Eighty-three-year old Cui Mei Chen poured herself into her couch and picked up the pile of worn letters covered in Chinese characters. One bore a date from the 1950s, another from 1962. In the scantly furnished apartment in San Francisco public housing, the letters stood out as one of the few decorations. Chen carefully fingered the paper as she’d done countless times before.
“When I want to think about my parents or my family in Malaysia,” Chen said in Chinese with her daughter interpreting, “I seek the letters many times.” Now, she may get to meet her long-lost relatives that she's been linked to through these letters.
Chen's family has started a crowd-funding campaign to help her meet her siblings for the first time.
There are no pictures of Chen growing up in China, no school photos - nothing. The stack of letters, along with a black and white picture of her parents and her siblings mounted over her bed - are the only physical evidence she has of her family - a family she hardly knew.
“Every morning she wakes up and every night she goes to bed looking at that picture,” said family friend Robert Hemphill, “and reminding her of her family who are so dear to her.”
Chen was two years old when Japan invaded her homeland of China. Her parents fled to Malaysia but fearing for her safety along the difficult journey, left her and sister behind with their grandmother. The sister eventually left to live with another family, while Chen remained with her ailing grandmother. She was 11 when her grandmother died, leaving Chen to fend for herself.
Immigration between China and Malaysia became nearly impossible after the war ended. Chen’s parents feared they would never see their daughters again and had five more children in Malaysia. The occasional letters from her parents became the only link to her family.
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Chen went to work on a farm for a man who was cruel to her. She wore torn clothing and ate food normally left for the pigs.
Unbeknownst to her, the man stole the money her parents had sent her to attend school. She managed to tuck away just three years of schooling before she married at age 18.
The years rambled by and Chen still hadn’t seen her parents or siblings. In 1965, her mother finally paid a brief visit to China to see her daughter - but it was the last time Chen would see either of her parents who died in 1980. It also marked the end of any contact with her siblings.
“Meanwhile, the country of Malaysia changed all the street names from Chinese… to Malaysian names,” Hemphill said. “And so the old letters she had with addresses written in Chinese never really applied. So she couldn’t really find her brothers and sisters anymore.”
Chen moved to San Francisco in 2001 after her husband died of injuries sustained at his job. She was reunited with her own children, and now had grandchildren to look after. But her own siblings were lost somewhere in the big world.
Her children scoured the internet for any signs of the Chen's siblings and began contacting cultural groups looking for anyone with a link in Malaysia. Eventually someone put them in touch with someone else who knew someone who put them in contact with another group. Suddenly there were addresses, names - then phone calls and modern pictures sent over a smart phone.
“In her heart always thinking about them,” said Chen’s daughter Xi Guan Lei.
Her children and Hemphill launched a crowd-funding campaign on GoFundMe to raise money to send Chen to Malaysia. This month, Chen will travel to Malaysia to finally meet her five siblings for the first time. The family is also raising funds so Chen’s children can accompany her. Her goal is to reach $10,000.
“In America we have this term ‘bucket list’ of the things you want to do before you die,” said Hemphill. “I think she’s got one thing on her bucket list and this is it.”
On a recent day, Chen sifted through the pile of old letters, clutching each page as if it were a precious jewel - reading aloud the words of her departed parents. After a life fraught with hardship and loss - she leaned back and seemed to surrender the last eight decades.
“I’m very happy to see my family in Malaysia,” Chen said. “I’m very happy.”