Some folks have been asking if I would post the story of my parents trip back to the Chinese villages they had left so many decades before. Here it is.
Written and photographed by Barry Wong
When Barry Wong decided to take his aging father back to the China village of his birth, his father’s dream of returning home became his own quest to understand his mixed American-Chinese background. Wong’s dream is one that’s shared by many of the 30,000 Chinese and Chinese Americans living in King County. But this story of the touching Wong reunion offers a heartfelt message for everyone.
The ragged edge of a typhoon raged outside the window as we sat in the Panxi Restaurant waiting for lunch. It was early September in Canton; for the entire south China coast, it was the hot and humid rainy season.
Below us, small pleasure boats were blown about on a rain-dappled lake. Later, we learned that three typhoons had struck Canton province, killing 34 and destroying nearly 38,000 homes.
Across the table, my father seemed to be weathering his own personal storm. He was exhausted, feeling all of his 74 years. He hadn’t slept well for the last three nights. He was losing his voice to a cough. And he was restless.
He had every reason to be restless. He was going home. Home to the small Chinese village he had left as a young man of 18. He had returned once in 1947 to bring back his bride, my mother, and hadn’t been back since. That was 37 years ago.
As so many others, my father, Dick Keong Wong, left the poverty of Hom Yu How Toon, “Salted Fish Head Village,” in 1928 to find a better life. Originally, my grandfather was to make the voyage, but at the last minute, it was decided my father would go instead. The young Keong wasn’t apprehensive about the trip. His village frowned in poverty; its people had little food and no jobs. But parting with his younger sisters, Sik Ying and Yu Hang, was painful for one who knew well the importance of family ties. Would he ever see them again?
From Canton he traveled by boat to Hong Kong. In the bustling city, he worked for two years, then took a tramp steamer to Shanghai where he hopped a three-masted opium runner bound for American. The voyage took eight long weeks and the human cargo lived on a diet of potatoes and salted pork. To this day my father dislikes potatoes.
It was a rough start for my father in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Immigration officials often stopped people on the streets to
check for proper papers. Survival meant keeping a low profile, and my father was good at that. He became invisible as hired help at a Chinese boarding house and seldom ventured out. Finally, a friend helped him get fake papers so he could work under an assumed name. My father’s counterfeit ID was so good, he got drafted and sent down to Texas for military training.
In 1947, my father returned to China where he met and married Jean, my mother. That’s when he heard about the death of his father. My grandfather was last seen being taken out to sea by Japanese soldiers. My father and others presumed the obvious: He had been killed and thrown overboard.
In 1957, new amnesty for some illegal aliens gave my father the chance to apply for citizenship, and the Wong family became legitimate.
In those early years, my father bussed tables in an Italian restaurant and my mother sewed dresses for 50 cents apiece. My sisters and I few up speaking a mixture of the Cantonese my mother taught us and the English we learned in school.
My mother and father often sent news of our life in America to family in Canton province, sometimes enclosing money or a recent graduation photo. My parents tried to raise me with an appreciation for my Chinese heritage, but I ended up, at least superficially, an all-American kid, playing tennis and eating pizzas.
My parents moved to Fresno and ran a restaurant for 13 years. They bought a home, raised four kids and sent us all to college. Now they are retired in the Bay Area, but the link to China has never weakened. When my father heard that his family home had fallen into disrepair, he thought about having it rebuilt. I remembered the stories of the simple home with no electricity and a leaky roof. I wondered what would be left of it.
In the years I was growing up, my father talked about his home and his sisters, but he never imagined he’d see them again. Last summer, when my sisters and I offered to take him home, he readily accepted. As the trip drew closer, my excitement grew. Would I find China familiar and comfortable? Or would I be just another stranger in a foreign land?
Since 1979, the Chinese government has encouraged return visits by overseas Chinese, making it easy to arrange a visa for a tour of China plus a trip to the village. None of us got much sleep on the 14-hour flight from San Francisco to Peking. We ended a three-week tour of the major Chinese cities in Canton.
That’s how Dick and Jean Wong, three of their children and a son-in-law found themselves sitting in that Canton restaurant in various states of quiet restlessness. We were anxious to get where we were going.
