Personal tales

Hong Kong heritage walk Nam Hang best where we lived in New Territories IMG_1712

Nam Hang is the New Territories village in Hong Kong where we were living when we immigrated to Chicago in 1967.

Hong Kong heritage walk Nam Hang where we lived in New Territories IMG_5030

Nam Hang is the New Territories village in Hong Kong where we were living when we immigrated to Chicago in 1967.

Hong Kong heritage walk Nam Hang where we lived in New Territories IMG_5033

Nam Hang is the New Territories village in Hong Kong where we were living when we immigrated to Chicago in 1967.

1986 Hong Kong for USAT scan0022

The school I attended in the New Territories of Hong Kong. This was taken in 1986; the school has been replaced by another.

MMC 1967 2nd grade class in Hong Kong bids farewell

My classmates at the New Territories school bid me farewell in 1967 when I came to America from Hong Kong. I'm to the left of the teacher, third from the right in the front row.

Hong Kong heritage Polytechnic University dad attended 1960-63 IMG_1880

Hong Kong Polytechnic College used to be HK Technical College, where Dad got his mechanical engineering certificate via night school for three years.

Hong Kong heritage Polytechnic University dad attended 1960-63 IMG_0607

Hong Kong Polytechnic College used to be HK Technical College, where Dad got his mechanical engineering certificate via night school for three years.

Gramps in China Grandpa and colleague at school they attended

In 1987, my father and Uncle Jul visited the former Hong Kong Technical College, where they received their certificates.

Hong Kong heritage walk with uncle poo

Uncle Jul, who went to Hong Kong Technical with my Dad, helped guide us around.

Hong Kong heritage 138 Shaukiwan Rd. 5th floor where we rented 1963-65 IMG_5195

I lived at this address in Hong Kong, now a high rise featuring an English school on the first floor.

Hong Kong heritage 138 Shaukiwan Rd. 5th floor where we rented 1963-65 IMG_5193

I lived at this address in Hong Kong, now a high rise featuring an English school on the first floor.

Hong Kong heritage Diana parents fan factory 18 Sai Wan Ho Street IMG_5185

Our cousins owned a fan factory here.

Hong Kong heritage Gong's house best No. 1 Yiu Tung St., 2nd floor. Mom married Kong Lo Kui there Ja

I lived on the second floor corner unit of this apartment complex in Hong Kong.

Guangzhou heritage Dong home No. 83 2nd floor where we lived 2016-06-27 028

This was one of the addresses where we lived in Hong Kong.

Guangzhou heritage hospital where MM was born original building perhaps 2016-06-27 057

The hospital building in Guangzhou where I was born is now a medical center in a large complex.

Guangzhou heritage hospital where MM was born 2016-06-27 041

The hospital building in Guangzhou where I was born is now a medical center in a large complex.

Hong Kong to villages 2016-06-24 002

Taking the bus from Hong Kong to Taishan to visit the family villages.

Hong Kong into mainland customs best best made it into China 2016-06-24 028

We actually made it into China!

Taishan villages mom village best best 2016-06-26 004

The village in Taishan where my mother grew up, with the community center on the right that we contributed to.

Taishan village mom best IMG_2140

The village in Taishan where my mother grew up, with the community center on the right that we contributed to.

Taishan villages mom front door best best house built by Tommy's father around 1935 2016-06-25 160

The front door of the house my mother grew up in, built by my great-grandfather in 1935.

Taishan villages mom living room 2016-06-25 146

The house in Taishan my mother grew up in, built by my great-grandfather in 1935.

Taishan villages mom 2016-06-25 147

The house in Taishan my mother grew up in, built by my great-grandfather in 1935.

Taishan villages mom house serenade 2016-06-26 138

My daughter Regan entertains in the house in Taishan my mother grew up in, built by my great-grandfather in 1935.

Taishan village mom bathroom IMG_1056

The fairly new addition to the Taishan house, along with air conditioner. This is where my mother grew up, built by my great-grandfather in 1935.

