A Tasmanian Taishan Dream
In 1984 fourth-generation Chinese Tasmanian Helene Chung failed in a three-pronged pursuit to find her Dragon Field Village. Three decades on, in March 2017 the Hobart-born former ABC China correspondent went hunting again.
My first Dragon Field search was thrust upon me by eager Chinese officials. From Beijing I negotiated with Guangdong Province in the south to film families in the Four Counties area, whose ancestors had ventured to Australia’s gold and tin mines and who retained links with relatives Down Under.
To ease my way into a region that then required an Aliens Permit, over the phone to Jian Lu of Canton (Guangzhou) Foreign Affairs, I mentioned that my family comes from Dragon Field Village. I had no idea of the trouble that name would cause.
Singapore cameraman Willi Phua and I met Lu in Canton and travelled in stifling heat by minibus over bumpy roads and ferries through the Pearl River Delta for most of a day to Taishan County.
Interpreter Chen burst with excitement: ‘We’ve found forty Dragon Field Villages in Taishan and fourteen with the clan name Chung. But so far none with any established links with Australia.’
‘Chung? Dragon Field Village?’ I repeated. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. When I mentioned that my family comes from Dragon Field Village I meant my mother’s family, the Gins who changed their name to Henry. I didn’t know you were looking for my ancestral village. I don’t know of any family links in China.’
‘Never mind,’ soothed crestfallen Chen. ‘We should have told you, but we wanted to surprise you. Anyway, one family of Chungs in the far south remember an elder going off to some foreign land long ago. They don’t know where but they’re expecting a visit.’
With no choice but to play the part, in the minivan we journeyed several hours to the impecunious south. The fine colonnaded architecture of Taishan centre gave way to rice paddies with peasants bent over or ploughing with the aid of a buffalo. Paved roads gave way to gravel, then dirt tracks.
At last halted in the mud, we saw 400 men, women and children lined up to greet us. As Mrs Chung junior helped me alight, I heard a collective gasp. In that era of Mao suits, when makeup was reserved for the stage and high heels unheard of, I wore casual western clothes, makeup and blow-waved shoulder-length hair, nail varnish peeping from the straps of my sandals. The villagers had never seen anything as exotic as me – not quite of the East, nor of the West. Neither had they seen a cameraman with his tripod and heavy gear.
Mrs Chung junior introduced me to 84-year-old Mrs Chung senior, steadied by her stick. With the crowd jostling from behind, we were forced up an alley into her begrimed home, seated on plastic chairs and served steaming hot tea.
As young Mrs Chung stood fanning me with a large palm frond, through interpreter Chen the matriarch recalled: ‘Long ago, before I was born, my father went off to the red-haired devil land.’
‘But which foreign land,’ I probed, ‘England, America, Australia?’
‘I don’t know,’ she pointed to the South China Sea. ‘All I know is he went off to the red-haired devil land.’
The fact that not even an electric fan whirred proved the absence of links overseas. By 1984 airport conveyor belts groaned with boxes of fans, television sets and other luxuries imported by overseas Chinese for their impoverished kin.
We nonetheless stood outside for a group photograph: not one of the eleven Chungs related to me though that wasn’t mentioned. I’d broken the daily monotony of this Dragon Field Village.
Determined to find my roots, Chen directed us further south to a Dragon Field Village occupied by Gins; then to yet a third village where pigsty merged seamlessly into straw-filled home. Only in the blackness of night did Chen admit defeat.
That experience made me reflect on my origins and back in Australia I learn that my mother’s village is in Three Ports (Sanbu) Town, now rezoned from Taishan into Kaiping, and that my father was born in adjoining Xinhui.
On Thursday 16 March 2017, more than three decades after my 1984 dragon chase, I resume the quest. I fly Melbourne to Hong Kong, ferry to China’s border city of Zhuhai and meet a Zhuhai Hobartian, Jinju Liao. She’s been introduced to me by Xinhui-born Hobart cousin Peter Chung via China’s online WeChat.
Jinju’s English is limited but her friend, Jenny Lai’s lack of any English proves no hindrance to her Peugeot purring for two hours along a freeway part-tunnelled through mountains to Taishan County (now called Taishan City).