In a rented yellow Toyota mini-van, we swerved and bounced through the countryside for about four hours to Chengsa. Not an easy ride for Americans spoiled by smooth, gray highways. In the morning, we started our last leg – the road to Hen Gong, the town closest to my father’s village.
During his 1947 visit, my father made his way by boat along the Pearl River because the main road had been blown apart by the retreating Japanese occupational forces. This time, only a muddy road and a flat tire slowed the trip.
My father’s voice sounded terrible from laryngitis, but we couldn’t stop him from shouting instructions to the driver and pointing out local sights. He was literally on the edge of his seat pointing out landmarks (“That’s where my mother grew up.”). My mother pointed, too. When we passed the town where she used to go to market, she told us about the sweet little bananas she used to buy there. We passed stands of tall bamboo and palm trees; a boy was riding a water buffalo through the rice fields.
It was a lovely place. “Some people say that this area is the most beautiful in Canton province,” my mother said. I had imagined it as a bleak and uninviting place after hearing their stories of poverty and hardship. As we got closer, I could see that the village was in a farming area with vibrant, green rice fields, tall sugar cane and peanut plants. The village was a cluster of about three dozen two-story weathered brick homes. One – five stories high – had belonged to my great aunt, one of the wealthier villagers.
It was sunny and hot and I wondered how the older villagers, dressed in traditional Chinese black cotton blouses and pants, stayed cool. Most of the young men and women wore Western-style shirts and slacks. Everyone wore plastic sandals.
When we pulled up just inside the village’s new gate, I saw that there was no road beyond it, only footpaths. Inside, we were expected. A middle-aged man stepped up to greet us. “Are you Ging Cheng?” my father asked, seeing some familiar features in his face. “His cousin,” the man replied as he held my father’s hand in a long, warm handshake.
Behind the cousin an outpouring of relatives and friends – a village of Wongs – turned out to see my father; older folks who remembered him, sons of old friends and new generations that he had never met. My father was beaming. His exhaustion evaporated. Even his voice cleared. Cries of recognition broke the still, humid air, accompanied by the clasping of hands.
I had never met my father’s two “moi” – his younger sisters – but I had no trouble picking them out. I knew them by the smile in my father’s eyes. His youngest sister came up to him and said, “Elder brother, it lifts my heart that you’ve come back.” The last time Yu Hang had seen him, he was a scrappy fellow of 37, she was 25. Now he was 74 and she was 62. His sister Sik Ying was 72. I had never seen my father so happy. I have never been so happy for him.
My father led the way into the village with a sister on each arm. A crowd followed us to a cousin’s house where we were greeted by about two dozen more relatives: cousins and second cousins and third cousins. They had come from two neighboring villages to see us, some traveling overnight.
The Chinese words for dreams are “faat moong,” and my father was telling his old friends that even in his “faat moong” he never imagined that he would see his village again and that he would be here with his children.
Elder daughter, third daughter, son – that’s how my sisters and I were introduced. We were welcomed with a great deal of fussing. Some relatives mistook me for the eldest because of my size. At 5-foot-6, I’m the tallest person in my family. “My, such a big one!” a cousin said. It was a delight. In the States, I usually look for the smallest size on the rack.
A ceiling fan in our cousin’s house kept us cool; there was no electricity in my father’s day. The walls wore calendar photos of smiling Chinese women and prints of ancient mythological gods. We were led to the best chairs, made of red vinyl and chrome, and sipped tea as we talked. Relatives marveled at our ability to speak Heng Haa Wah, the village dialect. My father gave my mother all the credit for teaching us Cantonese in a foreign land.
My father proudly told his sisters that all his children were working and feeding themselves. We were, I think, a measure of his success. It was amusing to listen to him try to explain what his children did for a living.
My sister Mary has a Ph.D in nutritional science; Judy is a regional Superfund chief for the Environmental Protection Agency (How do you say that in Chinese?). The easiest to explain were my sister Margie, who is a teacher, and me, a newspaper photographer. Margie couldn’t make the trip, my father told them, because she was beginning her student teaching.
My cousins were happy to hear about my occupation. “You take home a lot of money,” they said. They advised me to go back to America and make lots of money. When I got married, they said, I could bring my bride back to visit.