Taishan village mom house left front bedroom IMG_1065

One of the bedrooms in the house in Taishan my mother grew up in, built by my great-grandfather in 1935.

Taishan villages mom roof house built by Tommy's father around 1935

The roof of the house in Taishan my mother grew up in, built by my great-grandfather in 1935.

Taishan villages mom family best toast 2016-06-26 060

Cousin Leurng and his mother toast the occasion. They now living in the house my mother grew up in, built by my great-grandfather in 1935.

Taishan villages mom family 2016-06-26 054

Cousin Fe has a good laugh. He and his family now live in the house my mother grew up in, built by my great-grandfather in 1935.

Taishan villages mom family 2016-06-26 055 (1)

A favorite among the family now living in the house my mother grew up in, built by my great-grandfather in 1935.

Taishan villages mom cousin Gum picked peanuts best 2016-06-26 005

Cousin Gum harvests fresh peanuts from the field at the village in Taishan where my mother grew up.

Taishan village peanuts were too wet to make it 2016-06-28 001

Fresh peanuts from the field at the village in Taishan where my mother grew up.

Taishan villages mom entry gazebo from Tom Louie dad 2016-06-26 009

Entry way gazebo built by cousin Tom Louie's dad at the Taishan village where my mother grew up.

Taishan villages mom donors 2016-06-26 032

Mom is listed among the financial supporters to the Taishan village on this plaque.

Taishan villages mom Leurng and brother Fe workshop 2016-06-25 165

Cousin Fe shows off their modest machine shop behind the house, drilling holes in pipes that will become part of a desk organizer.

Taishan village mom metal workshop IMG_2108

Cousin Fe shows off their modest machine shop behind the house, drilling holes in pipes that will become part of a desk organizer.

Taishan villages chirk scholarship school

The former school in Taishan where Randy and I had a modest scholarship to help provide supplies to the students.

Taishan villages  Fung Ho best  2016-06-25 123

Entry way to the Taishan village where my grandmother and my Uncle Fong grew up.

Taishan villages  Fung Ho best 2016-06-25 125

The Taishan village where my grandmother and my Uncle Fong grew up.

Taishan villages  Fung Ho's borther's house where she lived 2016-06-25 109

The house my grandmother grew up in Taishan.

Taishan villages Fung Ho's borther's house where she lived 2016-06-25 108

The house my grandmother grew up in Taishan.

Taishan villages Fung Ho Yuk Man house 2016-06-25 102

The house my Uncle Fong grew up in in Taishan

Taishan villages dad best best

My father's village in Taishan, the poorest of the three we visited.

Taishan villages dad family house where nephews lived

The house of my dad's family in Taishan

Taishan villages dad rice mill for nephews 2016-06-25 085

Long neglected, this rice mill was funded by my parents for his nephew and his family.

Taishan villages dad 2016-06-25 054

My dad's village in Taishan.

Taishan Bai San prep best best 2016-06-26 009

Fascinating experience to go "Bai San" or pay respects to the ancestors, starting at home honoring the gods, then graveside in Taishan.

Taishan Bai San 2016-06-26 085

Fascinating experience to go "Bai San" or pay respects to the ancestors, transporting a feast graveside in Taishan.

Taishan Bai San Tommy Lew's grandparents, also Ah Chiu's grandparents IMG_1081

The grave of my great-grandparents in Taishan.

Taishan Bai San mom's older brother 1933-1940 Jeen Hong 2016-06-26 056

The grave of my mother's older brother, Jeen Hong, who died at age 7, in Taishan.

Taishan Bai San Tommy Lew's parents  2016-06-26 066

Fascinating experience to go "Bai San" or pay respects to the ancestors, transporting a feast graveside in Taishan.

Taishan Bai San Tommy Lew's parents 2016-06-26 081

Fascinating experience to go "Bai San" or pay respects to the ancestors, transporting a feast graveside in Taishan.

Taishan Bai San firecrackers 2016-06-26 087

Fascinating experience to go "Bai San" or pay respects to the ancestors, transporting a feast graveside in Taishan and finishing with thundering firecrackers.

