For two years, I looked forward to taking my sister Florence to our family’s villages. After much planning, we finally arrived in early November 2018. I remembered the way after studying my notes from the trip in 2016 and Google and Baidu maps on-line. However, as we drove to San Duo village, road construction blocked our path. In just two years, the expansion of S273 meant that the rickety signage to San Duo was torn down and the entrance closed. No matter, we headed to Hong May village and the timing was perfect.
I wondered if the girl who was getting married in 2016 moved to her husband’s village and if I’d see any of the ladies who shared goodies they had made for the wedding. I hoped to reconnect with the village chief but learned that he was in the hospital. After touring the usual spots in China, here we were in a small village in the Taishan District of Guangdong. The village where our great grandfather Louie Fat was born. We walked down the narrow path to the plot of land where his house once stood. Someone had erected a make-shift brick wall to circle a patch of green onions. Jiegua/zitgwaa節瓜(fuzzy squash) still grew on the south side of the plot.
With the help of a village lady, I paid respects to our ancestors by burning incense. Maybe because of the brick circular wall in the middle of the plot, I did not feel my ancestors’ presence this time the way I had in 2016. What a powerful moment that was for me. One that had affected others in my Rooting group almost as much as it did me.
This time I walked around the village taking it all in because it was surreal for me in 2016. This time I wanted to smell the earth, touch the grey brick walls that had stood for over a hundred and fifty years, and imagine what it was like walking through the narrow alleyways from house to house, house to field, village to village.
I met several elders who welcomed me even though we could not speak the same language. Did they sense that I “belonged” here? Their smiles and gentle hands held me with delight. I wanted to know their stories too. Did they or their parents know my great grandfather and grandfather? Whatever they experienced in their eighty-ninety years of life in Hong May, in this moment they were radiant. I watched as their children came to their home to prepare their meal with simple yet elegant filial piety.
You can imagine my surprise when a man came up to us and said in perfect English, “Hey. Where are you from?” After we recovered from our shock, we asked him where he was from. Peter Louie said, “I was born here, but I live in San Francisco now. I come back to visit my relatives every year.” Was he like our ancestors who came to San Francisco to create businesses and sent money back to their relatives in the village? Observing him with his family at the village and later at the restaurant where we went for lunch helped me envision what “homecomings” must have been like for Louie Fat in the late 1800s.
As we drove out, I noticed the banyan tree and an altar at the front of the village. We stopped and got yet another perspective of the village. Even though my great grandfather’s house was torn down for reasons unknown to me so far, the people of the village and the new buildings speak to the vitality and prosperity that has returned to Hong May.
After our lunch, we headed back to S273 to figure out how to get around the construction at San Duo village. Thankfully, we were able to jump the ditch and left the driver who found another entrance.
I wondered if the lady with the pink chair was still there and was delightfully surprised to find her. She was shy at first and she probably did not remember me, but after a few explanations from a young man, she perked up; and when I gave her the photograph of her from 2016, she smiled ear-to-ear. She’s ninety now and still spry and still has her pink chair. I wonder if she will be there on my next trip back to the village and if she is, next time, I will ask her name, but she will always be the “lady with the pink chair” to me.
This time, I followed the directions on my map that I’d created from the notes I made from the files at the National Archives. This time, the village chief was there to open the door to my grandfather’s (Louie Mow) house. This time, I climbed the rickety wooden ladder up to the altar where tablets for the twentieth and nineteenth generation still stood.
Too excited, I didn’t move the incense bowl to get a better photograph, one that I could use to translate their names to add to my genealogy records and I forgot to pay respects with incense and paper money much less firecrackers. Somehow, I know my ancestors understood. Instead, I took in the view of the doorways below as I climbed down the stairs. I noted the sophistication of the designs even if not well made. Even though there was little furniture in the room and the house was obviously used for storage rather than for living accommodations, I knew back-in-the-day it must have hummed with activity when my father and his two brothers lived there.
As we left San Duo, I noticed what must have been the old entrance. A factory invades the space now, but as I looked back toward the village and noticed the rice drying where two years ago construction equipment was strewn about and the renovated community building, I knew that I’d be back again to learn more about the people, my people and the stories of their lives, reflections of my ancestors.