A Slow Trek to My Roots in Zi-Li Village
The life story of my great-grandfather has touched my life ever since I was a child: An illiterate, orphaned, beggar-boy without a name, coming to Christian faith in America! A houseboy, gaining fluency in both English and Cantonese and advancing to become a medical doctor in China! It’s an amazing story! Amazing, even more, because it happened in the 1850s! 2 Corinthians 5:17 says it well:
“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”
Great-grandfather’s Life: In the beginning…
Dr. TO To-Ming1 , my great-grandfather, was born in the village of Zi-Li, located in Southern China, about 50 miles from Canton. His father died when he was about three years old. His mother remarried, moved to another village, and left To-Ming in the care of his grandparents. After both grandparents died, To-Ming was left to fend for himself. Initially, his relatives gave him some of their leftover food. But, in time, none of his relatives would share their food with him. In order to survive, he had to walk through the village and beg for food.
When he was seven years old, To-Ming was kidnapped near the village entrance and sold to a woman named Cheung whose business was buying girls and shipping them to America as prostitutes. He was taken to Hong Kong and placed in the custody of the Fung family, where he served as a houseboy. When To-Ming was 12 years old, Cheung took him to America—the country Chinese called “Gold Mountain.” Despite America’s good name, getting there was a difficult voyage. The boat trip across the Pacific Ocean took about two months and often involved going through storms and rough ocean waters. The conditions on boats carrying Chinese passengers were especially deplorable. On some of the trips, it was reported that as many as a quarter of the Chinese passengers died.
After arriving in San Francisco, To-Ming discovered that Cheung was basically operating brothels and the girls she bought and sold were like slaves. Though To-Ming was young, in his heart he hated Cheung’s trade and was disgusted at her practices. To get away from her, he found a job as a houseboy for another family, but he still gave part of his small earnings to her.
A Harvest from Labors of Love
In 1853, Dr. William Speers, a mission-minded Presbyterian minister, started a Chinese church in San Francisco, with the purpose of reaching the Chinese immigrants coming to the “Gold Mountain.” Later, due to a serious illness, Dr. Speers had to return to his home in Pennsylvania. In 1859, Rev. August Loomis became the pastor of this church, which was shortly after To-Ming came to America. The ministry of these two men of God was indeed a labor of love, for work among the Chinese people involved many challenges. There were widespread anti-Chinese sentiments in much of society. And many immigrants making the tedious and dangerous trip across the U.S. from the East Coast to San Francisco arrived with few skills, language barriers, and many needs. (The transcontinental railway had not yet been built, so the trip to San Francisco often took three months.)
On Sundays, To-Ming attended Pastor Loomis’ church and attended another meeting on Thursday evenings. The pastor was so impressed with the receptivity of this young teenager that he gave To-Ming a Bible and a booklet named “Discussion Between Two Friends.” 2 The booklet presented the gospel in simple terms using the format of a conversation between two friends. To-Ming was excited about getting this booklet, but the unpleasant reality was that he couldn’t even understand this simple booklet due to his limited vocabulary. To-Ming prayed that God would open his mind, grant him wisdom, and deliver him from the handicap of illiteracy.
“But if any of you lacks wisdom,let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
To-Ming found this promise in the Bible to be real in his life. Every Sunday he listened to the sermons carefully and tried to learn the words in the message. After a year of earnest prayers and diligent study, To-Ming noticed great improvement. He could read the booklet! He could understand the Bible. And his language ability extended beyond the Bible to other books, opening a new horizon in his life.
As To-Ming’s knowledge progressed, he grew to appreciate prayer more and more. He became convicted that he was a sinner. This burden was so great that he could hardly bear it. So he prayed to Jesus, asking for forgiveness of sin, and, afterwards, he experienced a special comfort and peace in his heart. With his faith in Christ and assurance of salvation, he asked to be baptized. A year later, at the age of 16, To-Ming was baptized.
A Chosen Name
Since To-Ming was kidnapped at a very young age, he did not know his surname. Choosing a first name was easy, and he chose the name “To-Ming” (道明, “Dao-ming” in Mandarin) which means “knowing the way of truth.” Choosing his surname was more difficult. At first, To-Ming was embarrassed that he did not have or know his family surname. But after pondering his origin, the idea of the Creator being his father made sense. “Jesus is the Creator. So, in a way, I can say that Jesus is my father. Good! I can follow His name,” he said to himself.
