Searching for Home: Roots in China

This post, the first from Peta on Chengdu Living, was first published here on The Antill.

It’s Chinese new year, which means red paper couplets, decorations and lanterns are being hung up, and firecrackers are going off every evening like gunfire. For those who live away from their ancestral home, it also means taking part in the largest annual human migration in history to return home for the holidays, often involving a 30 hour crowded train journey halfway across the country. I would do the same, if I knew where mine was.

One of the reasons why I came to China was to discover my own ancestral home. I am a “mixed blood” child, a hunxue’er, and grew up in Singapore before moving to England when I was seven. My father is English but my mother was ethnically Chinese. Along with many others from the landed classes, her parents fled China during the first civil war of 1927-1937, when the Nationalists and Communists were vying for control of the country. Some of my family went to Indonesia and Hong Kong, but my maternal grandparents settled in Singapore.

China Family

This is the only picture I have of my mother’s family in Guangzhou. My grandmother is standing second from the left, with my great aunt next to her, third from the left. Seated in the front row is my great grandmother

They raised their four children in a humble kampong, a settlement of very basic village housing. In the early 70s, when my mother was growing up, Singapore wasn’t the booming financial city it is today. But even by the standards of the time, my mother’s upbringing was a tough one. She once told me of her acute embarrassment when, at her primary school’s annual medical check, she had to wait in line in her home-made cloth underwear while her classmates wore shop-bought knickers with proper elastic.

At home, they mostly ate rice bulked out with pickled vegetables. My mother said she was able to eat four bowls of rice for dinner, despite remaining beanpole thin. The fruit and vegetables were usually the half-rotten kind that are sold at discount at markets. As a child, my mother only once ate “perfect” fruit – when she was ill, a family friend brought her a whole bunch of grapes. I remember getting an earful as a child when I tried to throw away a half-rotten apple. Then there was the chicken they kept in the bathroom, feeding with scraps from the family table before slaughtering it for the Chinese New Year reunion dinner. Each year there was a new “toilet chicken”, and as a child my mother was torn between sympathy for the family pet and excitement about eating it.

I grew up with the stories my mother told me of my Chinese ancestral history. My grandfather was from a wealthy landowning family in Guangdong province, one of seven children. Among his sisters one died as a child, after accidentally being given rat poison instead of cough medicine, both of which were kept on the same shelf in the kitchen. My grandmother’s elder sister, meanwhile, had her feet bound – an extremely painful ritual where the bones of a young girl’s feet are broken, then bound tightly with bandages so they can’t heal properly, leaving the desired “lotus feet”.

When my great aunt’s feet were bound, according to my mother, she screamed so much that after a few months her mother finally relented and took the bandages off. Her broken feet were allowed to grow, but she had difficulty walking for the rest of her life. I remember visiting her many times as a child in Singapore, bringing her crates of duty free cigarettes from England and enduring the customary cheek pinch bestowed by Chinese elders on every child. Despite smoking 60 cigarettes a day, she long outlived my grandmother, who died when I was one month old.

My grandparents had married in their teens, but my grandfather was a favored and spoilt son, and his newfound independence in Singapore allowed him to indulge his gambling habit. He lost most of their savings early on in the marriage, and his family soon stopped sending him money. He found work as a ship’s carpenter, and started to live a more honest life. My family still has a beautiful wooden chest which was made by him. He eventually died of throat cancer, after inhaling fumes from the tar with which he used to coat the decks of the ships, to help them withstand sea water.

When my grandfather was away at sea, my grandmother spent all her time playing mahjong. My mother told me she would often come home from school to a dark house, unable to turn on the lights as she was too small to reach the switch. When she went to find her mother at the mahjong parlor, if the game was going well she would get a dollar with which to buy herself noodles for dinner. If her mother was doing badly, she would get a smack instead and no money for food. She often went to bed hungry, or turned to her oldest brother, who had already left school to work. The pocket money he gave her was the main reason she could complete her schooling.

My mother died while I was still at school, and whole chapters of her and my grandparents’ story are missing. Back then I didn’t have much interest in my Chinese heritage – I was more concerned with being as Western as possible. Now that she is gone, and my connection with China is fading, it’s more important to me than ever to find a link with that side of my family. As hunxue’er go I look pretty Western, which has never bothered me in the past. Now that I’m living in China, studying Chinese and teaching English in Chengdu, I go out of my way to convince colleagues and friends that I really am half Chinese. I suspect many of them still don’t believe me. If you’re half Chinese, they ask me, why can’t you speak Mandarin?

