang., the 7th Branch.
“How come you never mentioned him?” How many others have I missed?
“Too many, can’t remember them all,” he chuckled softly. “You should remember his father, Mei-quan, who was an eminent mathematician himself.”
“Yeah, I remember.” He was already on my tree, listed as a poet.
“He was known for stamps too.”
A dim spark flickered in my mind’s eye. I knew that some of my relatives were collectors but when I started my research, I was inexperienced and overlooked these facts as mere social trappings.
“Did he go by another name?”
“Yes, they called him Zhou Jin-jue.” The spark burned bright. Apparently, the King was known as M.D. Chow to the West, Zhou Mei-quan by his family and Zhou Jin-jue to the stamp community.
My tree had sprouted new fruit. For a moment I basked in the irony that this Renaissance man, of whom I had heard so much during my ignorant youth, turned out to be an important part of my familial heritage. I was right about one thing: historians are octogenarians by nature. Now that I’ve got wrinkles of my own, history will never pass me by again.
* Ma Ren-Chuen, Ma’s Illustrated Catalogue of the Stamps of China (Shanghai: Shun Chang & Co.; 1947), 50.
** A private conversation I have with the owner on September 2, 2014 who wish to remain anonymous. The ‘littler over $10 million’ was mentioned by our mutual friend.