The Search for Nicolasa
OTHERWISE, THE MOTHER CHIN HOI MEEN NEVER KNEW — An Historical Saga from Past to Present
ADAM PHILLIP LIU
Prologue: Origins Unrequited
Stricken with a cerebral glioma, a type of malignant brain tumour, and at the relatively young age of sixty-five, famous photographer, decorated war hero and entrepreneur Chin Hoi Meen (CHM) of Rabaul, and latterly of Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, died without ever knowing his mother. The year was 1982 and in his last decades he had spared no expense, travelling and making fruitless enquiries in an endeavour to search for the mother whose name he knew but of whom he had no memory.
After Chin Hoi Meen died his youngest son and business successor, Raymond Chin, took up the mantle which was so dear to his father, and which was increasingly so to himself. Yet, tied down by a growing business empire, and with the passage of time dimming the truth and conflating legend and rumour, an impenetrable fog settled over the mystery that was Raymond’s paternal grandmother. The ghosts of the past, it seemed, would not be so easily known.
A Fairy Tale Princess
The Chin family legend has various incarnations, however, certain basic facts are known. Chin Hoi Meen’s father was the famous hotelier, Chin Yau Yee, better known to the world by the nom de guerre Ah Chee, and by 1915 he was well established in Rabaul as a successful entrepreneur and a man of legendary grace and geniality. By then, well into his forties, he desired a wife befitting his position, and to provide him with a son and heir. Here, the mysterious figure of ‘Kulasa’ enters our story, not a native islander as might be initially supposed, but as family lore had it, an ‘olive-skinned beauty’ who passed her complexion and exotic looks onto her son, Chin Hoi Meen. To the present day, her children and descendants continue to attribute their tall, distinct features from ‘our grandmother, the Polynesian princess’. In actuality though, knowledge about her precise origin was hopelessly confused. Some thought she was Guamese, some from Saipan, some Filipino or Malay and others thought she even hailed further afield, from parts unknown.
Whatever her origins, Ah Chee and Kulasa were married in 1916 and Chin Hoi Meen was born on the 28 January 1917. There followed a daughter, Dolly, who was born and died in 1920 at the age of six days. Thereafter, Kulasa seems to have vanished from the record entirely.
Family lore is again contradictory, but variously says that she was kidnapped by a German man, or, that she ran away with a German man, or, that she was forced out by Ah Chee and then married a German man. The story begs a thousand questions, such as why did she leave her only son behind? Did she leave New Guinea and return to her native place, wherever that might have been? Did she remarry and have more children?
Or is the whole story of a German lover completely fanciful and did she in fact die in obscure ignominy shortly after her ejection from the Chin household? Alternatively, a more mundane but rational explanation might be that she was simply another mother who died from complications of childbirth, as was common in those times.
The name Kulasa is the singular appendage to the entry of ‘name and maiden surname of mother’ on Chin Hoi Meen’s death certificate, and reveals no other information. This information had been evidently drawn from an older, now lost, piece of documentation, and of which the certificate’s informant had no recollection. Until two years ago this death certificate was the only piece of evidence that gave a hint of her identity.
Then, in late 2019 my father’s first cousin, Raymond Chin, approached me with a proposition, to see if new life could be breathed into the search for his grandmother, Kulasa. He had heard of my ongoing research into the histories and genealogies of the Chinese in New Guinea and wondered if I could help. I was fascinated and intrigued and so I accepted, although I cautioned Raymond that the search may well prove fruitless. After all, the last anyone had ever heard of Kulasa was nearly 100 years before. The chances of solving this mystery, I thought, might be like trying to piece together bits of a broken needle in a massive 100-year-old genealogical haystack … almost impossible.
The Evolution of Kulasa
Having the least information available can be a blessing in disguise; there is no surfeit of confusing information, and you take the most direct route available. In this case, the obvious place to look for Kulasa was at the registry of births, deaths and marriages in PNG, with the aim of obtaining the full birth registration information of Chin Hoi Meen.