I’m checking into the Taishan Jos – Room 1403 with panoramic views over a picturesque lake – when Jinju introduces me to new UTas graduate, Taishan Hobartian Victoria Chen, fluent in English and the local Four Counties dialect, Taishanese.
Armed with four photographs taken by my Hobart-born cousin Helen Henry in 2010, we hope to find the village and the keeper of the key. She appears in one of the photos. My smattering of mangled Mandarin to nonplussed non-English-speaking hotel clerks isn’t helping to pinpoint the village, when Jinju says, ‘We know where to go in Kaiping City.’
After forty minutes, aided by Jenny’s GPS, my expectant triad and I wander into Dragon Field Village. Yet no amount of head-scratching by eager villagers pawing over photos leads to my Gin home: ‘We don’t have house number plates like that’, says one. ‘Never seen such intricate door windows,’ pipes up another.
A high curved entrance arch topped by a sinuous golden dragon offers hope, but village two also proves a dud. Undeterred, we ask police for directions. Then, as the sun sets and traffic peaks, we manoeuvre along highways and bridges and past neon-lit streets until darkness delivers a charcoal-bricked arch with an ochre tiled roof. This Dragon Field Village has a weathered shrine to ancestors but, alas, its two gods seated behind incense sticks don’t beckon me.
It’s 7:30 Thursday night. Tired, cold and hungry, we take a break and drop into some place for a simple buffet. I’ve travelled 7,500 kilometres, for what? My heart tumbles to my heavy Timberland boots. Maybe next week, I console myself, when I join an Australian tour group in Hong Kong headed for the Four Counties, I’ll find my village. The leader said she could find it and that all our group could visit. But no mention of my village ever appears on the itinerary. And I can’t stay on after the tour due to commitments back home. Oh well, it was a long shot.
Then Jinju stands up from the table: ‘Let’s try another police station.’
It’s approaching 9pm when Tanjiang Police Superior Chaozan Lao asks staffers to inspect the images against computer records and, within minutes, jaws drop as policeman Huang reveals, ‘The library’s in the Lechong Village Group.’
‘We’ll drive you there but first we need to check a few things.’ Lao is efficient.
In the police van seated behind Lao and the driver, I’m incredulous as we pass through Kaiping’s flickering coloured lights into the village gloom. It takes about ten minutes
‘That’s it.’ The police torch lets me match the library’s pink tiled wall with the picture.
With trepidation, under police torchlight I step down the narrow Lane 5 to the blue house plate No 9 against grey brick. Just as in the photograph. Left of the plate hang double-panelled wooden front doors: unlike the photo, with one window frame missing. The window’s absence lets me see between several removable but locked round wooden bars, which secure the house while admitting fresh air.
My heart sings. This is the dream home built by my maternal Grandfather Gin Chung Henry in 1931, after he’d left Tasmania’s tin mining town of Weldborough and his success as a fruit merchant in Hobart enabled him to make his fifth visit back to China with his wife and children, to live here for three years before returning via Brisbane to Hobart. This is the house where Grandmother Mary Lum Lee left silver jewellery hidden to enjoy in her retirement. This is the house Uncle Gordon fought to retrieve from the communists, what five of the siblings then signed over to Big Brother Fon and his wife, Big Girl, as they had both been born in China and stayed in the house when the rest of the family returned to Australia. Now I know what my mother meant when, as a child in Hobart, I heard her talk about ‘the village’ and ‘Taishan’. Even though it’s now in Kaiping.
Impatient to see inside, and aided by torchlight, I photograph the dilapidated entrance, the kitchen beyond and other rooms behind the bars. It’s approaching 10pm – almost 1am in Hobart – too late to disturb anyone to find the keeper of the key. As I gingerly retrace my steps down the lane, exhilaration overcomes exhaustion. I’d taken off at 00:50 hours AET. On day one I’ve found what I’m after. Police have caught my dragon. I feel Tasmania and Taishan as one.
Next morning we drive with Lao through the high green-arched village gate beside the banyan tree to park between its buildings and the rectangular lake. An agile octogenarian tricyclist wonders what we’re about, while a young mother, child-in-hand, strolls by the library in the 80-member village.
