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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!"
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?