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Wanderthirst: going off the grid to find my grandfather’s village in Guangdong, China

28 Apr 2019

Illustration by serina.kitazono

“The Village” was a concept that loomed large over my formative years in Auckland, New Zealand. It was always both a fairytale Eden and a sinister backwater. The village was the first chapter in the story of our family, the path we traced from China to New Zealand.

“Your grandfather’s house still stands proudly in the village,” mum would recite throughout the years. The village was the place my grandparents left in pursuit of the golden mountain Down Under. In the village, we were told, life was coarse but clear, somehow straightforward. But, most of all, it was the place from which we all came.

So, when the chance arose for me to plan my first trip to China and visit this village in the province of Guangdong, I couldn’t get there fast enough. The fantasy of blending into the crowd and enacting my origin story after 31 years without one had become a small obsession. I was finally going there – home.”

“It wasn’t until I landed in China that I began to realise it was never my home, and not even my mother’s”

It wasn’t until I landed in China that I began to realise it was never my home, and not even my mother’s. But what I discovered going off the grid in Guangdong was an alluring, diverse region in a country full of contradictions.

The vast province of Guangdong is located on China’s southern coast, and it is one of the main ancestral homes of the Chinese diaspora in the West. My journey to the village began in the sprawling city of Guangzhou (Canton), where I met up with my mother who flew in from New Zealand, also on her first tour of China.

Staying in Guangzhou for two nights before heading on our intrepid path to the village was equally exhilarating and exhausting. I’ve been to New York and London many times and experienced the immensity of those cities and the weight of the crowds on every street. Still, I wasn’t prepared for Guangzhou. The city is a hulking grid of skyscrapers, dotted with leafy alleyways almost like leftover traditions still managing to peek through in the country’s march towards modernising.

The hidden alleyways of Guangzhou
Photography by Ally McCrow-Young

The Cantonese way of life was like a shadow to me growing up in New Zealand, constant but ephemeral. Standing in Guangzhou among the lilt of Cantonese and the smells of the city’s eateries had a familiarity I wasn’t expecting. In the city, I was a child again, visiting my grandmother’s house, eating dumplings and fried rice with my cousins.

“In the city, I was a child again, visiting my grandmother’s house, eating dumplings and fried rice with my cousins”

On the third day, our driver arrived to take us to the small town of Taishan, which we used as a base to reach the village. Private drivers are commonplace in this region, particularly for foreigners like us with zero ability to read Cantonese and navigate the complex public transport system. Our jovial driver Mr Luk makes his living predominantly from chauffeuring a steady stream of “overseas” Chinese people – second and third generation emigrants like us, looking to trace our roots in the old country.

As we drove south towards Taishan, the landscape became steadily more disparate, the concrete of Guangzhou quickly surrendering to broad rivers and roadside dwellings. Taishan was an unexpected joy that I’m glad we experienced. Known as the “First Home of the Overseas Chinese”, it is a decidedly non-tourist spot, with architecture which is a strangely endearing mashup of its fraught colonial past and glittery outdoor shopping streets.

The old town of Taishan (Toishan)
Photography by Ally McCrow-Young

Setting out from Taishan the next morning, my mother and I felt eager and slightly apprehensive to be finally reaching the village. “Here now!” Mr Luk suddenly called out to us, pulling into an unpaved clearing between two fields. A peculiarly ostentatious marble archway announced the entrance to “our” village, Fukon. “Don’t be fooled by the archway,” mum said. “It was paid for by one of the cousins in America trying to show off.”

Sure enough, the village didn’t resemble its flashy entrance even slightly. Nor did it look anything like what I’d imagined as a kid. The houses in my grandfather’s village were solid, made of stone and engulfed by unrelenting jungle. Most looked weathered, resilient markers of time. Yet crammed between these old buildings stood a scattering of modern tiled houses, their polished chrome gates in stark contrast to their surroundings.

“New Zealand, privilege seemed as natural to me as the sun that drenched our endless beaches”

These incongruities characterised the landscape surrounding Fukon, just like the marble archway, testaments of prosperous emigrants returning home after “making it” overseas. To me, these new buildings seemed off, too gaudy for their environment. But in a way, they captured the essence of the golden mountain dream: to one day return home prosperous.

We came across a woman sitting on the front step of her house, unceremoniously plucking the feathers off a dead chicken. Armed with handwritten notes in Chinese about her father’s house, mum asked the woman to point us in the right direction. Still clutching a bunch of chicken feathers, the woman gestured to a narrow, wobbly alleyway that led out of sight.

Squelching along the mud path we found ourselves standing in the shadow of an unusually tall house. Made entirely of stone, my grandfather’s house had an intricate, colonial façade with a balcony on the upper story and striking columns. Another gaggle of chickens ran wildly around us as we made our way towards the gap that once held the front door. Dusty broken bottles and debris were scattered everywhere, markers of the many decades the house had stood abandoned.

My grandfather’s house in the village
Photography by Ally McCrow-Young

Looking up at this grand, decaying house, I was reminded only of sacrifice. The decades my grandfather spent exiled halfway around the world in New Zealand, labouring each day in his laundry shop. Labelled a second class “Alien” when he arrived in New Zealand, my grandfather eked out a life in a country that refused him at every turn.

All Chinese immigrants were required to pay an entry tax equivalent to £9800, and the strict quota system meant families were divided. My grandfather had to leave his mother and two young daughters in the village, but he was determined to chase the dream of providing more for them.

In the heart of Auckland, my mother and her siblings lived a life of scarcity, all in service of this dream. Every spare dollar scraped and sent to maintain my grandfather’s house in the village, where one day they would return.

As mum and I left the village, we had only scratched the surface of our journey through the mother country. I flew out of Guangzhou towards Beijing mosquito-bitten, emotionally spent, and still frustrated by my total lack of Cantonese comprehension. But no matter what the rest of the trip had in store, getting to know the real Guangdong was worth the wait.

My grandfather never made this journey back to the village; he died far from home, on the golden mountain, before he could return to his cherished house. Growing up on the prosperous coast of New Zealand, privilege seemed as natural to me as the sun that drenched our endless beaches. Standing in the shadows of his house, in the depths of his village, I had to hope he would be happy that we made it there, finally.

Photography by Ally McCrow-Young

Highlights include

• Seeing the Haikou Port in Duanfen, where my grandparents and millions of others set sail from China to the west. Today, the Trail of South China museum and outdoor memorial to overseas Chinese is located here.

• Encountering Taishan. Often it’s overlooked for its fancier neighbour Kaiping, Taishan makes up for its lack of heritage sites with its own unassuming charm.

• Exploring Guangzhou’s diverse districts – while Guangzhou has all the amenities of a megacity, its slower-paced sights are well worth visiting, such as the Dafo Temple.

• Being just another face. To be part of a crowd of people who look exactly like you is a surreal experience. Being a minority all my life, this was a special moment that I never really got used to.

Useful information

• Language is a big one, luckily I had the translation skills of my mum (who speaks Cantonese) on this part of the trip. Definitely consider enlisting the help of a local guide to get around the province, especially if you’re going off the grid. Or at least make sure to learn a fair amount of handy Cantonese travel phrases.

• Update your apps. China notoriously blocks access to services like Google (Maps, Translate, Search, Play), Facebook and WhatsApp. Download alternative apps for GPS while you’re there (a handy one is OpenStreetMap).

• Vegan options are definitely available in the province, particularly in Guangzhou. As always, a little research goes a long way – look out for hidden ingredients and get used to using your translation app.