My dad Tan Book Lin was born in Putian, Fujian, China, in 1925 and travelled to Malaya in 1947 to seek his fortune.
After years of struggle, he eventually found success in business.
Thereafter, visiting his home village with my mum (she died in 2001) became his favourite vacation. I was fortunate to accompany him together with my family for a visit in 2005 around the time he was stricken with Parkinson’s disease.
We arrived at Xiamen and were met by my cousin. We passed by Quanzhou, an ancient city with an illustrious history: It was the starting point of the maritime silk route and where Zheng He sailed with his armada centuries ago.
As we turned into the road leading to our village my father became excited and cried: “Kampung! Kampung!” (Malay for village).
I was struck by the 36-room mansion that my father had built – it’s like a small castle. Our relatives made us feel at home as they gathered to pay homage to my father. The village was classic rural China, sitting amidst padi fields and mountains. Many “new” four-storey houses stood in the village which reflected the prosperity following the opening of China in 1978. I was surprised to see minnows in the drain across our mansion. And there were wild herons, too. There was a scarecrow in the field but no tin man, cowardly lion, nor Dorothy whose famous line in the movie classic The Wizard Of Oz resonated in my dad’s happiness: “There is no place like home!”
It was a walk down memory lane for dad as we strolled through the village. The village classroom where my dad obtained his education was just a few steps from our ancestral house. The interior rooms are surprisingly dark, even in the daytime. Dad pointed out the rear window from where he escaped into the mountain, forewarned by a relative and by the barking of dogs of the approach of Guomindang conscription officers.
My cousin observed that one of our relatives had lost nine sons – taken as cannon fodder. We trekked up the mountain at the back of the village to pay homage to my ancestors in the tomb complex that my dad built in the 1960s.
We passed a longan orchard for which Putian is famous for. We took the opportunity during our stay to consume loads of succulent longan which was in season. My dad was proud of his family longan orchard and often told me stories about the longan as well as anecdotes of his life in the village.
I was glad to have this chance to see my roots and walked the paths my dad did during his youth, as did my grandfather who won renown in local lore as the person responsible for greening the mountain (which used to be barren) through planting trees. It is difficult to realise that this lush mountain used to be barren after being continuously harvested for firewood as cooking fuel.
We paid visits to various relatives who live in nearby areas and saw The East Is Red dam which was a project completed in the 1950s or 60s that greatly benefited the region and is very picturesque. We also made a day trip to Putian City where we passed by the Southern Shaolin temple.
Our relatives took good care of us. We had several memorable dinners; a famous delicacy of Fujian is fried oysters which was said to be the Fujian Chinese community leader of Nanyang and philanthropist Tan Kah Kee’s favourite fare.
My visit to the good earth that is my dad’s ancestral home village was a meaningful and worthwhile experience. I urged my brother Francis and his family to bring dad for a visit which he did in October 2007; it proved to be dad’s final visit. During both visits, dad stayed back for an extended period. The visits were the great gifts my brother and I were able to give to our dad; we ourselves also gained infinitely for having experienced it together with him. It’s something that we can never do again, after his passing in 2013. Some “good earth” I took from the village as a keepsake was placed in dad’s casket as a sentimental gesture; dad would have appreciated that.
The views expressed are entirely the reader’s own.
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