Some family history (Much of it was learned during this trip):-
The China relatives who picked us at Guangzhou are the sons, son-in-law and grandson of my paternal grandmother’s younger brothers. My paternal grandmother was born in Malaya in 1929 and married early due to Japanese Occupation of Malaya. After the war had ended, her mom returned to their ancestral village with her five younger brothers; the youngest would celebrate his first birthday on-board the boat back to China.
Strangely, her father didn’t return with them and would remain in Malaya (Malaysia) until 1970s. My father and elder aunt could recall that they sent him off in Singapore for his boat trip to Hong Kong.
Home was always China for many first-generation Chinese immigrants and for most, the primary motive for migration was to earn enough money so that they could return to their hometowns in glory （衣锦还乡). While I doubted that he returned with a lot more than he departed with, my great-grandfather was lucky; many immigrants would never return to the lands where they came from.
Perhaps for my great-grandfather, the thought of dying in a foreign land (客死异乡) was too much to bear. He would pass away the following year after his return.
Due to China’s isolation from 1950s to early 1980s, there was little contact between my grandmother and her family in China. In 1988, a travel agency was organizing a tour for older folks to visit their families in China and my grandmother decided to visit hers. She would see her mom and brothers for the first time in 40 years.
It was her only time visiting China. Rural China in 1980s wasn’t a pretty place and lives were hard. It was a logistical nightmare getting to her village; she flew to Hong Kong, took a ferry to Shenzhen where she boarded a bus to Lufeng. The last twenty or so kilometres were on autorickshaws. The roads were so bad that my grandmother had to hold on tightly to the three-wheeler to prevent herself from being bumped off the vehicle.
Her experience scarred her and she declined to join us, citing her health and age. If she had came along, she would be able to witness how far China and our relatives had came along since then.
Instead of three-wheelers, they picked us up in two Chinese-made MPVs, models which I hadn’t heard of. The parking fee was a whopping 80 CNY, not an inconsiderable amount in China. They had arrived at the airport at 11.30am and waited almost three hours for us.
We stopped once en-route as one of the cars needed more fuel. While waiting at the rest station, our China relatives would offer the men in our entourage cigarettes. It seemed that no one smoke by himself (smoker is always a him) in China; one is expected to offer cigarettes to all those around him. I guess that’s why most Chinese men smoke.
It was already 7pm by the time we exited the expressway at Lufeng. The total amount of toll paid to use the expressway was around 150 CNY per vehicle and when we were leaving, our relatives declined my father’s offer to reimburse them for their expenses.
Instead they treated us to a sumptuous dinner at a local restaurant.
It was already close to 9pm when we arrived at Da’an Farm (大安农场), where our relatives resided. The older folks were really excited to see us and we were warmly received into one of the granduncles’ house. Although we had never met before, they treated us as close family members and genuinely welcomed our visit. One of the things that we didn’t really get used to was that we could wear shoes into their houses. Something that would almost never happen in Singapore or Malaysia.
As we were in a big group of 11, we couldn’t be accommodated in a single house. The cousin who drove us from Guangzhou asked if Ying and I would stay at his place instead. We took up his offer and followed him to his house which was located two minutes’ walk away.
It was quite embarrassing for us being fussed over our long-lost relatives. My cousin’s wife insisted on helping us with putting on a new set of bedsheets as well as doing our laundry.
The houses all seemed pretty new and modern; the one that I lived in even had Wifi (yay!). Things must have improved considerably since my grandmother’s visit more than two decades ago. Every household also has a tea-set where one would make Chinese tea with some fascinating and elaborate process.
Ying and I chatted with my cousin and his wife over numerous (small) cups of tea until past midnight. We would ask about their lives and answer about their questions about us and Singapore.
He works in Shenzhen and returned to the village the night before so that he could pick us up at the airport. His wife stays with his kids in the village as the air quality is much better compared to the cities’. Interestingly she is not a local but from Guizhou, 16 hours’ away by train. I inferred that they met while working in Shenzhen.
Yes I said “kids”. He has three children, contrary to China’s well-known one-child policy. However, it seems that big families are the norm in the village; perhaps enforcement is much lax in the countryside. We also learnt that half of the village descended from my grandmother’s five younger brothers and the extended Qiu family have more than 100 members!
The next morning, we would explore a bit of the village before breakfast.
I discovered the two reasons why the houses are fairly new: firstly they were relocated in the 1990s from their previous place of dwelling due to the building of a dam. Secondly money is flowing into the village through remittances of the younger generation who are working in the cities such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
The domesticated animals and farm produce confirmed that we were in countryside.
Our relatives had woken up early to prepare a full breakfast for us.
My father and my relatives from Malaysia could speak Hakka and communicate to our elderly relatives easily. In contrast, my siblings and I were brought up speaking Mandarin. My mom’s Hakka wasn’t really fluent either but she still did quite a bit of translation for us.
One interesting thing that I observe is that most of the young people there still use dialects between themselves. The parents will speak to their kids in dialects; Mandarin could wait till when the kids are in school. Many of our relatives could also speak the Hailufeng dialect (related to Teochew dialect), the dominant dialect in Lufeng. Multilingualism seemed to be the norm there.
After breakfast, we traveled to Luhe to visit relatives from my paternal grandfather’s side. We only returned to Da’an Farm after lunch.
One of our grandaunts invited us to her house for lei cha and while waiting, Ying and I went out to explore more of the village.
After having lei cha (my grandaunt kept wanting to top up our rice crackers), we were scheduled to travel to Da’an Town where the relative who corresponded in letters with my grandmom stayed. She is the daughter of the oldest of my grandmother’s five younger brothers and her husband picked us up at Guangzhou as well. Both of them work at a school; he is the principal while she’s a teacher.
The cousin whom I was staying with arranged the transport for us again.
It was a short trip down to Da’an Town and we visited our relatives’ house where we were served tea and fruits. Then our relatives played tour guide and brought us through the market.
At the market, my relative insisted on paying for the top which my aunt intended to buy for my grandmother.
Dinner was back at Da’an Farm. Preparing 4 tables of food wasn’t easy but squeezing the eaters into a living room was a bigger challenge.
Another interesting piece of family history that I learned during dinner: two of my granduncles served in the PLA. One of them was with the Air Force in Fuzhou, doing ground operations.
For the benefit of my grandmother, we arranged for yet another photography session for my granduncles and grandaunts after the hearty dinner.
Although the visit was short, I was truly overwhelmed by the hospitality of my relatives. They kept telling us to visit more often and stay for a longer period next time. Hopefully, after showing her the photos, my grandmother will be convinced to return there again.