My older brother and I used to talk about the confusion we feel when someone asks where we are from. As mixed-race migrants, the options for our response are greater than for most. Do they want to know where we lived for most of our childhood, or why we look “different”? Are they asking where we were born, or where we live now? Or are they really asking where our parents are from? I thought that if I returned to my ancestral home in Guangdong, the village where my grandparents were born, I could finally find somewhere I properly belong. By retracing the steps my family took all those years ago, maybe I would gain a better understanding of where I come from and who I am.

When I first came to China in 2013, finding my ancestral home seemed an impossible task. I didn’t know the name of the village, and all I knew about the location was that it was somewhere near a river, in an area where Seiyap, a regional dialect of Cantonese, was spoken – which narrows it down to the greater Taishan area, with a population of roughly four million. I didn’t even know the character for my own grandfather’s surname. At home, my grandparents were always gonggong and pohpoh. Because Singapore was under British rule when they immigrated, their surname was recorded as Kong, a phonetic spelling of the Cantonese pronunciation, and could be any of a number of characters.

A year and a half into my time in Chengdu I took a trip back to Singapore, and for the first time in 27 years I was able to communicate in the same language as my mother’s elder sister, my yima, who only speaks Chinese. She was able to add a few more pieces to the jigsaw of my family’s history. I now know my grandfather’s name was Kuang Xiuzhuo. And thanks to the sleuthing of a friend in Chengdu who used to be a policeman, I know that he came from a small village called Shuikou, next to a river to the southwest of Guangzhou.

Before I go back to England, I’ll be making the trip to Shuikou to ask if anything remains of my old family home, or if anyone there remembers Kuang Xiuzhuo, who set out with his young wife on a boat to leave China all those years ago. But between civil war, the Mao era and China’s current pace of development, I doubt anything will remain of his house. As landowners, his property would likely have been ransacked by the Red Guards, with anything of worth looted or destroyed. Even if it’s still standing, all I have is a decaying photograph of the main room to identify it by.

Nor am I so sure any more if finding that house will give me any deeper knowledge about myself and my background. In her book Factory Girls the journalist Leslie Chang describes visiting her ancestral home for the first time. “A family is not a piece of land,” she writes. “It is the people who belong to it, and it is the events that shape their lives.” In the same way, my own search for home has been more about threading together the narrative of my family’s past. The physical place itself isn’t where my Chinese heritage can be found. It exists in the stories that were passed down from my grandparents to my mother to me. It was those stories that prompted me to return to China, and to reconnect with a side of me I thought I had lost forever. This way, the story won’t end with me.

Check Out the New Anthill Book

This story was recently published in the Anthill’s China anthology While We’re Here: China Stories from a Writers’ Colony. Purchase it at The Bookworm in Chengdu, or here on Amazon in Kindle format, with a paperback version forthcoming.

12 thoughts on “Searching for Home: Roots in China”

  1. Just think, if your grandparents had stayed put in China, you would never have any of these problems, you wouldn’t have mixed blood, the British wouldn’t have obliterated your family name, and you would be at peace.

    • I hope reading this didn’t give you the impression that I’m at all ashamed or regretful of my background. I’m not. I’m always interested to hear what brought other people to Chengdu; this is simply my reason. I’m proud that my grandparents escaped and found a new life for themselves in Singapore. I’m also proud to have a dual heritage, and know that this is becoming more commonplace, with more and more children being born to parents of different backgrounds – and I embrace that, too. Living in China throws up challenges (and I mean that in a positive sense) for all expats living here, and this is just a different perspective on that.

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  3. Discovering your own ancestry brings you down some very interesting roads. Over the last few years I have undertaken a similar task (although it hasn’t involved me moving to a new country, yet) and it has been difficult since like yours, my family prongs in two regions of the world separated by a great distance.

    Good luck finding your old home in Shuikou, although I would be very surprised if it’s still standing. It seems like outside of a small number of pockets around the world, most of the architectural remnants of 3-4 generations ago are now gone. Regardless, good luck and thanks for sharing your story.

