I headed back to my ancestral village in June. That’s the thing about being an ‘overseas Chinese’. We all have ‘ancestral villages’, where our ancestors lived and made that journey out of the poverty of China at the turn of the century. In this case, the village I sought out and visited was my maternal grandfather’s childhood home. It is in the district of Kaiping, in Guangdong province, China. This is the Pearl River Delta area where the Sze Yup people come from.
His 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 get caught in human trafficking rings (which were also rife then) and eventually made a success 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. (I had never met my grandfather. He died a year before I was born, but he had been spoken of so much, his identity is very much a part of my consciousness.)
When we realized we would be in Hong Kong for a bit in June, we decided to pop over for a day trip to see the ancestral village. But it wasn’t so easy to get the details down. 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 that information and my grandfather’s name, I contacted a private tour guide in Guangdong – Jennifer Choi – to help me locate this place and bring me there. She was a gem. She wrote to the Kaiping Municipal Government who has 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 can be as small as hamlets in rural China, and you may not be able to locate them 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 rather sketchy.
We based ourselves in Macau the day before our 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 his 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 that day was 97 years in the making, which started under terribly desperate circumstances.
Many old houses still stand there, but there are as many new builds that have squeezed their way up in between. The generous car park at the front of the village, while relatively empty, holds a few BMWs and other vehicles. 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. They are arranged in a grid form, separated by narrow alleys just wide enough for two people to squeeze past.
We easily 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. The occupants had built a modern one to the back of the village and recently moved there. No matter. They weren’t anyone we would know, anyway.
It was just amazing to see and stand on the ground where my grandfather, then a thin, hungry, desperate teenager, started 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 by a very comfortable car. How did he make that journey all the way to the coast without any of these modern vehicles? It must have been with a lot of resilience, determination and guts to fling your future to 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. I was pretty awed, and have an even greater respect for what he did and where I came from. The people then must have very stoic and resilient and resourceful, but one could imagine how miserable life must have been to drive them out on such a long journey of migration. (The terrible migration issue taking place today on the other side of the world has not been lost on me. Some things don’t change, sadly.)
At the same time, ironically, there was no chorus of angels singing and a feeling that I had come ‘home’. Yes I had connected with my roots by coming full circle physically, and realising a few truths. But this village was in no way ‘home’ to me, and I didn’t feel any massive connection apart from the fact that my grandfather came from there. Which I respect, don’t get me wrong. My distant roots may have started off here, but home is Singapore, where my connection and my living roots are firmly entrenched, and where he, in fact, lived his life.
Every overseas Chinese family would have a similar story to tell, but each family’s story is in turn unique. And I am part of that huge diaspora that flowed out from the Pearl River Delta so long ago.
By the way, if you are looking for a private guide into these parts, I found Jennifer Choi very helpful and reliable. You can contact her at http://www.synotrip.com/jennychoiman