Saturday, December 4, 2010

Day 30: My Grandfather's Village

We got up the next morning to a pretty terrible American-style breakfast, gave our dubious driver friend a call, and agreed to meet him at noon. Then we showered up, cleaned our camera lenses, and went to see what small traces of Grampy’s past we could stir up.

We met our driver, Hai Shen, at the overly-lavish entrance of our hotel, and I showed him the paper upon which I had written the name of the village and my great-grandfather. “Oh yeah, I know where this is,” he told me in mandarin. I thought he meant the general area, Sijiu township, assuming that the actual village, 长安村, Chang An village, was lost to history, as it didn’t appear on online maps, and a family rumor held that the entire thing had burned to the ground years ago.

Chang An Village, day 30

As we rolled through a series of factories and construction yards, Hai Shen told me that we were driving through Sijiu township. But we kept driving, passing through the town and out into rural farmland, fields of young rice dotted with oxen and telephone poles stretching out on either side of the road. We came around a bend and he slowed down, pointing to a blue sign with white characters on it. “Look,” he called out, “we’re here.”

Chang An Village, day 30

I stared at the sign in disbelief. I had not expected to find the village itself, but this was it, the place where my grandfather was born. Our driver stopped the van in front of a concrete garage and hopped out, disappearing into the building with my piece of paper. Beth started snapping pictures while I wandered about in shock.

Chang An Village, day 30

Hai Shen came out a minute later with two middle-aged villagers, who pointed him down the road toward a large dining hall. He took the van down the street and parked it in front of the community building as Beth and I made our way after him.

Chang An Village, day 30

While he started going down alleyways and poking his head into doors, clearly asking around for someone, we stood around, taking it all in. Two puppies came out to greet us, followed by an elderly woman leaning on a bamboo chair like a cane, shooing the dogs away in Taishanese. Two more women passed, and said a friendly "hello!"

Chang An Village, day 30

Hai Shen came out a moment later, and told us that he had found someone who could take us to my great-grandfather's home, but that they were having lunch so we would have to wait. Not really believing him, we took the opportunity to walk through the village, which was really only two blocks of houses, separated by a road running through the middle with narrow alleys cutting across. Most of the homes were simple brick structures with old-style tile roofs. Chickens, dogs, and cats ran about underfoot, and the villagers greeted us with friendly "hellos" and "ni haos."

Chang An Village, day 30

As we came around the block Hai Shen called us back over, and an incredibly old couple had joined him. They started talking to me excitedly in Taishanese, and began to lead us down an alley. I smiled and nodded, not understanding a word they said, and eventually we stopped in front of a barred door.

Chang An Village, day 30

They smiled and pointed to the door, and I looked to our guide, confused. "This is one of his buildings," he said to me in mandarin.

"Whose? The one from my family?"I asked.

He pointed to my great-grandfather's name. "Yes, his. But we can't go in, it's locked." He showed me a rusty padlock that held a chain over the door. We stood there for a minute, the five of us, and I put my hand on the wooden bar. The elderly couple gestured, and we continued on.

Chang An Village, day 30

We reached the end of the alley, and the elderly man took my arm and pointed out a large concrete structure which sat on the corner of the village. My guide said to me, "This is where he lived, a very ancient building, a hundred years old." The house was empty, another padlock closing the gate. On the wall of the second floor was written 自力更生, zi li geng sheng, "With self-empowerment we transform our life," an idiom espoused by Mao Zedong in the 1940's to promote independence from foreign powers.

Chang An Village, day 30

It was one of the largest homes in the village, with a big foundation, two floors, and a stone wall which enclosed a small courtyard. The arched porch and deck must have announced the relative wealth of the Huangs. Our family had always known that they fled during the communist revolution 80 years ago, when landowners and the wealthiest members of villages had their homes pillaged, and were then subjected to public humiliation or death.

Chang An Village, day 30

As they led us around the house, I asked Hai Shen why no one lived there now. "They know the Huangs went to America in old times, to live in California. Everyone has a place to live, and it would be improper to take someone else's home."

As we left, Hai Shen gave me a red envelope to put some money in, which I gave to the old man for his help. The envelope made it a gift, more polite than simply handing someone cash.

Taishanese food, day 30

Afterwards, Hai Shen took us to a nearby restaurant, and ordered us some traditional Tai Shan food - an entire roast chicken, fried sardines, beef soup with lotus root, steamed bok choy, and pot-cooked rice with fish. Beth and I shared our disbelief and questions over the food. Not expecting to even find the village in which my grandfather was born, we had been led to the front door of his childhood home, which had sat unused for 82 years.