  4. I find stories like yours interesting. I am a 49-year-old male born and raised in Vancouver, Canada. I am the youngest of six siblings and our parents are from a village in Zhongshan, Guangdong. I had little interest in my family’s history until my Hangzhounese girlfriend (now wife) took me to find the site my family’s house and village in Zhongshan in October 2014. We never consulted my very sharp 84 and 89 year old parents before going to find my “hometown”. A side trip from my regular visits to Hangzhou turned into a whole new world of extended family. I was told by many people that our village was very likely redeveloped so my expectations were low. So after a day of bumbling around modern Zhongshan, we hopped in a taxi and headed to one of two “Liu” villages. With only a few pictures from 1978 that I had just asked my sister to WeChat me, we canvassed any elderly person in Long Rui Cun. I was floored when someone recognized my dad’s second cousin. I really didn’t think we would find our village still standing let alone find it on the first try. So someone brought us to someone who could bring us to him. Our family were wealthy landowners also and I was disappointed to learn for certain that our grand 1920’s house had been torn down and an ugly yellow tile house was built in it’s place in the 90’s. So, we met some of the relatives that still live in the village and we offered to take them for dinner. It was a little late in the day, so we scheduled dinner for the next day. The guest list grew to 40 relatives. Still a modest number compared with other stories I’ve heard from people from “Gold Mountain” returning home to China. I’m so glad we made that trip and I was made to feel so welcome. They spoke LongDu dialect which is the only Chinese I ever learned. I was forced to use it even though my grasp was limited not to mention rusty. It just felt like family. I know they ARE family but I’ve never had a bigger sense of belonging. It didn’t matter that my response during conversation was minimal, they knew I understood. I keep in contact with my cousins by WeChat and we’ve set up several video chats for our parents to chat who haven’t been face to face in 36 years. All in all a wonderful experience. Peta, I urge you to go Toisan sooner than later. I hope you find some answers and some welcoming relatives. Apparently every family keeps a book that tracks all the males born in the family (your Mom’s Father’s family name). Ours regretfully disappeared in the late 80’s and had entries from 26 generations. Good luck Peta.

    • Wow, I’m amazed to hear you managed to reconnect with your extended family. It’s definitely motivated me to make a trip this year – I’d been a little afraid of what I’d find, or not find – and hopefully reconnect with my own clan of Kuangs. Thank you for sharing that 🙂

      • Hi Peta,

        I thoroughly enjoyed readying your story. My grandfather is also from the same Taishan area where you family came from and his name is Kuang Yihkun. He was one of the first Chinese students sent to America to study in the 1900’s through Boxer Indemnity scholarship. I wonder if our families are somehow related.

        I grew up in Chengdu but have lived in the U.S. for the past 25 years, although both my parents are retried English professors at Sichuan University and still live near Chuanda. My family and I will be visiting Chengdu in a couple of weeks. If you are interested, I’d love to connect and see if we can help each other find out more about our family history.

  5. Nice story, and nicely written. I appreciate the objective manner of narration, despite it being quite a personal subject for the author. Also funny how many villages there are in China named Shuikou.

  6. Peta, I very much enjoyed your story about searching for your family home. Your description of not knowing how to answer when people ask where you are from mirrors my own confusion but for different, yet related, reasons. I was born in Chengdu but left in 1945 (we flew over the “hump” from Kunming to India where I had my third birthday). My parents were American doctors associated with Huaxi University. (My father taught medical classes in Chinese and my mother completed her medical degree there. She was the first foreign graduate of a Chinese medical school.) When I was growing up I also wasn’t interested in my parents’ connection to China because it made me feel different from my friends. Once I became an adult I found my interest in China increasing, and in 1980 I joined my parents in returning to China and visiting Chengdu. I have been fascinated by China and Chinese culture ever since and have returned three more times (and plan another trip this summer). Even though I’m not ethnically Chinese, I feel a strong connection because of my birth in Chengdu. In many ways it’s a visceral connection (I’m still sorting this out) — my earliest experiences were in Chengdu and I have an ability to speak Chinese that most Americans do not have because I learned as a baby. I’m currently writing a memoir about growing up with my family’s connection to China and how that has influenced me. Your post has given me some additional food for thought. Xie xie!

    • Thanks for your comment! I would be very interested in reading that memoir once it’s written. Your parents must have some stories to tell – Chengdu must have been a fascinating and very different place in the 40s. Good luck!


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