Two Days in Taishan: the world’s largest hometown of overseas Chinese

I’ve always known that my Yeye (paternal grandfather) came from Taishan – and recited as much in a matter-of-fact tone if anyone ever questioned my ancestry – but I had no idea what I was getting into when I embarked on this leg of my trip.

(All I had going into this adventure. And no, I can’t read Chinese…)

A few weeks back, I asked my Dad to chase down the name of my Yeye’s village name through old contacts from the Wong’s Association (a Chinese cultural organization my grandfather was heavily involved with during his life).  He scribbled it onto paper, snapped a photo and sent it to me via Whatsapp. I hired a translator for a couple days and hopped onto a bus, with my fingers crossed.

I learned plenty on my two days in Taishan.  It was emotional.  It was hot.  It was a lot to take in.

Like many fellow Chinese-Canadians, my Yeye was from the coastal province of Guangdong, in the south of China.  Guangdong’s capital is the Cantonese-speaking city of Guangzhou, a sprawling and sweaty metropolis of nearly ten million people.  Taishan, the area which my Yeye hails from, is a much smaller ‘township’ boasting roughly one million inhabitants. Fun fact: It’s also apparently the world’s “number one hometown of overseas Chinese”.  It is said that at least half of American-Chinese come from Taishan.

People have emigrated from Taishan for many generations.  Its number one export = people.  And you can see the positive benefits of money being sent back to family members left behind: There’s a long “pedestrian street” with plenty of clothing boutiques and restaurants, clean roads (by China standards) and thriving local businesses.  Local attractions include nearby hot springs, a beach, and their local dish – an “eel clay pot rice” which I tried.  (Verdict: Not as good as Japanese-style teriyaki eel rice.  But it goes down well with beer…)

On a side note: Growing up, my father would always tease my mother for her ‘Panyue accent’ (my maternal family is from a different region of Guangzhou) which he claimed was “harsh” to listen to… But I’m sorry Dad, Taishan-hua is practically unintelligible.  This is partially due to the fact that Taishan is isolated by mountains and rivers, making it a much, much looser offshoot of Cantonese.

At the Wong’s Association in Taishan

I was reduced to smiles and nods when I was greeted by the local clansmen of the Wong Association.  I saw my Yeye’s name on a donation plaque for one of their many projects, and a glimpse into the wider network that he so faithfully gave his time and energy to.

When we set out for the village that afternoon, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  My Dad mentioned that it was “probably still quite rural”, which almost made it sound romantic (to a backpacker, anyways). We took a turn off the main road and drove down a dirt path for a stretch until the village appeared in view.

The village (“Gao Long”) is nearly 150 years old.  Though most of the communal buildings were rebuilt in the last 20 years, you could hardly tell once pollution and humidity set in .

At its peak, the village had as many as 300 people, all who descended from the same ancestral family.  Many people married off with folk from other towns.  Like many young couples of their era, my Mama and Yeye had an arranged marriage. And like the other twenty-somethings, they left the village (for Hong Kong) during the late 1940s due to civil unrest and mounting political tensions.

It was a sweltering Sunday afternoon.  Any villagers I came across, I offered up candy and snacks I was instructed to buy before I arrived.

Traditionally, Chinese hospitality would dictate that guests would be the one to be treated when arriving for a visit.  But because of Taishan’s unique history as an emigration hub (where people were more likely to return with more to offer) the expectations were reversed.

Everyone was sweet and appreciative that I popped by.  Apparently not many young people (let alone single women) make the trip back to the village.  I think I met about 15 people that afternoon.

In every Chinese village, there is an Ancestral Hall that is built to host the tablets which symbolize the community’s founding family.  However, many of these were destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution.  Unfortunately, my Yeye’s village did not escape this fate.  The hall was eventually rebuilt, but was damaged again by a typhoon.  Today it serves as a storage.

The village homes were all generally quite dilapidated. My Yeye’s mother was our family’s last blood relative to live in the village.  She stayed in a house along with another family (unrelated) who still inhabit it today.  They don’t remember the year she passed away.

I toured through the village and saw various properties that my Yeye’s father had owned at one point or another (up to three, I was told).  But today, most were just plots of land that had overgrown with shrubbery.

I was told many stories by the village elder, who was one of the last people to know my Yeye personally. Even though they were nearly 8 years apart, he had memories of my grandfather taking him fishing at the nearby pond when they were much younger.  When I asked how he remembered him, he said he was “a very honest and pure man” (translated literally).

My Yeye had 3 other brothers. Two died young, and were married off in “ghost weddings” to other’s family’s daughters who also died young, as per Chinese tradition/superstition.

He showed me the village “Jook Po”, which is basically a genealogy book that documents every village’s descendants and family trees.  I belong to the 33rd generation.  We found that the names had not been updated since my Yeye’s generation.

The following morning, I came back with flowers in hand to pay my respects to the village ancestors, as well as my Yeye’s mother.

We traversed as a small caravan through the fields to three separate plots.  There didn’t seem to be any obvious path to me, but our guides from the village knew these hills like the back of their hands.  It was a walk I was happy to take in silence.  I was all too aware of the significance of this moment, which felt like the culmination of a series of serendipitous happenstance.  This was it. I had reached my destination.



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