Chang An Village, day 30

Who had written the Maoist slogan on the second floor? I could only imagine some zealous Red Guard youth, scaling the walls of my ancestral home to write out a message from the great leader. If my family's home was seized by the Party 80 years ago, who owned it now that villagers could once again own property, and how many more centuries would it stand empty?

Our elderly guides would have been children during the communist revolution from which my grandfather fled.

What sort of history did they remember about the old Huang house which sat empty on the corner?

And what did they think of the Westerner who came one afternoon to see it?

Did he resemble the little boy who left?

13 comments:

  1. I am crying, and crying, and crying

    ReplyDelete
  2. We are, too. We are trying to scan a map of his village that Grampy drew one night after dinner long ago and post...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Me too! Will, this is amazing. Thank you for doing this. I really wish that Grampy was here. He would be so proud to see that you found the village- something he always hoped to go back and visit, but couldn't.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yes, I'm so sad that Dad can't know about this. And so happy you succeeded, Will!

    ReplyDelete
  5. My God, Will. Grammy just called me, saying that Deb had just called her, and we talked about your post. I hadn't seen it until Grammy called. She said it meant a lot to her that she's still alive and could see these photos. She was pretty convinced that you had found the real thing. I am just dumbfounded and awed. I love you and will give you a big hug when you get back!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. P.S. It's snowing, hard, here in NC. It's snowing in the Deep South; we have a black president; nephew found Dad's house in China....just another day in the life!! :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi, Will and Beth. Unbelievable. Unbelievable. To add to Uncle David's sense of irony, the computers we are reading your blog on possibly came from this same part of China. Well done,

    ReplyDelete
  8. Uncle Jim adds kudos, Will and Beth! The place looks exactly like the maps Grampy drew from memory. Thank you for this amazing story and closure. Our family saga should be a book. How ironic that someone wrote the Maoist slogan "With self-empowerment we transform our life," which is exactly how he lived his life, hiding his fear of the midnight knock on the door after being held at Angel Island Immigration Station. And it's how he taught each of us in the family to live in my generation and in yours - all the accomplishments, education and wealth we have accumulated. And the respect with which his village still honors our family name, not knowing any of this. A truly inspiring tale! Thanks again!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Will and Beth, this is quite the acheivment, thank you. It is truly amazing and we are so lucky Grampy left the country when he did. Sasha and I are also very impressed with your blog! Enjoy the rest of your trip, we look forward to reading more.

    ReplyDelete
  10. no way, what are the chances? i like what the villagers said, that "Everyone has a place to live, and it would be improper to take someone else's home."

    is it enough for us to know that this is still there? do we have legal recompense to do anything with it/give it back to the village for their use? seems wrong that it should just stand empty for the better part of a century.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Will and Beth, I keep sending you comments about the wonderful job you did but they don't show up on your blog. Maybe I'm doing something wrong on this end. Know that our thoughts and prayers are with for continuing safety in your epic journey. (padreprice@bellsouth.net) Papa Richard and Granmere

    ReplyDelete
  12. Everyone else said Will and Beth, so Beth and Will...Thats really fantastic. Do we know if Aunt Lily is still alive? does anyone have an address for her, it'd be great or rather interesting to take her these photos. I'd like to see what she says about them or what she can add to the story. Obviously it would be more than a touchy subject, but still a very worthwhile experience. Also in the blog you mentioned our name was spelled Huang? My understanding is that the difference between that spelling and our spelling Wong, was because Huang was the royal family and wong, was the commoner...Form my discussions with Grammy, I was under the impression that we were commoners, but the spelling of our name would suggest otherwise. Now I'm curious if someone in the family changed the spelling of the name to avoid suspession and even prosecution? Will, it also looks like the windows to the house are open, are there window coverings or anything,from the weather it looks cold, but what is the temperature actually like? Also Aunt Susan, can you scan in the picture grampy drew of the village? THANKS EVERYONE!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Seth -- my understanding is, the romanization Wong / Huang doesn't actually reflect on whether the family is "yellow" or "king." It was all about how the immigration officials spelled it. BethWill can verify.
    I like Nick's idea. LET'S GO! Who's in?

    ReplyDelete

All text and photos © 2011