The Chinese name for Jesus consists of two Chinese words, “ye-so” (耶穌, ye-su in Mandarin, transliterated from Greek, Ἰησοῦς ). Since “SO” is a rather common Chinese surname, he felt it appropriate to choose “SO” as his surname. He then became known to others as “SO To-Ming” (“SU Dao-ming” in Mandarin).
New Beginnings in an Old World
After a few years, an amazing door opened for him to return to China. Dr. John Glasgow Kerr, a Presbyterian missionary doctor returning to China, passed through San Francisco and stayed in the home of Pastor Loomis. Upon Pastor Loomis’recommendation, he interviewed To-Ming and was impressed with his faith and persistence to learn. He offered to take him as his student to China and even promised to pay his room and board expenses.
By the amazing grace of God, To-Ming returned to China at the age of 21 and was fortunate to study under the tutelage of Dr. Kerr, one of the most well-known missionary doctors in Southern China. Dr. Kerr started his career in Canton in 1854 and served there for 47 years. During those years he treated over a million patients, directed the Canton Christian Hospital (known in Chinese as 廣州博濟醫院), and trained many Chinese doctors. One of his students was Dr. SUN Yat-Sen who later became the first president of the Republic of China.
After years of study and passing the required examinations, To-Ming became Dr. SO To-Ming, eventually serving as a doctor in the Canton Christian Hospital.
Finding His Family of Origin
Besides enjoying success in his medical career, To-Ming was blessed with a Christian wife. He and his wife had four sons and three daughters, and To-Ming was grateful for God’s blessings. Nevertheless, he always had a desire to know where he came from. He did not tell his children about his childhood because their questions brought him more sorrow. Instead, he prayed earnestly and privately that God would lead him back home.
To-Ming also had never revealed his background to his best friend for over ten years at church, Leung Chu-Sun. Then one day he met Chu-Sun’s older brother who spoke Cantonese with a familiar village accent, so he decided to confide in Chu-Sun’s brother regarding his background. Through this brother of his friend, To-Ming found the village where he was from and was able to return there. When he entered the village and walked by the “TO” ancestral hall, in that moment he remembered his original surname, “TO.” To his amazement, he found that his mother was still living.
Sharing Great-grandfather’s Amazing Story
Through To-Ming’s medical practice in China, he blessed many people’s lives, and from a personal perspective, my family and many of his descendants are still reaping blessings from his life, even after 160 years!
Out of gratitude to God, a desire to pay tribute to mission-minded Presbyterian ministers, and an aspiration to pass the Christian legacy to the next generation, I have been thankful for opportunities to tell my great-grandfather’s story many times—even in some unusual places. I was also thankful to document this amazing story in a book, The Doctor Comes Home3.In 1997, the book was on display in the lobby of Congress to represent early Chinese immigration, thanks to Congressman Tom Lantos4.
My Roots in Zi-Li Village
To some extent, To-Ming’s story relates to my roots too. For years, people would ask me, “When are you going to Zi-Li, your great-grandfather’s old village in China?” “It would be nice, but unlikely,” came my usual answer.
I actually felt quite skeptical about traveling to an unfamiliar place that was 10,000 miles away, where I had neither friends nor contacts in that village. Besides, I am not an adventuresome person! Then, last year, I had the unusual blessing of talking by phone with a cousin in China. When I asked if she knew the directions to Zi-Li Village, she responded, “Come to visit me in China, and I will take you there.”
A precious opportunity like that does not come often, so my wife felt that we should take advantage of it and go. Through my cousin’s hospitality and special arrangements, we got to visit Zi-Li Village. There I was, walking by the same “TO” ancestral hall where my great-grandfather found our family name 160 years before. I stood near the same tree where he was kidnapped, and my wife saw my tears as I recounted God’s blessing. I was touched by God’s amazing grace and how “all things work together for good for those who love God”(Roman 8:28).
On this trip we also got to visit the medical school in SUN Yat-Sen University. Since the Canton Hospital later became part of the current medical school, there were pictures of the forerunners of the medical school. On one side of the lobby was a picture of SO To-Ming, one of the doctors who served in the medical school. On the other side of the lobby was another picture of TO To-Ming, one of the staff, sitting next to Dr. Kerr.
This trip enabled me to tell more vividly the amazing story of Dr. TO To-Ming’s life: from an illiterate, orphaned beggar in China, to medical training and a medical career—from a person without a name, to finally discovering his ancestral and spiritual roots. An amazing story of God’s grace!