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The story behind my Chop*

I have visited my family village in China four times, with each occasion providing me a unique and special memory.  My very first trip to the village in 1981 was special not only because it was my first ever trip to China, but also because I went with my mother and youngest brother, Alton.  For mom, it was her first trip “home” since she emigrated in 1938.  I saw China not only through my personal impressions, but also through my mother’s eyes, eyes that witnessed all the changes that had occurred in the country since she left.  Mom came through Angel Island, detained there for at least a month before she “passed the test” and was permitted to come on shore.  Both mom and dad entered the United States with falsified documents bearing the names of families from whom they purchased immigration papers.  So their five children bear the false “paper” surname of Chinn.  Our real family surname is Yim.  Growing up in Chinatown, most, if not all of us understood the threat we lived under.  So we learned to keep to ourselves, to not draw unnecessary attention, especially trouble with the law.  The fear of exposure and deportation was enormous.  Chinese School was a place of refuge in that there we could gauge the political climate, the degree of threat each year to our residency in the country.  When it was safe, we used our real names (Yim); and when it was not safe, we resorted to our paper names (Chinn) throughout the school year.

What made my third trip to China in 1986 memorable was the gift of my favorite Chop.  The trip was sponsored and planned by San Francisco Theological Seminary where I served on the faculty at the time.  I was one of the co-leaders of the trip which included seminary students and pastors.  The focus of this particular trip was the Church in China, including seminaries.  We met with church leaders, pastors, and seminary professors across China.  We were a large group, making it a logistical challenge to be on time and on schedule.  On one particular occasion, we were significantly delayed by one of the participants, an Episcopalian priest.  An art collector and fluent in Mandarin, he loved to shop and was always the last one back on the bus.  On this particular occasion, he was so late that I couldn’t help but to glare at him when he finally got on the bus.  On our last night in China, when the group gathered for testimonies and good byes, gifts were exchanged.  I was called to the front by the priest; and he presented me the Chop, with my real surname, Yim, etched in beautiful ancient calligraphy.  I burst into tears.  The highlight of the trip for many of the participants was when I led the group into my family village, introducing them to my relatives and telling them the story of my family, immigration, and paper names.  The Chop captured all my family memories and struggles.  That day when the priest was so late, it was because he had to wait for the Chop to be ready for him.  Through my tears, I thanked him and apologized for the glare.

*In our Chinese culture, the Chop is the official stamp or seal of a government or company or individual.  The Chop functions like a distinct signature.  Commonly, there are three characters in a Chinese name, the family name on the right which is the most prominent and the largest character, and the individual’s given name in one or two smaller characters.  My Chinese name is:  YIM you keong.  So how did I get my English name?  My parents spoke only Chinese and gave me my Chinese name.  And my English name, Calvin, was given to me by the obstetrician who delivered me at Chinese Hospital.  Ironically, the doctor’s name was Dr. Helen Chinn.

2 thoughts on “The story behind my Chop*”

  1. What a magnificent sharing of your two most significant visits to China. It was easy to feel with you the impatience with a lagging traveler while the rest of the travelers waited on the bus, the disapproving glare at a “fellow clergy”, the burst of tears and confession of the glare. Very pleased and honored to meet you Reverend Yim You Keong.

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