We spent the morning at a cousin’s house. On the wall was a framed collection of snapshots of various branches of the Wong family. It was great to have traveled more than 6,000 miles and see our family photos on the wall: sister Judy and her husband, Ken, smiling at their wedding last year and me as a chubby fifth-grader in Fresno. In another marvelous photo posed a handsome Chinese couple. I had never seen this photo of my parents from their younger days.
Occasionally, a chicken would race across our path as we wandered the narrow dirt-and-stone pathways between gray tile-roofed houses and passed the new white-washed meeting hall. One child stared as we walked by. “They all have eyeglasses,” he said. No one in the village wore glasses. Bad vision was just something they lived with.
Anther villager, clad in the ubiquitous plastic sandals, was fascinated by my father’s Velcro-tab sneakers. “In America, they’re the latest thing,” my father said.
As we walked, villagers kept coming to talk to my father.
“Keong, I don't recognize you.”
“I was only 3 when you left.”
“Of course I remember you.”
“It’s been a long time since you were here to get married.”
When my father left China, there was private ownership of land. Even if a home was abandoned and had fallen into disrepair, as my father’s home had, no one could build on that spot without the family’s permission. My parents had planned to build a new home there for one of my cousins.
When the Communist government came into power, there was no longer any private ownership of land, and a man from a nearby village built his home on the site where my father’s home had been.
Old ways die hard in the countryside of China, and my father and his relatives felt that the new tenant was trespassing. The new tenant was trying diplomatically to explain the situation to my very somber-looking father.
The Chinese revere their ancestors, and two traditions are observed: the names of ancestors are written of red banners that are hung over an incense burner in the home and people “hang san” or “walk the mountain.” Once a year, food is brought up to mountain cemeteries and offered to the spirits of departed ancestors. After the spirits have had their fill, the food is brought back and divided among the villagers.
During Mao’s reign, these practices were banned. Villagers stashed their banners and incense burners. Under the current government, the rites resurfaced, and my father hoped to build a home as someplace to hang the name banners of his father, grandfather and greatgrandfather. The new tenant agreed to walk the mountain in my father’s absence and hang in his home the names of the Wong family ancestors.
As we continued our walk that day, everyone wanted Keong to sit in his home and visit over a cup of tea. We finally broke away from the reunions for lunch. It was a Cantonese feast prepared by one of my cousins over a straw-fired stove: long beans with pork and pork liver, steamed fish, egg with sweet and sour sauce, cold poached chicken, Chinese greens, roast pig, two kinds of soup and stir-fried bean sprouts.
After lunch, there was more visiting and exchanging of gifts. We had brought some money and mooncakes, a traditional pastry served during the mid-autumn festival, for relatives. My mother passed out paper bags full of preserved fruits and candies for the children. For the men, my father brought cartons of American cigarettes, prized in China. We were given dried Chinese foods to take home, including dried black beans and homemade tapioca starch. Messages were passed for relatives in America.
Life in the village seemed greatly improved since my father’s day when there was no candy for the children and water poured through the roof when it rained. Now our relatives have plenty to eat and the villagers are allowed to sell part of their crops for profit. One of my cousins was talking about buying a small tractor. Electricity is on 24 hours a day, and some people own black-and-white TVs.
It’s hard work, but a decent life can be made in the Canton countryside. There is still no plumbing. Water is drawn from the village well for washing and cooking. Outside is the outhouse. Human waste is used for fertilizer. It’s nice to know I contributed, if indirectly, to the upcoming rice crop.
We visited for half a day; we had other relatives to see in my mother’s village in Canton province and in Hong Kong. When it was time to go, I found I wanted to stay longer. I felt a certain rightness to the pace of life, the smell of the rice fields, even the hot climate.
I used to believe my family consisted of six members: my parents, my sisters and myself. We were the most nuclear of nuclear families. Relatives existed only in my parents’ stories and in the occasional snapshot sent from abroad. In some ways that belief made the six of us close and strong.
On this journey I discovered at least three dozen of us. And despite the distance, both in miles and upbringing, we share the same beginning.
In a small village in Canton province, I left the mistaken notion that there were only six of us. I can’t say I regret the loss.
Originally published in the Seattle Times Pacific Northwest Sunday Magazine, February 17, 1985