Raymond and I made inquiries with the registry which is usually a difficult and unreliable facility to access. Yet, we were in luck, and after a few months of eager anticipation we managed to obtain an official transcript of Chin Hoi Meen’s birth certificate, which provided us our next vital clue. In it, Kulasa was recorded as being of the tender age of eighteen at CHM’s birth. Crucially, her place of birth was also listed and revealed as Saipan, Caroline Islands—a small but significant breakthrough.
In the months whilst waiting for CHM’s birth registration to arrive, I also consulted a little-known reference work, namely, the Genealogical Index to Australians and other expatriates in Papua New Guinea 1888–1975. This resource is a pot-pourri of indexed cemetery records, probate records, newspaper birth death and marriage records and other miscellaneous record sets.
As well as documenting the colonial European presence in PNG, the Genealogical Index is a valuable source of information on the Asian and Asian-mixed raced populations in PNG during that time. Consulting it, I discovered the indexed entries of both the marriage of Ah Chee, and, the birth of CHM. In both entries, where Kulasa’s name was expected, was instead written the name of ‘Nikolasa (Nicolasa) Asan’. The birth of CHM’s deceased infant sister, Dolly, was also indexed, but with her mother’s name as simply put as, ‘Colosa’. Joining the dots, it then became quite apparent that Kulasa was merely a spelling variant on ‘Colosa’, but both were clearly shortened forms of the fully realised and exotic-sounding name of Nicolasa. The mysterious Kulasa of unknown place now became Nicolasa Asan of Saipan, Caroline Islands, and the identity of CHM’s mother, and where to look for her, came into much clearer focus.
No Strangers to These Shores
The sandy beaches, crystal lagoons and verdant coastlines of former German New Guinea, were certainly no stranger to itinerant folk from abroad. As well as the usual contingent of pith-helmeted, starched colonials, there came large numbers of
industrious and stoic Chinese merchants, artisans and labourers, of which Ah Chee stood among them. Then, in much smaller numbers, came the indentured Malays, Javanese and Ambonese, who often worked as clerks and labourers. There was also a sprinkling of adventurous Japanese artisans and businessmen. Others yet, were the Micronesian Caroline islanders, principally from the miniscule island colonies of Guam, Yap, and Saipan, the last being Nicolasa’s native land. Saipan Island was sold by Spain to the German Empire in 1899, who in turn constituted it as a part of German New Guinea.
From that time on, surnames of Carolinian origin begin appearing in New Guinea, among them: Guerrero, De La Cruz, Conboy, Aquiningo, Alden, Esteves, Marquess, Tadoi and Luhan. One of the witnesses to the marriage to Ah Chee and Nicolasa was one Titus Conboy, a fellow Carolinian, although he appears to be unrelated to her.
Nicolasa and her kinsfolk belonged to the Chamorru, originally, a dark-skinned, Austronesian peoples who originated in south-east Asia and migrated throughout the western Pacific islands. Gradually, starting with Spanish colonisation in 1668, the indigenous Chamorru became increasingly mixed with workers and migrants from Asia, most often from the Philippine Islands (also a Spanish colony), but also from China and Japan.
Their Spanish colonial masters themselves were not averse to intermarrying with the indigenous and immigrant locals, thus further colouring the mixing pot and in the process introducing their Spanish surnames. Centuries of genetic mixing characterise the modern Chamorru people today, whose complex features betray all of their islander, Asian and European roots.
Following the Chamorru Grapevine
Armed with knowledge of Nicolasa’s origins, and with the benefit of modern technology, I began a Google search for Chamorru historians and researchers, and was referred to Bernard Punzalan, the founder of the Chamorru Roots Genealogy Project, and amateur historian and genealogist, Herman T Guerrero, who has compiled the genealogies of hundreds of Chamorru families. Their copious research allowed me to fill in many of the details of her life.
The Extraordinary Life of Nicolasa Lujan Asan: a biographical sketch
Nicolasa Lujan Asan was born on the 3 January 1903 in the little town of Garapan on the island of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands. She was the first, and as far as we know, only child of Isidro Asan and Josepha Santos Lujan. Isidro was a first-generation migrant from the Celebes in the Dutch East Indies, present day Indonesia, and so we can reasonably suppose that he was of Malayan origins. On the other hand, his wife Josepha, was purely local and had roots in Guam and Saipan traceable to the late 1700s. Surnames in her family included Camacho, Espinosa, Santos and Castro.