Taishan Bai San transporting the pig best IMG_2207

Fascinating experience to go "Bai San" or pay respects to the ancestors, transporting a feast from one grave to another in Taishan.

Taishan Bai San Tom Louie's grandfather and great granddad, brother to Tommy Lew's father 2016-06-26

The grave of my great grand uncle, Tom Louie's relative, in Taishan.

Taishan Bai San Ah Chiu's mother, Tommy Lew's sister best 2016-06-26 121

The grave of my grandfather's sister, who passed in 2010, in Taishan.

Taishan Bai San brunch in Chonglouzhen 2016-06-27 006

Fascinating experience to go "Bai San" or pay respects to the ancestors, after which you feast on the feast.

Taishan villages mom family best 2016-06-26 050

Enjoyed meeting my cousins for the first time. Ah Chui is bottom left, my mother's first cousin, son of my grandfather's sister. He and his family live in the Taishan house my mother grew up in.

Retracing family roots in Hong Kong and southern China

In June of 2016, my daughter and I traveled to Hong Kong and China for a month-long adventure. (See our top highlights.)

The first eight days were an homage to my roots. I was born in Canton, now called Guangzhou, in 1959. When I was two, my mother and I smuggled out of Macau to Hong Kong in a false-bottom boat to join my father. I was 7 when we immigrated to Chicago in 1967, 50 years ago as I write this!

I had been back to Hong Kong once, on assignment with USA Today. But I had never been back to China. My mother declined to go, so my daughter and I were on a mission to flesh out my heritage, armed with fragments of addresses and descriptions in Chinese.

 

What a fascinating journey of discovery! 

In Hong Kong, we went to:

  • Two places I had lived--one was still intact, and one was a high rise that, ironically, featured the "English Excel School of English" on the first floor.

  • The sprawling campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, formerly the HK Technical College, where Dad got his mechanical engineering certificate after attending classes at night for three years while working and living in a laundry.

  • Nam Hang,  the village in New Territories where we moved because I was sickly in the city and of which I have the clearest memories, including of my dog, Whitey.  

In Guangzhou, a glistening metropolis, we found:

  • The hospital where I was born, now a medical center of a large complex

  • The house we had lived in, now a bustling retail area

In rural Taishan, we were guided by cousins we met for the first time, and visited:

  • The village where my father grew up

  • The village where my grandmother grew up, as well as my Uncle Fong, who later married my aunt and sponsored us to America

  • The former school where my husband and I had funded scholarships to help buy supplies 

  • The village and house where my mother grew up, built by my great-grandfather in 1935, and now occupied by mom's first cousin and his family

Walking on the roof of mom's house, eating peanuts plucked from the field in front of their village, admiring the community center that we had contributed to, listening to my daughter sing in the living room where my mother grew up--it was all surreal, and vividly real. 

The most memorable heritage experience was going to “Bai San” or "honor the mountain." The graveside rituals to pay respects to our ancestors involves providing them with a feast, wealth and good fortune.

 

I had done this many times in America, carrying a few plastic bags of flowers and snacks. But mom wanted to make sure we did it right back in her homeland.

So, as we trudged through the wild hillside to the grave of my great-grandparents and my mom's older brother, who died as a youth, we were carrying a giant whole roasted pig, geese, chicken, wine, eggs, cakes, paper pictures symbolizing money and cars, and firecrackers.

In the oppressive heat, we kowtowed, poured wine, burned incense, ate some of the food, then lit the firecrackers. In yet another surreal moment, my uncle Ah Chiu used his cell phone to call my uncle in New York so he could be part of the ritual.

Then we packed everything up, and went to two other locations! One was my great-grand uncle's grave; the other my grand aunt's grave, which had not yet been transformed into a cement marker.

Afterward, the pig was carved up and enjoyed as a snack and as part of the feast we hosted for the village on our last day there. 

Come back soon, they said. You need to spend more time here. This is your home country.

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© 2015 by Mei-Mei Chan Kirk