It was a homecoming like no other.
Exactly 60 years ago when he was a lad of 15, Ah Kong (my father-in-law), left his hometown in Chaoan and travelled to Shantou, where he boarded a boat at Hankang to Singapore, leaving behind his home, school, playground and everything one holds dear in childhood. Landowners were being persecuted by the communists in 1950 for being capitalists. The acres of padi fields, bought from wealth earned by his father in Nanyang (Singapore, Sabah) were confisticated.
His father had left Chaoan with 4-year-old Ah Kong with nothing to make his fortune in Singapore. He then sold everything in Singapore two years later to return home, only to escape back to Singapore almost ten years later empty handed again.
Our tour leader spoke to us about the resilience of the Southern people. They were fishermen, and their catch was often irregular. Somedays it might had been bountiful, other days miserable. Thus Southerners are live-and-let-live people. Superstitious, but with that never say die attitude, as compared to the Northerners who were farmers with regular harvest. There was an acclaimed movie which received good ratings in Beijing recently. In it, a wealthy man lost his wealth and commited suicide. The movie goers in Beijing came out of the theatre with teary eyes. When it was shown over in the South, the people there criticised the movie. Their comment? Stupid man to commit suicide over a small thing.
When Ah Kong’s brother (who was born in Singapore after the communists had taken over China) took his own family of twenty plus people back to the village for a visit two years’ ago, we were inspired to do the same thing. Lao Jeik agreed to meet us in Shantou to take us there.
The ride from Shantou to the 文路卓 Boon Lou Tok village took one hour. Along the way, we passed factories, small businesses, duck farms and piles of garbage along the road. At the road turning in the village, we saw the sign.
Ah Kong remembered that there was a majestic tree next to a pond where he used to swim near his house. Upon arriving there, he immediately recognised the tree. The pond where he used to swim? A dirty green pool full of garbage. Next to the pond is a delipidated building he recognised as the school. We were immediately greeted by the villagers there and took a walkabout tour. At the community hall, Ah Kong saw his name on the wooden plaque listing all the donations collected from the overseas Toh’s. Other than this hall, everything had remained the same for 60 years, including his house.
We were brought to his house, empty except for Ah Kong’s room at the back of the alley, taken by another family. The stench from the three pigs the current owner reared outside her bedroom was too much for the kids. The barking dog prevented us from visiting Ah Kong’s room. The owner told Ah Kong that the attic where he used to sleep is almost collapsing. We learned the house still belongs to us, if we want it back. hmm…a holiday villa?
As we walked around, we learned that like most villages in China, those who are left behind are the aged and the kids. I spoke to one pretty girl and she introduced me to the toddler she was carrying. They had the same surname as my kids, 卓(Toh).
It’s great to see the distant relatives of my kids. At the ancestral temple, we learned that my kids are the 18th generation of from the first Toh who started this village. Ah Kong does not know the people living there now, except for the son of the family chef/cook who had worked for them in Singapore. Ah Kong used to write letters to the son on behalf of the chef. Now eighty years old, the chef’s son has no recollection of who Ah Kong is. Nevertheless, Ah Kong and Lao Jeik passed him a red packet each.
The visit home was an eye opener for the adults, and I hope for the kids too. It’s a chance for them to 饮水思源 ("When drinking water, remember the spring".) Their family history started here and I hope they won’t ever forget that.