(I first posted a version of this in 2016 but have updated with some fascinating research I had time to pursue in 2020 during COVID.)
In June of 2016, my daughter and I traveled to Hong Kong and China for a month-long adventure. (See our top highlights.)
The first eight days were an homage to my roots. I was born in Canton, now called Guangzhou, in 1959. When I was two, my mother and I smuggled out of Macau to Hong Kong in a false-bottom boat to join my father. Sometimes noisy children would be smothered to avoid exposing the passengers.
I was 7 when we immigrated to Chicago in 1967, sponsored by my Dad’s sister and husband. Because of them, we became the American dream come true. (See my “Coming to America” story.)
I had been back to Hong Kong once, as a reporter on assignment with USA Today. But I had never been back to China.
Dad had passed two years earlier; mom wasn’t inclined to tackle such a big trip; my husband had surgery. So Regan and I were off on a mission to explore our heritage, armed with fragments of addresses and descriptions in Chinese.
What a fascinating journey of discovery.
In Hong Kong, where I lived from age 2 to 7, we went to:
- Two places I had lived–one was still intact, and one was a high rise that, ironically, featured the “English Excel School of English” on the first floor.
- The sprawling campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, formerly the HK Technical College, where Dad got his mechanical engineering certificate after attending classes at night for three years while working and living in a small laundry to earn $5 a month.
- Nam Hang, the village in New Territories where we moved because I was sickly in the city and of which I have the clearest memories, including of my dog, Whitey.
In Guangzhou, a glistening metropolis where I was born, we found:
- The hospital where I was born, now a medical center of a large complex
- The house we had lived in, now a bustling retail area
In rural Taishan, where our family villages were centered, we were guided by cousins we met for the first time, and visited:
- The village where my father grew up–he did not attend school until age 11 because the family was too poor, and he was needed to take care of their precious ox.
- The village where my grandmother grew up, as well as my Uncle Fong, who later married my aunt and sponsored us to America
- The former school where my husband and I had funded scholarships to help buy supplies
- The village and house where my mother grew up, built by my great-grandfather around 1935, and now occupied by mom’s first cousin and his family.
- I have since discovered through immigration files that this great-grandfather, Fook Loui, actually became a U.S. citizen in 1913. He had been arrested for being illegally in America without the required documents, but argued he was a citizen because he was born in San Francisco. With records there destroyed by the earthquake of 1906, there was no way to disprove his claim.
Walking on the roof of mom’s house, eating peanuts plucked from the field in front of their village, admiring the community center that we had contributed to, listening to my daughter sing in the living room where my mother grew up–it was all surreal, and vividly real.
The most memorable heritage experience was going to “Bai San” or “honor the mountain.” The graveside rituals to pay respects to our ancestors involves providing them with a feast, wealth and good fortune.
I had done this many times in America, carrying a few plastic bags of flowers and snacks to the cemetery. But mom wanted to make sure we did it right back in her homeland.
So, as we trudged through the wild hillside, we were carrying a giant whole roasted pig, geese, chicken, wine, eggs, cakes, paper pictures symbolizing money and cars, and firecrackers.
In the oppressive heat, we kowtowed, poured wine, burned incense, ate some of the food, then lit the firecrackers. We honored my great-grandparents and my mom’s older brother, who died as a youth, In yet another improbable moment, my uncle Ah Chiu used his cell phone to call my uncle in New York so he could be part of the ritual in the middle of nowhere.
Then we packed everything up, and went to two other locations! One was my great-grand uncle’s grave–his wife was among the last generation to have bound feet; the other my grand aunt’s grave, so new it was still dirt. She had had a scandalous life with three (or four) marriages but eventually settled into the ancestral home, where her son and family now live.
All these graves had been relocated to these woods about two years previously, to make room for more agriculture and development.
Afterward, the pig was carved up and served as part of the feast we hosted for the village on our last day there. You read that correctly, the whole village came to dine (or so it seemed) whether they knew our family or not. It was a free meal, a chance to gawk at people from America, and why not? In the Chinese tradition, everyone in the village is a cousin.
As they ate and drank and accepted our gifts of “red money,” they said: Come back soon. You need to spend more time here: this is your home country.
No; America is my home. But China is my heritage.
I have long wanted to write our family story, especially focusing on the courage of the women. While the men sweated in laundries for gleaming scraps on the “Golden Mountain,” their women fought daily battles back home, surviving drought, famine, Japanese invasion and Communist cruelty.
It’s a story that deserves telling. And I will.