My mother has a Chinese vase. It’s very pretty and it was more than our lives were worth to break it. We were often told that our ancestor, our great great-great-grandmother Neenah, had brought it from Shanghai all the way to America in the 1880s.
Just last month, Mom submitted the vase to the local Antiques Road Show—and much to her shock, this family heirloom is worth a lot of money. Like $10,000 a lot of money. That was a surprise because we had always valued the vase for its connection with the past—not for any sale price it could command.
Neenah was half-Chinese, and she found a hostile reception in America—not only from a country that hated the Chinese—but even from her own family. In my book View from Pagoda Hill, I tell Neeah’s story of how she meets racism head on and triumphs by creating a new home and family for herself in America.
The historical fiction I write is supposed to be in the past. But I can’t read Twitter these days or watch the local news without seeing stories of racial hate against Asians. I don’t identify as Asian-American – but these incidents break my heart. Nothing has changed.
On the other hand…
My book is only one of dozens of books about the Asian-American experience. These stories are being told. Authors are joining together to raise money to combat hate. I’ve been on panels where we discussed how universal it is to search for safety and a home. We talk frankly about what it means to be a hyphenated American.
Some things have changed.
Neenah’s family met her with ignorance and fear—but 100 years later, her belongings are treasured by her descendants. Her great-great-great granddaughter wrote an award-winning book about her!
We have changed.
When I wrote View from Pagoda Hill, I deliberately rooted the story in Neenah’s possessions. They weren’t those of a rich girl. A simple jade necklace. A handmade doll. A vase. They have value because we treasure them and our direct link to a brave girl who crossed seven seas and two canals and the Hudson River to come here.
The $10,000 is just a bonus.
Neenah Hamill, the author’s ancestor, c. 1875
Neenah Hamilton’s Vase as valued by an appraiser
Visit Michaela Maccoll at michaelamaccoll.com.