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Love of Learning

How Paul Chin examined tradition and privilege to re-shape identity and family

By MINA WONG - March 16 2023


Born in 1970 to Macao businessman Man-Yun Chin and his third wife Emma, Paul grew up studying Chinese, English and Portuguese in excellent schools. 

Emma and Paul lived in a cozy duplex where Man-Yun stayed several times a year, each time bringing presents and bank investments.

At an early age, Paul wondered why his parents lived apart, and why he couldn’t see Papa more often. Emma would explain, “Papa’s a very busy man, but he loves you and wants the best for you.”

Feeling Emma’s loneliness as he got older, Paul would ask, “Mama, does Papa want the best for you, too? Does he also love you?”

About marital happiness, Emma would usually say, “Papa looks after me, and that means he wants the best for us.”

One day when Paul was nine, Emma said they would be attending a funeral: “Papa’s mama has passed away at eighty.” 

With few memories of family members, Paul asked, “Who else would be there?”

Emma told her son that at the funeral, he would see Man-Yun’s first and second wives Jenny and Lulu, and their children Joy, Jewel, James, and Henry. “They’re your older brothers and sisters.”

Unfamiliar with the names, Paul simply listened: “Be polite at grandmother’s funeral. Papa wants everyone to be respectful.”

At the funeral, Paul was surprised that Jenny and Lulu were older than Emma, and that all their children were adults. He also learned that Jenny was the mother of Joy and Jewel, and that Lulu’s sons were James and Henry.     

Joy, twenty, and Jewel, nineteen, hugged Paul affectionately. Then James, also nineteen, and Henry, eighteen, shook hands warmly with their younger brother.

The older siblings obviously knew each other, but they were all enchanted by precocious Paul with thoughtful eyes.

Thinking his siblings as tall and smart, Paul was intrigued by their attentiveness. He also watched Jenny, Lulu, and Emma wept in an embrace for their departed mother-in-law.

Not having seen Man-Yun for two months, Paul noticed that he looked older: “Papa’s the oldest person in our family now.”

Later when Paul asked Emma why she had married Man-Yun, she said, “Only Jenny is Papa’s legal wife. When Lulu had James and Henry, Papa got a bigger family. I was in Grade 13 when Papa gifted my school with scholarships. He was very kind and I liked him. Then we had you.”

Emma’s disclosure confused Paul even more. “But Mama, why did Papa want James and Henry when he already had two beautiful girls? And why did he want another son with you when he already had four smart kids?”

Emma’s reply prompted Paul to later examine and re-define his own identity. “Papa’s a traditional Chinese man. I’m sure Joy and Jewel were the light of his life, but he also wanted sons, and Lulu gave him James and Henry.”

“And me?”

Emma smiled. “When Papa and I knew we were having a baby, we hoped for a girl, but we got you, and you’re my world.”

After grandmother’s funeral, Paul didn’t see his siblings for almost twenty years until all five had established themselves overseas.

During this time, Paul learned that Joy had married a fellow lawyer in San Francisco and raised a son; New York philanthropist, Jewel was still single. Boston physics professor, James had married a geologist and adopted a daughter; and Seattle urologist, Henry lived with his chatelaine and their son and daughter.

At thirty, Paul was a successful architect in southern Ontario and Michigan. While dating fellow builder Ariana Shaw, he unpacked Papa’s polygamy. He saw clearly that the more wives and sons, the higher Man-Yun’s socio-economic status.

Although all five children were wealthy by birth, Paul questioned how privilege could justify multiple women’s loyalty to one man’s self-importance: “What gave Papa that right when Jenny, Lulu, and Mama had no such option from their upbringing?” 

Paul also knew Emma’s loneliness throughout her devotion to Man-Yun. Likewise, Jenny and Lulu would long for their husband’s affection because he never gave it completely to anyone. Moreover, he could continue courting younger women, like his relationship with Emma as Jenny and Lulu entered middle age. 

Unfairness to women offended Paul, but he wanted to forgive Papa for practicing the tradition he knew best. “A chauvinistic husband, Papa did acknowledge a new generation for both sons and daughters. He’s loved us deeply by investing in all our education and success.”

When Ariana asked, “And if you’d been your Papa?”, Paul answered, “I would’ve been over the moon with beautiful Jenny, Joy, and Jewel.”

He added, “I’m my father’s son, but also my own man – husband to one wife raising our children with her.”

At fifty-two, Paul’s been married to Ariana for almost seventeen years. Emilie, their fourteen-year-old will travel to Macao this winter to find her roots. All elderly but robust, Jenny, Lulu, Emma, and Man-Yun are ecstatic; Emilie’s aunts, uncles, and cousins in different North American cities are also delighted. 

Learning from Man-Yun’s customs, his children and grandchildren have gained important insight into identity, privilege, marriage, and family. Through forgiving and accepting him as a product of his tradition, they have reunited a family and forged new generations, totally on their own terms.

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