Mah family history

The origins of many proper names are so distant and obscure that nobody remembers precisely the meaning of these names, but traditional Chinese names are rich in history. Only about one hundred families existed in China during the dynastic period, each with a unique and meaningful name. Nearly two millennia ago during the Han Dynasty, the first Mah lived. Lyola Mah’s own family, the Lau family, helped establish this great dynasty, which ruled over a golden age between 206 B.C.E. and the year 220. Very early in this age lived the most masterful equestrian of China. Named Chao, he was highly acclaimed by the emperor and the people as the best horseman of all time for his courage and skillful feats. The name Mah itself means “horse,” and Chao had been dubbed “Horse Master” by the emperor; consequently, Chao assumed the new name and also passed Mah on down to his descendants.

He was by no means the only colorful Mah ancestor, though, and many others became as famous and remarkable in China. The very grandson of Chao was both the most abitious and most successful Mah. This grandson was highly respected and accepted by the emperor; because of his strong leadership and military skills, he was presented with the title of “Admiral of the Fleet, Conqueror of the Waves” by the emperor. This conqueror led a Chinese expedition south and subsequently extended the emperor’s authority south into Indochina. Even after his death the Mah family continued to rule this territory. Generations passed, but before the Mah family could ever come to America from China they first had to get back to China from Southeast Asia. A few of the Mah family did not return all the way to Manchuria or even past Guangzhou. These family stragglers are referred to as the “Lost Change Mahs.” A less appealing and less kind name was “Horse Dropping Mahs.” These Mahs, from whom Clifford was descended, started the southern part of the clan. The clan split into scattered pockets and villages like that of my father, in the agricultural South. Eventually these pockets evolved into close communities from misfit bunches of mavericks and exiles.

Years later Mah Nang Shi became the first of Cliff’s direct ancestors to come to the United States. His great grandfather, he arrived in California during the mid-nieteenth century before the government implemented the Exclusion Act against immigration. Because the Chinese were great sources of inexpensive labor, exactly what the Central Pacific Company needed, Mah Nang Shi became one of the many drafted to work on the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Dynamite had not yet been invented, and the black gunpowder commonly used was ineffective against the solid granite walls of the Sierra Nevada. He had to learn how to use a newly developed and very unstable explosive, nitroglycerin, that the railroads depended on for tunneling.

Despite the obvious danger of the incendiary, he accepted the low salary of one dollar a day in order to support his family who remained in China. His son was eventually born in Marysville and remained in California while Nang Shi labored near Donner Pass by being lowered down the cliff face in woven baskets with explosives. Clifford’s grandfather, Mah Ning Hin, helped establish the first Mah business in America, the Hong Chong Grocery. The market opened in 1921 in El Centro, a few miles north of the Mexican border. Because the Chinese had monopolized many major industries in Mexico and dominated free enterprise there, Pancho Villa’s army chased many Chinese, including some Mah relatives into the Southern California desert. The government ruled that anybody born in the United States was legally a citizen, as are their children, so Ning Hin’s son was consequently qualified to be a citizen.

His son Harry, Clifford’s father, returned to China many times, where he got married and where Clifford was born. To Harry, being an American was a dream. He joined the United States Navy during the Second World War, and he became a signalman. Harry was stationed in many different theaters of war while the Japanese were invading Manchuria and penetrating into the South. He eventually served on the U.S.S. Nevada during the final years in the Pacific, and near Okinawa he survived the desperate kamikaze attacks. Meanwhile, his family had to survive the eight years of Japanese occupation accompanied by the disastrous drought and famine of 1944 until Congress declared that the families of servicemen could immigrate into the States. Clifford and his mother survived, but more than twenty percent of Chinese perished during those years. Later, Harry returned to the United States, the country he loved dearly, with his family and settled in El Centro.