My brothers and I are busy getting rid of stuff. I suppose that this, too, is a part of death. I can remember doing this for my mother-in-law. Now, I’m doing it for Dad. Clothes, medical supplies, lots of paper.

Ivory seal
Dad’s seal. Photo credit: Karen Kao

There are treasures, too, among the detritus. In his desk drawer, under the paper clips and antique calculators, we find my father’s seal. The characters of his Chinese name are carved into one end. The other end looks like a stream of water down a mountain. My seal is carved out of plastic whereas his looks like it could be stone or ivory.

In many Asian societies, you use a seal rather than a signature to authenticate a document. You press your seal into a bit of red cinnabar paste and chop a document, rather than sign it. Like naming a riverbank in Shanghai The Bund, Western traders brought the word chop from India to China.

Not all of the treasures in this house belong to Dad. Mom has some, too. And since every treasure comes with a story, here’s a story about ivory.


The war between China and Japan has just begun. In quick succession, Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing fall. Those who can, flee the fighting. Some head into the interior like Chiang Kaishek who moved his capital to Chongqing in 1937. Others like Nabu, my maternal grandmother, go south to Hong Kong.

With the fall of France to Germany in 1940, Japan moves into southeast Asia. It occupies the former French Indochina: Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. After Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US enters the war and Japan tightens its hold on Asia. Hong Kong and Burma fall in 1942.

But before that happens, my maternal grandparents are evacuated from Hong Kong. My grandfather, wàigōng, must take up a new job in Kunming. This is the capital of the far western Chinese province of Yunnan. It will soon become the new industrial base for the wartime Nationalist government and one of China’s few transportation links to the West.

But how do you get from here to there? Kunming is almost due west of Hong Kong. The straightest route would take you through occupied Vietnam and Laos. Plane, train and boat traffic is compromised. For whatever reason, my maternal grandparents take the long way around. They reach Kunming by way of India.

On the Road

Miniature ivory minarets
Mom’s ivory minarets. Photo credit: Karen Kao

While en route, my maternal grandparents stop for a little sightseeing at the Taj Mahal. As a keepsake, they buy a set of ivory minarets. Impossibly, the minarets survive the trip from Agra to Kunming and the war with the Japanese.

After the war, the Japanese must relinquish control over the occupied territories as well as their former colony of Taiwan. For the third time in her young life, my mother and her family move. The ivory minarets come along to the new family home in Taichung.

The ivory minarets take a place in her heart. When Mom leaves Taiwan for the United States, two ivory miniatures come with her.

The Slow Boat from China

In many ways, it’s remarkable that Mom and Dad ever met in Los Angeles. Or, rather, why they hadn’t met sooner when their paths had crossed so often. For example, while Mom was in Kunming during the war, Dad was stationed at an army camp outside of town. After the war, both of them returned to Shanghai, although Mom’s stay was short. They even overlapped for a few years in Taiwan with Dad in the north and Mom in the central part of the country.

Dad on the boat from China
Dad on the boat from China

And, of course, they both came to the United States by boat. Different boats on different dates. No possibility of a shipboard romance there. Dad crossed the Pacific Ocean on the President Cleveland in the summer of 1950. Mom took the President Wilson five years later.

After the obligatory stop at Angel Island, Mom traveled by train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Inside one of her many suitcases lay a pair of ivory minarets. Soon, these miniatures will take another long journey, this time to Amsterdam.

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