A Camphorwood Chest, a Legacy, a Son Returns
A son finds his mixed-race identity in a unique Asian-Jewish family archive.
Loving Strangers: A Camphorwood Chest, a Legacy, a Son Returns is my search, as the rootless, estranged son of a Singaporean-born, half-Iraqi Jewish, half-Chinese mother, and a white British military father, for my belonging and identity, through a unique family and historical archive. The story tells how I discover my mixed-race roots by unpacking – together with my mother, and with a growing sense of urgency as she ages – a camphorwood chest. The chest hides a family saga of love across vast cultural divides. It is my unravelling of this multigenerational tale that allows me to return to my family and embrace their legacy.
The camphorwood chest holds my mother’s family history, which I also come to learn forms part of a larger, untold, Jewish and Asian history. In the last days of the British Empire in Asia, Iraqi Jewish spice traders intermarried with the Chinese women who worked for them. These are the ‘loving strangers’ of my title. These are my ancestors, who came from very different parts of the world, who didn’t speak each other’s language, and who were raised in completely different cultures and religions. But through empires (primarily British, but also, before that, Ottoman and Chinese), they were brought together. They fell in love, not only with each other, but with the thrill and challenge of loving those most unlike themselves. They were drawn towards the possibilities for radically transforming self and the world that loving strangers can bring.
My mother and I discover this past by time-travelling, in reverse, through her camphorwood chest, back through its layers of possessions belonging to previous generations. Together we solve the mystery of some remarkable, almost magical heirlooms, documents and objects. These include the endless, unfinished Chinese quilt created by my grandmother, who was abandoned as a baby by the side of a river in China, in the last days of the Qing Empire. Also, one of the first audiocassette tapes ever made, of sad songs sung in many different languages by my grandfather, which capture how this big-hearted, travelling Jew was shaped by living among strangers in India and Singapore. This tape always used to make my mother cry when she played it to me as a child. Now I understand why. Then there is a family tree of Iraqi Jews dating back to 1700, which includes a trader in Arabian horses and rosewater, and a poet writing a mix of Hebrew and Arabic lyrics still recited by Jews today. The camphorwood chest is, for me, an Aladdin’s Cave of such treasures and fables of loving strangers.
Inspired by this archive, I bring my ancestors back to life, interweaving my mother’s Scheherazade-like storytelling by the side of the camphorwood chest, together with the reconstructions I’ve had to do in my imagination. I also did substantial research in archives across the world. As I go in search of the family story, I braid in my own travels, principally in India, China and Singapore. But my return to the family’s stopping places and sites of origin is more than physical. The son’s return of my title is above all emotional. And it is my emotional journey through the archive that pulls these strands into the book’s central idea of a legacy: of what it is that our ancestors leave to us; and what it means to choose to follow in their footsteps.
As I piece together the camphorwood chest parts, I realise my own identity, as a mixed-race, Asian Jew. Over the course of the book, I return from a life of unbelonging: rejecting family and history, first as a louche punk; then as a long-term Buddhist who almost became a Buddhist monk. I take on Judaism for myself and embrace my ancestors’ way of being Jewish. Through their precedent, I learn that the legacy of loving strangers is essential to Judaism and to Jewish history, although this is a little-known fact outside the Jewish community and very underplayed within it.
I want my story of finding mixed-race identity in a family biography of those who loved across worlds to resonate for our contemporary culture, which is so concerned with race, identity and ‘tribal’ divisions of all sorts. This is a legacy of loving strangers ripe for a time when, too often, we are encouraged to fear rather than to love strangers.