By Tony Lee
Travels with Tony
(Note from Editor: Tony Lee is an avid traveler from San Francisco currently on a roots trip to rediscover his heritage with more than a dozen Chinese Americans with the same mission. You can learn more about the Friends of Roots program here.
Our group of ten Rooters and three leaders gathered for our tour. Like me, all of the Rooters were in their 60s and came from the SF Bay Area. Five came from families who, like me, hailed from the Taishan area in the southwest corner of Guangdong province. And this was where we started our tour. Some of us had come through Hong Kong while others had visited Beijing and Xian before our tour. Regardless, it was a long way to come. The plan was to visit the ancestral village of each participant; it could be the father’s side of the family, the mother’s side or both.
By some luck of the draw, I came first and we set off for my father’s village. I had visited once before in 1979 so it was not hard to find. But the village official told me that there were no longer any of my direct relatives living in the village and it was difficult to determine the exact location of my father’s house. I could not remember either, because it had been so long. We were led to a house that, upon further review, turned out to be my uncle’s (my father’s younger brother). Finally, a deed that I brought along helped pinpoint the house I was looking for—it was located in a far corner of the village. It was already empty long before my visit 36 years ago and no one has occupied it since. As a result, the lanes leading to the house were overgrown with thick vegetation and gnarly vines that tripped me up several times. Although I now think of it as the “jungle house”, it was good to know that the (100-year-old?) gray brick structure is still standing. And even though it belongs to me and my four brothers, none of us intend to move in. I retrieved a covered bowl and a wine decanter to bring home as momentoes.
The next day our group went to my mother’s house. We were joined by my brother Howard. He has lived in Hong Kong for almost thirty years but never thought about visiting our ancestral villages until now. The village used to be surrounded by rice fields, but the market town of Taishan has grown so much (there are over 1 million people in the area now so it has 33% more people than San Francisco) that it gobbled up the village. There are high rises nearby and lots of commercial establishments. My mother’s house should have been easy to find—her maiden name was Yuen and it turned out that only two houses in the village belonged to Yuens. But ancestral records only list male members of the family and no matter how many times I mentioned my mother’s name, no one knew of her. [Finally when I brought up the name of “Foon” (my mother’s younger brother), there was instant recognition. It turns out that he was widely known around the village as “big mouth Foon”. That gave my brother and me a good laugh. Although we were not able to get inside the house because it was sold a long time ago, we could see that it was fancier and much larger than my father’s house. Our maternal grandfather was a successful merchant who provided very well for his family; there were housemaids and my mother, her sister and two brothers never had to do chores. All four kids attended school. Our mother, being the smartest, went all the way through high school. This was quite remarkable for those days because few boys were even able to get such an extensive education. I was able to visit her school the next day too and to see where she had shined not only as a student, but also as a track star.
It was great to see both of my parents’ villages and to learn about the surroundings in which they grew up. I was really glad to see my mother’s village because she had talked about it a lot as we were growing up. But knowing that my mother lived a relatively privileged life as a child, I came away more impressed by her ability to raise five boys almost single-handedly and with very little in the way of financial resources. My father was a gambler who seemed to always be in debt.
For me, the best thing about returning to Taishan was hearing my family’s native dialect being widely spoken. Since my mother passed away four years ago, I have not had anyone to speak it with. I use Cantonese whenever I need to speak Chinese because our Taishan dialect is considered the language of peasant farmers and less sophisticated (I guess it similar to hillbilly talk in the U.S.). But everyone I encountered in Taishan, from young children to teens to adults to seniors, spoke the native dialect. It made me realize that I should not be ashamed of using it. Hearing it made me feel that I had really come home.
After dinner, the group surprised me with a huge birthday cake.