Rooting for Truth 寻找真相 – First Day

Our first rooting day gave us an opportunity to experience two of Albert Cheng’s adages: 1. Be flexible (which means “we think we’re going to one person’s village, but we might end up at another’s) and 2. Be open to miracles, aka divine intervention from our ancestors. As our bus rolled into the village, we were greeted by the head of the village at the gateway flanked on the village by a pair of trees. We learned about Barbara, Cindy, Amanda and Diane’s connection with the famous red-faced General Guan Yu from the “Romance of the Three Kingdom’s” era (almost 1800 years ago).

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A short walk down an alleyway brought us to a house once owned by Barbara’s ancestor and then further down the alley and a left turn took us to her relative’s house, where she performed the ceremonies at several altars and fireworks were set off to honor her predecessors. Barbara’s Chinese helped her communicate with her relatives enough to verify details about their stories and to know she was offered a chicken – make that a live chicken – to take home. One more turn down another alley way took us to the newer home of her grandparents, where the plaque on the left showed her grandmother’s name. As if to signal the joy of the reunion, a pair of dragon flies mating flew overhead.

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We hopped on the bus, went a very short distance and this time it was Cindy, Diane and Amanda’s turn. The walled courtyard appeared ominous, especially with its glass shards at the top, but as soon as we walked through the gate into the courtyard, we knew this was a wealthy family’s home. Although the house was barren, its spaciousness and remnants of stained glass hinted of another time. This house had its wood bars across the entrance door in place. Lacy iron corbels buttressed the overhang at the front side of house.

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The excitement of the two finds was topped off by a visit to Chikan, a town nearby where Cindy, Diane and Amanda’s ancestor had a noodle shop and overseas Chinese again brought their experiences in the new world to their homeland. Albert told us to look for Elsie Lam, one of our guides, and the peanut brittle vendor. We did not have to go far as we crossed the bridge over the Tanjiang River. A photo of former Rooters including Elsie graced the post and the packaging labels of the peanut brittle, which we got to watch being made. The best part was sampling this delicious treat. I knew my Lebanese family would enjoy every morsel. Chachkies galore, dried fish and chickens, Chinese sausage and bacon as well as a calligrapher tantalized our senses and memories of our youth. While Cindy, Amanda and Diane explored the Guan Library, I peeked through the gate and wondered what the Hotel Paris was like back in the day and people-watched in this town created over a hundred years ago.

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Rooting for Truth 寻找真相 Reflections

Thirty-one years ago, I started out on a similar journey. China re-opened its doors in the 1970s after over two decades. I was determined to learn more about my father’s homeland even though he would not answer my questions about his life in China prior to his immigration to the U.S. I was clueless of the circumstances that brought him to the Gold Mountain – gam saan (Cantonese), jīn shān (Mandarin) 金山. I was equally ignorant of the trials and tribulations that forced the sojourner to become an immigrant.

In 1985, I took advantage of China’s cultural exchange program and joined a group of interior from the American Society of Interior Design. We did the grand tour from the Forbidden city in Beijing to the terra-cotta soldiers in Xian, to the canals and famed embroidery shops of Suzhou. I did not know at the time that we were only eighty-four miles from my father’s village when we were in Guangzhou. I discovered the difficulty of doing research in China because I did not speak, read, or write Chinese. The first clue was when I asked “Do you know anyone name Louie?” Finally, I figured out that I needed to write the character .

“Ah, ha,” my guide said, “Yes. Lei.”

Thinking she misunderstood me, I repeated “Louie. Lou-ee,” as if sounding out the word would bridge the gap between her understanding and mine.

“Lei. Mandarin dialect. Maybe Louie different dialect.” That was another clue that my quest was going to be a challenging one, but little-by-little, I’ve learned some words through my research efforts.

This time as I boarded the plane for the first leg of my journey from Virginia to California, a distance almost half the width of China, I did so with the knowledge that I would go to my father’s birthplace. Will I be able to enter the house where my grandmother, Lee Yuet Ping, became part of the Louie clan and gave birth to three of her six children? Louie Hung On, my father, was her first-born. What else will I find there?

In less than one day of travel time, I’ll make the journey that took my father over one month via the S.S. President Jackson. I will go through customs with my duly stamped Passport-Visa. Dad, who was seventeen on his first trip, was held for many days at Angel Island, an immigration center in San Francisco Bay. I am traveling as an American tourist. Young Louie Hung On traveled as a student and son of a merchant which in 1928 avoided being turned back due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law passed to restrict free immigration of all Chinese laborers. However, being a merchant’s son did not protect him from being culled out of the lot for health reasons, and if Dad had traveled a few years earlier, his case of clonorchiasis, Chinese liver fluke, would have sent him back across the Pacific. Four years earlier, it was discovered that clonorchiasis was easily treated, so Dad’s stay on Angel Island was extended a few days or weeks rather than months or years as was the case for many detainees.

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Customs will probably ask me a few questions. My group leader said it will be easier to travel as a tourist even though my intention is also as a writer. It was not so easy for Louie Hung On, who traveled with clan members, but not his father or uncles, and who faced hours of interrogation alone. He was not a “paper son” who had to memorize information about another family, a scheme Chinese used to out-smart the Exclusion Art, but I imagine it was scary for him to arrive in a foreign land and sit in front of foreign interrogators in a strange over-crowded building full of countrymen searching for wealth and a way to help their families back home in their villages. Villages I look forward to seeing and where I hope to gain a greater understanding of my Gold Mountain father.

Rooting for Truth 寻找真相 In China at last

The journey begins and already I am confused. What day is it? I know I left San Francisco at 00:58 on October 30th, I know I flew for hours and hours, sleeping when I could, eating dinner at 2:00 A.M. and breakfast shortly before landing. However, here’s what I cannot wrap my mind around crossing the International dateline, we lost a day which is why I’m not sure what day it is today.

Kudos to Cathay Pacific for their customer service and quality of food, but next time I’m going to swing for premium economy or better yet, first class because the leg room in economy must be designed for very small Asians.

Our fourteen-hour flight to Hong Kong was followed by a quick hop to Guangzhou, where we waited for others in our party to join us. I meant to bring my mini-disposable tooth brushes and rest assured I will not forget them next time, because when we landed in Guangzhou, the first thing I wanted to do was brush my teeth.

 

I was happy at last to meet other members of our Roots Plus group, bonded already by our common goal to touch the good earth of our ancestor’s homeland. Undaunted by hours of travel, we embarked on the first leg of our journey, meeting our guides from the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Vocational School, who have worked tirelessly helping the U.S. guides locate our villages in the Guangdong Province. In Chinese fashion, our meeting occurred over a meal – not a McDonald’s or KFC lunch – yes, they seem to be around every corner in Guangzhou, but rather a feast of one dish after another, topped off by an apple cider vinegar drink or a very potent drink in the tiniest cordials I’ve ever seen, imbibed by the red-faced folks at one table. I won’t mention any names; you know who you are.

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A ride through the extremely crazy traffic of the city took us towards Kaiping and the “Watch Towers” at the Fong residence at Kaiping Diaolon and Village, a UNESCO and World Cultural Heritage site. The village represents a sampling of a unique collection of buildings made possible by the contributions of Overseas Chinese, who brought every manner of cultural influences to this small village.

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What will we find in our villages?