A visit to the family ancestral home in Fujian, China, turned out to be an eye-opening experience.
MY father died of cancer when I was only 12. His untimely death left a void in my life which I had yet to come to terms with.
My ancestors from my father’s side hailed from Minqing, Fujian province, in south-eastern China. I felt it was timely to go back to my roots – to the place where my father was born, to see his background, to walk the path he had trodden, to understand and reconnect with him now that I’m old enough to deal with the trauma of his death. I wanted a closure to that part of my life.
Going back to Minqing helped me to reflect and take stock of my life, now that I am more than half a century old. My father’s ancestors – all Foochows – once owned a mountain in Fujian county. My father came to the Land of the Headhunters in the early 1920s when Rajah Brooke’s family invited the Chinese to settle down in the Rajang River delta to help develop it.
It was past six in the evening but it was already dark at Changle International Airport in Fuzhou, Fujian, as it was winter when we arrived. After claiming our luggage, we walked through the arrival gate and scanned the crowd for someone who looked like my father.
My sisters nudged each other trying to recall what our relatives looked like when one of them cried out excitedly, “There!” and we rushed over in delight. Our cousin Chiong Kui who had never met me before, was delighted to meet the four of us. Everyone spoke Foochow with the same accent as that spoken in Sibu, Sarawak.
A van took us through tunnels, highways and byways before arriving in Minqing where we had a late dinner of rice with hoongan (a noodle dish), tofu soup, chow chai (preserved vegetables) and pa qui (rice cake) which were quintessential Foochow dishes. I had this strange feeling of being back home for the Chinese New Year reunion dinner, but in a cold foreign land.
In the morning, it was drizzling when we woke up. We were advised to wear an extra layer of clothing, and bring an umbrella each. The umbrellas came in handy as it rained the whole morning. Chiong Kui arrived early and he was all excited at the prospect of taking us on a tour of Taishan Park which offered a good view of Minqing. It was a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. All that climbing made us hungry.
Lunch was a two-hour affair. There were more than 16 dishes! And we had thought there was not much to eat. Besides pork, fish, prawns, we had eel, cockles, mussels, snails and vegetables. What a sumptuous feast!
Everywhere we went, we saw local folks busy working in the fields, on construction sites, in shops along the Minjiang River. The city was a hive of economic activities. In the afternoon, the sun came out and the mist cleared up so we could take a van ride up the mountain.
It was a harrowing journey. The winding road had many blind corners. One wrong turn by the driver and we could have ended up in a ravine. We hung on for dear life until we reached my uncle’s home.
From there, we walked in the cool afternoon towards the summit of the mountain where the old communal home of our ancestors was located. It was a lovely trek and we enjoyed the breathtaking view of the mountains in the distance, and the city in the valley below.
Many of the plants and herbs were similar to those found back home in Sibu. During my childhood days, my father used to gather a particular type of grass for use as a home remedy for gastric. Again there was this feeling of home away from home.
Our ancestral home was still in good condition although it had been more than 70 years since my dad left Minqing. The straw sun-dried brick façade was white-washed on the ground floor but from the first floor upwards, it was left mud-coloured. A few lines of laundry hung in the common room where it was customary to have an ancestral altar with photographs of deceased parents placed as a mark of respect.
Plots of healthy vegetables were seen in front of the house – a testimony to the hardworking nature of the village folk. There were mounds of harvested sweet potatoes and stacks of neatly arranged chopped firewood in most houses. They looked prepared for winter. Down the slopes were paddy, yam, olive trees, bamboos, oranges and primrose bushes.
The seeds from the primrose bushes were a source of cash for the farmers who extracted the valuable primrose oil through a long and arduous process.
We walked along the same path my dad took to school. In those days, there were ferocious tigers on the prowl, quick to devour any little boy who crossed their paths. My dad ran to school (fearing the misfortune of meeting the dreaded predator) after having a bowl of rice mixed with sweet potatoes, we were told.
Call of adventure
His primary school had withstood the ravages of time. But the building was dilapidated and empty. We were told there were no students as all the young ones had left the county for the bright lights of Fuzhou to study or work. What a pity! Fuzhou was a quaint and picturesque county with good air quality unlike Minqing. I can’t blame them. My dad must have heard the call of adventure and promise of a better life, for he too left his ancestral home.
We visited my uncle’s clinic. It was the only clinic serving the rural community of 200 villagers. Along the way, many curious villagers came out to see who the four foreign ladies were, and they were delighted that we spoke their dialect, too.
After the tour around the mountain, we began to understand how back-breaking life was back then. The forests were thick, wild animals roamed freely, there was no electricity supply, and the village folk had to gather firewood to cook and keep warm in the freezing winter.
Down in the valley, temperatures dipped to 5°C at night. Even that was too cold for us, and we had to drink mugs of hot water to stop shivering. If it was so cold in the valley, I can’t imagine how cold it must be up in the mountain.
My dad used to send – through the post – blue cotton cloth for his relatives to make clothes for winter. That was back in the late 1960s during the Cultural Revolution, when no other colours were allowed as they were deemed too frivolous. How stifling life must have been then.
The visit to my dad’s ancestral home was an eye-opener. I discovered how tenacious my dad was. Life was very challenging up in the mountain, yet he overcame all adversities. He must have walked for days through treacherous terrain down to the valley to Minqing before setting sail in a junk for Nanyang.
As we walked gingerly along tarred roads, huffing and puffing, we could only imagine what his journey was like more than 50 years ago.
Looking back, I feel a sense of pride that I have come this far. Education has helped me move up the socio-economic ladder. My dad was hampered by his lack of education; he only had the chance to attend primary school. But what he had achieved was remarkable for one who had come to Sibu, armed with only a dream.
My achievements are an extension of where he had left off. If he were still alive today, he would have been very proud of me.
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