Personal tales

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