Abandoned as a Child, a Lost American in China Dreams of the U.S. He's Never Seen

updated 07/20/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/20/1981 01:00AM

The most surprising part of Lee Pak-chung's strange story is that no one took serious notice of him earlier. In his small Chinese village near the Macao border, his hazel eyes, long auburn hair and Caucasian features mark him as clearly as a duck in a chicken coop. But if Huangcheng Commune had not been placed on the itinerary of a day tour run out of Hong Kong, Lee might have eventually died in obscurity. Instead, a sharp-eyed American who lives in Hong Kong and speaks Chinese spotted him selling straw hats and baskets at a souvenir stand. "You're not Chinese, are you?" the visitor asked. "No," Lee replied, "I'm American."

Although he spoke no English and recalled only that his Western name sounded like "Cafa," Lee, 37, had kept old letters from his mother, Edith Day Lee, a woman of European and South Seas descent. Traced to Suva, the capital of Fiji, Edith Lee burst into tears when asked about her son. "I think of my children in China all the time, but in my situation, I can't do anything for them," she said. She believes that the boy's father was a U.S. soldier named William Collier who was stationed in Fiji during World War II and died in combat. She christened her son Clifford. After the war she married deliveryman Lee Young-chee in Fiji and moved to China. Soon after the Communist victory in 1949, the parents fled, leaving the boy and his half-Chinese half sister behind with relatives. The relatives died soon afterward, and the children were left to scrounge on their own. "We became vagrants," Lee remembers. "We earned our living by cutting trees on the mountain or catching fish in the ocean."

Today Lee earns the equivalent of 30 to 70 cents a day, selling bric-a-brac to tourists or driving people around the province on a rented bicycle. Accepted by his Chinese friends, he says, "Although my life is simple and hard, I feel strongly that I have love and friendship here." Still, he recognizes that he is different, and recently he has begun emphasizing that difference by wearing his hair long and growing a beard, a practice almost unknown among mainland Chinese. He dreams that someday he will be able to move to what he calls "my fatherland," the United States. "I have known for a long time that I am an American," he says. "But I know nothing about America. I have studied little and know nothing of the world. I was hoping that friends would help me find the blood relatives of my American father, but I have no facts that would help me trace them."

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