I headed back to my ancestral village in June. It is my maternal grandfather’s childhood home, in the district of Kaiping, in Guangdong province, China. My mother and her siblings talked about it occasionally, but the last time anyone in the family went back there was a few years ago. The village always seems to be referred to in half mysterious tones, and no one referred to it by its name. I guess no one knew its name, and it always sounded far away and inaccessible. And the impression most people have of the ancestral village in China is that it is very poor. I guess it is because it was always referred to in those terms: after all, when my grandfather had left it, it was mired in abject poverty and desperation.
The village is Tao Yuan Chun (which means Peach Garden Village). He left it in 1919, when he was in his late teens, on a wing and a prayer to hopefully find a better life. Having lost his parents when very young and with no siblings, he was relatively lucky to be a carpenter’s apprentice. But riddled with abject poverty and hunger, things were desperate. So one night as I have often been told, he left the village with nothing but the shirt on his back — like countless young men before and after him — and made the journey to the coast. From there, he got on a junk and sailed to Singapore. Fortunately for him, he did not caught in the human trafficking rings and eventually made a success out of himself.
While my grandfather never saw his homeland again, it had always been very much in his mind obviously, as his childhood memories had passed into the collective memory of the family. But I had never met my grandfather. He died a year before I was born.
During the recent June break, with no other grand idea for a holiday destination, we decided quite on the spur of the moment to make this personal pilgrimage back to the ancestral land. Seeing the UNESCO Heritage Kaping diaolou in the same area was an enticing prospect as well — something I had wanted to do for many years.
A little bit of asking around within the family yielded me the name of the village, and surprisingly even the address of the house where his home had once stood over a century ago. With only that information, I contacted a private tour guide in Guangdong whom I found on the ‘sinotrip’ website – Jennifer Choi. She was a gem. She wrote to the Kaiping Municipal Government who had a department, I believe, that helps overseas Chinese track down their roots. Apparently, they verified the information (which was a great help) and gave her the GPS co-ordinates of the village. You see, these villages in rural China can be as small as hamlets — just a cluster of houses — which you may not be able to locate it so easily. Getting clarification from the local government gave us some assurance that we weren’t off on a wild goose chase, for the information we had was sketchy.
We based ourselves in Macau for the day trip to Kaiping. Early the next morning, we headed across the northern land border to Zhuhai, a modern city a far cry from the village, and met Jennifer and Mr Leong, the driver. In the air conditioned MPV, we travelled two and a half hours on 21st century highways to Kaiping. After which it was another half hour on the main roads before we turned off onto a little country lane and bumped our way three and half kilometres past rice fields, dragon fruit plantations, plywood workshops, ponds and little villages. Round a corner, past another rice field, we saw a medium-sized, algae-green pond and beyond it, an even smaller village. Finally we had arrived at Tao Yuan Chun. If I were being dramatic, I’d say my journey today was 97 years in the making, which started under terribly desperate circumstances.
Many old houses still stand there, but there are new builds that squeeze their way up in between. The generous car park at the front of the village, while relatively empty, holds a few BMWs, and VW and other vehicles. Hardly desperate and sad now. In the late morning, it looks like most people were away at work. Hardly anyone was around to cast a curious glance at this small group of strangers. Being generous, I’d say there are no more than 60 houses here, arranged in a grid and separated by straight narrow alleys just wide enough for two people to squeeze past.
We found the address we were looking for. It was a small, grey brick house with peeling couplets and pictures of door gods on it. Looks like the remnants of a wedding left behind. A villager who walked past said the house was now empty. He spoke in Sze Yup – the only dialect I can speak with any degree of fluency. For that moment I felt like I was part of the place. A bond. A connection. I could talk to him like a local. I never get to speak this dialect back home outside of the family. This was liberating. He said the former occupants of this house had built a modern structure to the back of the village and recently moved there. No matter. They weren’t anyone we would know of, anyway.
It was just amazing to see and stand on the ground where a thin, hungry, desperate teenager once lived, and who was driven by desperation to head off alone on the journey of his life to find a better one. For me, making this trek back was already quite arduous – by plane, ferry (from HKG to Macau), on foot for a little bit, and in a very comfortable car. How did he make that journey all the way to the coast without any of these modern vehicles nor money nor education? It must have been with a lot of resilience, determination and guts to fling your future to the promise of the unknown and hope for the best. With nothing more than the knowledge that you would be willing to work to make it — whatever ‘it’ may be. It was humbling, and a huge eye-opener.
Every overseas Chinese family would have a similar story to tell, but each family’s story is in turn unique. This trip was a very personal experience that drove home the fact that I am part of that huge diaspora that flowed out from the Pearl River Delta so long ago. And with that, I now have a much greater respect for my roots.
Good to know: If you want to look for your roots in that region, as mentioned in my earlier post about The Kaiping Diaolou, Jenny Choi is a really good and reliable guide. You can contact her at http://www.synotrip.com/jennychoiman