Nothing is known of her childhood and how she originally came to New Guinea is still completely mired in mystery. What is certain however is that on the 23 December 1915 she came to be married to the thirty-four-year old Chinese entrepreneur, Chin Yau Yee, ‘Ah Chee’, in the local registry office of Rabaul in German New Guinea.
She was still a child, barely thirteen, and not the adolescent eighteen as was implied on CHM’s birth certificate. One can reasonably suppose that her age must have been overstated at the time to give some semblance of legitimacy to the proceedings, for even back in those times, marriage at the age of thirteen was rather less common.
Nicolasa was fourteen when Chin Hoi Meen was born. Then, at age seventeen her daughter Dolly was born, and then tragically died after six days.
On 17 June 1922 Nicolasa gave birth out of wedlock to a daughter, Anita Cecile Nicolasa Schumann, in Rabaul. Five days later, on 22 June she married her new daughter’s father, Hans Max Christlieb Schumann, in Rabaul. In 1923, Hans, Nicolasa and Anita departed Rabaul, never to return. The only clue that we have as to what might have caused such a seismic shift in her life comes from the remarks of her daughter many years later. In her own words, ‘[Nicolasa] left him behind when she decided to leave her Chinese husband and live with my father whom she had met earlier.’
Together the Schumann family travelled to and settled temporarily in Hamburg, Germany. In 1925 Hans sent Nicolasa and Anita on a vacation to the Far East. Amazingly, we learn that Nicolasa and Anita returned to her birthplace in Saipan to visit her family, her mother and her maternal grandmother both very much alive. After leaving Saipan Nicolasa and Anita made a quick stopover in Shanghai, to visit an uncle of Hans, before returning to Germany.
Years of itinerant travel followed for the Schumann family, following the changing fortunes of Hans, and economic ebbs and flows of the roaring twenties and the slump of the thirties. From 1928–30 Hans and Nicolasa lived in Yaounde in the Cameroons, West Africa, whilst their daughter Anita attended a convent school in Germany. From 1930–35 they relocated to the British Gold Coast, now present-day Ghana, where Hans bought and operated a coconut plantation. It is here, in Kumasi, Ghana, that their second daughter, Victoria Maria Johanna Schumann, was born on 19 April 1933. From 1935–40 the family live in Lagos, Nigeria, where Hans worked as a representative for a German brewery.
During these years there Anita schooled in Germany but spent holidays where possible with her family in West Africa. Despite some hard economic times, several photos emerge from this period that demonstrate a close-knit family life. Hans and Nicolasa appear to have been a happy couple.
In 1939, with the outbreak of war in Europe, the Schumann family were interned by the British in Ibadan, Nigeria. After six months, the Schumanns, along with the rest of the interned families were relocated to Kingston, Jamaica, where they spent the remainder of the war. It was here in Jamaica, after twenty-five years of marriage, that Hans Schumann died in 1947 at the age of fifty-five, ostensibly from liver cirrhosis, a long-term complication of quinine used as an antimalarial. Anita obtained a job in Caracas, Venezuela and, soon after, Nicolasa and Victoria joined her, and Nicolasa herself obtained a job with the American Embassy in Caracas. In 1949, Nicolasa was transferred to a post in Washington DC, where Victoria finished her schooling.
Throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies Nicolasa lived in various locations in the Western United States—Palm Springs, San Diego and Carson City, and she returned occasionally to Venezuela to visit and live with her daughter, Anita. Then, at the advanced age of seventy, Nicolasa married for the third and last time to Clarence Tyson. Their marriage lasted ten years until his death in 1983.
Nicolasa lived on for sixteen more years before she died on 25 December 1999 in Carson City, Nevada—outliving her son, Chin Hoi Meen, by seventeen years. She lived well into the adult lives of CHM’s children, her New Guinea-born grandchildren, who always wondered about her, but never knew she was living but half a world away.
This is an edited extract from the original article, which can be accessed on our website at www.pngaa.org/other-stories/