Another elder recognises one of two locals in the photographs. ‘Ah, Mrs Zhen’s passed away. But she’s given the key to her son, Deliang.’
When he appears and unlocks the door of No 9, we swarm in. It’s substantial – some ten rooms over two floors – solidly built with finely-turned woodwork, striking religious relics and an atrium looking up to the shrine on the upper floor. All ravaged by neglect.
I examine the kitchen’s disintegrating straw-fired stove and abandoned clay pots. My 92-year-old mother, Dorothy, remembers as a five-year-old a big rice urn, a water tank filled by bucket by a maid; her mother placing fish around a colander to steam, and preparing fresh pork sausages and salted duck eggs to cook over rice.
She remembers her grandmother’s pride in her son’s achievement when he moved from their home in Dragon Stream Village to build his own dream home in the new nearby Dragon Field Village: ‘Now that I’ve lived to see your success, I can join your father in the afterlife.’
In Tasmania from the 1880s Great-grandfather Gin had failed to send any remittances back to the village. Toiling in Weldborough, his aching limbs, loneliness and longing drove him to seek comfort in the pipe. In 1901, his 16-year-old son – my grandfather – landed to find his father had become an opium addict. Grandfather Gin shunned the pipe. Even in the bitter winter when snow covered the ground, he rose in the darkness of night to switch on the taps essential to alluvial mining and so saved enough to send his father back to die in the motherland. Only in the motherland can a Chinese spirit rest in peace.
Dorothy remembers being afraid of the sight of her grandmother’s body laid out for the funeral. She remembers her parents trekking to the mountains to recover her grandmother’s bones. Traditionally, Chinese store ancestral bones in earthenware urns at home. The urns are like those that nowadays serve as stools or coffee tables.
She also recalls how her baby sister, Marie, became so ill that her parents followed the Chinese tradition and left her outside in the village courtyard ready for the afterlife. Fortunately, she survived and continues well to this day.
Instead of the mahogany furniture stored in Dorothy‘s memory are indeterminate dusty tables and chairs and lonely wooden chests. Three sets of staircases lead to the spacious light-filled upper floor with remnants of the central shrine beneath a skylight. A balcony on three sides looks down to the ground floor. I envisage the family burning incense and pouring liquor into tiny vessels, fruit, roast pork and other treats offered to the ancestors.
Opposite the shrine, I mount a set of twin stairs to the roof terrace to wander around withered pot plants, tangled vines, mounds of leaves, garden debris and broken clay pots to survey views in all directions across ochre-tiled roofs and weathered brick walls overhung by lofty palms. Although some dwellings show fresh paint, are clearly well-maintained and newly renovated, many are unoccupied like ours. Like most of the unoccupied and abandoned homes of overseas Chinese, ours is a place of history, mystery and sadness. I feel it should be restored. Yet that would cost a fortune and to what avail? Who would live here? Who would sacrifice life in the West for this? The village has already diminished in size from 200 to only 80 today.
Even though the Four Counties (now renamed the Five Counties to include Heshan) belongs to the dynamic Pearl River Delta megacity – a cluster of nine cities centred around the capital, Canton – that is about half the size of Tasmania but, with 44 million people (according to CountryDigestOrgGuangzhou 23/11/16)) has almost 100 times Tasmania’s 518,000 population and is known as ‘the factory of the world’, the young of Taishan and Kaiping leave for opportunities in the more prosperous Special Economic Zones of Zhuhai and Shenzhen and elsewhere.
I’ve already been struck by scenes of desertion, like this street we passed on route to the police this morning.
Melbourne University Sinologist Professor Anne McLaren sends me a link to a nearby area once occupied by Gin clansmen that is now a ghost village vanishing into wilderness. 1 And while it would be unacceptable – disrespectful to forebears – to sell our ancestral Gin home, there’s no market anyway. I’m torn. Besides, I’m not the owner.
Outside Lane 5 again, we stand for a group photograph to mark my ancestral homecoming courtesy of Kaiping Police.
