mercredi, juillet 06, 2011

Visit to Ancestral Village 荷塘篁湾村

The Old House

As you know, I am Singaporean with Chinese origins. Though often I was told that I do not look that Chinese. Anyway my paternal grandparents came from the same part of China (they were Cantonese) and my maternal grandparents came from another part (they were Hokkien) and as a result I am as Chinese as a Chinese should be.

Walking into the compound where a few generations of dad's family lived in

I have promised dad that I would bring him to visit (for the first time) the village of his ancestors if I moved to China. Which I just did. 5 days in Jiangmen city down in the south - including a day out in Hetang 荷塘篁湾村.

Guangzhou is more than 2 hours away from Shanghai by air and Jiangmen another nearly 2 hours by car from Guangzhou. 3 cousins (son of dad's half brother and sons of dad's half-sister) came to pick us up and they took turns to look after us during our entire trip, driving us every where, feeding us, bringing us visiting, shopping etc.

I became an aunt and even grand-aunt a few times over on the first evening. Never realised that I had so many relatives in China and thank God for the country's one-child policy in recent times or the number would have been even greater.

Parents and I with 4 cousins and their wives

Fortunately I speak Cantonese though nobody back in our family in Singapore spoke the Hetang dialect. We spent our 5 days eating 3 meals daily (invited by the cousins) as we met up with a few generations of relatives, prayed to deceased relations, visited different homes, travelled to Kaiping to tour a Unesco World Heritage site...

Burning money for the dead to spend in their world

I must admit that I had reservations about the cousins before I met them - fed with stories about greedy Chinese relatives expecting returning relations to build new homes or renovate ancestral buildings. Added to my uncles in Singapore all not wanting to have anything to do with the family in China especially if it should involve spending money - I was very nervous before the trip.

I was therefore surprised to find most of the cousins so kind, generous and willing to please. They have not forgotten how my dad often helped them financially before China opened up economically and were eager to repay him for his past generosity; They were happy that we have made the effort to visit them and couldn't wait to bring us around.

An alley in the old village

Most of them are also doing quite well today. Almost everyone has bought at least a flat or house (if not several), some even a few shops to rent out. Almost everyone has a business of some sort, a few have connections to the Communist Party and 2 cousins have managed to send their children overseas to study in universities in Australia and New Zealand.

The village's watch tower

At the entrance of the village - narrowed from the time when 3 coffins could go through at the same time

Dad was relieved to see them doing well. It was a weight off his back. For some reason he felt guilty that his father had left his wife and children back in China and never saw them again. Our family in Singapore came out of grandpa's union with a new wife.

The pond where grandpa used to swim in

The temple where he used to gamble in front of

We probably wouldn't receive the same royal treatment if we should return to the south in the near future, but honestly I am not sure that I would go again anyway since I do not feel any real connection to Jiangmen or to our ancestral village. While I am sincerely keen to discover my roots, I will not be false and claim that I feel more than just simple curiosity for the land of my ancestors. I am Singaporean first and foremost. Though it is difficult getting too attached to a HDB flat that probably wouldn't exist in another decade.

The well that quenched the thirst of the family

Jiangmen and even the old village have developed a whole lot since my mum's first visit 12 years ago. In those days kids would gather when there were visitors to the village and expect to be given a sweet or a few coins. On our recent trip, nobody even blinked when they saw us. But as my cousin explained, besides the fact that they are now better off, the village is increasingly populated by migrants and is no longer as safe as it used to be.

Vegetable seller in the village

Meat seller

We grew pretty sick of food in Jiangmen after a few days. It wasn't the fabulous Cantonese cuisine we were expecting - probably no thanks to the country being poor and all closed up until 2 decades ago. All the good chefs must be in Hong Kong, London or even Vancouver.

The kitchen in the old house

The weather was as freakish as in Shanghai - super hot and humid one day and rainy the next few. And unlike Shanghai, people smoked everywhere they went - including in restaurants and toilets.

Dad and his nephews in front of the old house

180 year-old star fruit tree planted by my great great great grandfather

I found out that my first (half) uncle was an educated man who lived ahead of his times. He had amazing penmanship both in English and in Chinese, substantial knowledge both in medicine and in commerce and was the only Roman Catholic in the family. Unfortunately that didn't go well in the turbulent Communist era and he was often tortured and jailed for all that. It was a pity that the Japanese invasion of China prevented grandpa from getting him over to Singapore - I'm sure that he would have done much better if he had left China in those days.

An old cabinet containing some of 1st uncle's books and medicine

His youngest sister had never seen her father in her life as grandpa left a few weeks before she was born - never to return to China. To save the family from hunger later on, his oldest sister would sacrifice herself and become the second wife of a much older man. Stories like these were sad, but I believe that they made this branch of the family much more united than our branch back in Singapore. I do not recall being invited to a meal by any cousin or uncle back home in the last 2 decades. My family is usually the one doing all the inviting (when we are not as well-off as some of them).

Dad's 3rd sister and her hubby in their very big house

My oldest cousin (from that first uncle) still lives in the old village. But he has rented out the old house when he got married, building a bigger one down the road for his mum, wife and 2 children. They sell meat dumplings in the wet market and apparently business is usually good. His fat wife makes frequent gambling trips to Macau and wears heavy pure gold chains on her ample bosom.

Entrance of 1st cousin's "new" house - contains a few stories

We never found the courage to stay with any of our relations, preferring to spend 4 nights in the 5* Yucca Hotel in Jiangmen. As it was toilets were much cleaner today than they used to be - but we couldn't take the risk.

The inside of the old house

A room in the old house

The visit was a success. Dad looked really happy to have met his Chinese family and visited his ancestral home. I know that he would have loved to possess the means to rebuild the old house - but the family is now doing well, I'm sure it'll only be a matter of time before they manage to do so themselves.

Meanwhile, before I forget, we found out on this trip that grandpa's first wife was a Lau - the same Lau (village, clan, family) as the famous Hong Kong singer Andy Lau. Not that it got them any advantages, of course.

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