By Saturday afternoon I’m in Xinhui City, where my 96-year-old father, Charles, was born in an elegant house built by his pioneering father, whose fortune as a fruiterer allowed him to ply the Pacific. He moved from his village of Undulating Land (Ping Gong) to the centre of Xinhui. Alas, I’m too late to see the house as it was demolished in the 2000s for a pedestrian apartment block. Four units were given in compensation to Hobart’s Chungs, including one to my father and one to Peter’s family.
Through another of Peter Chung’s acquaintances, Xiaoyuan Lin, I meet her brother John and his wife, who live in one of the units. From my hotel we dodge cars and revving motorcyclists for three busy blocks, enter a lane alongside Love Salad bar, and mount flights of concrete stairs until we reach the unit preserved as a shrine for Grandfather Willi Chung Sing and his wife. A generous man who gave my parents a set of Stuart Crystal for their wedding, he comes to mind whenever I use the last surviving piece as a salad bowl.
In Guangdong’s bustling capital, Canton, where my uncles attended school, I use documents from my cousin Helen Henry to track down a two-storey Gin investment property. Helen’s mother, Big Brother Fon’s wife, Big Girl spent her later years here until being assisted back to Hobart for her final days.
Now sold, it’s a café where I lunch on a $2 bowl of steaming noddles and recreate 1930s Canton, when plagued by beggars, pickpockets and would-be kidnappers as Dorothy stayed here and went to kindergarten during her father’s business trips. In the street she held onto his hand tightly and in her pocket kept a piece of paper with her name, Clear Moon, and address written in Chinese characters, just in case.
Their overnight journey from Taishan took two days, conveyed partly by a barge worked by women; and partly seated in a sedan chair, borne at each end by a strong carrier. By contrast, I reached Canton from the Four Counties in a couple of hours in the air-conditioned comfort of a sleek modern sedan seated next to my driver whose girlfriend in the rear used a mobile phone to translate my English into Chinese.
Outside in the street I think of the emaciated rickshaw carrier who mesmerised my mother as he ate his lunch: a bowl of rice and a single slice of sausage (lupcheong). Using chopsticks he shovelled rice into his mouth, popped the sausage onto his tongue to savour its flavour, removed the sausage, ate more rice, tasted the sausage again and repeated the process until he’d made that single slice of sausage last the whole bowl of rice.
I taxi to Sacred Heart Cathedral, where my Aunt Joyce, aged 16, was baptised before she had her siblings converted to Catholicism and baptised in St Mary’s Cathedral, Hobart. As her parents’ firstborn after they married in Taishan, she was rejected by her mother. Although loved by her father, Joyce always felt her mother’s resentment and suffered the lash of her tongue because she had been born a girl. What use was a girl? She would only marry and belong to someone else’s family; she couldn’t worship the ancestors; she couldn’t continue the family name (that Grandfather would himself change to Henry!) Joyce’s birth triggered Grandfather’s search to adopt a son, 3-year-old Fon.
In her search for love, Joyce found Christ and His love. I kneel beneath the twin towers that led to my thirteen years at Hobart’s St Mary’s College and contemplate the source of my lifelong sense of sin and guilt.
Off my knees and in the Friendship Store, I’m looking for silk knickers that I’ve bought over the years in Beijing’s Friendship Store. I’m out of luck. But while viewing silk lingerie I’m amazed. Suddenly, my assistant points to another counter: ‘That assistant over there says she knows you.’
Curious, I ask to meet her and a rather shy Liting Zhang is brought over. She repeats ‘I know you.’
‘How?‘ I ask. And she opens her phone to Guangdong News Online and scrolls down its pictorial report of police catching my dragon. Serendipity. I happen to be in the right spot on the right floor of a multilevel department store in a city of 13 million!
By Sunday 26 March I’ve been with the Australian tour group for five days and traipsed through numerous villages while on tender hooks as the tour leader prevaricates over mine. Finally, she agrees to include my Dragon Field at the end of the day. We linger in a grotty street over an unappetising outdoors yum cha, saved only by egg tarts, before we board our bus. From Tanjiang Bridge south we head eastwards along the embankment of Tanjiang East Road until turning right onto Zhongshan Road. After a few blocks and bridge rises we turn left and there, on the right stands the green arched gate of Dragon Field Village. We dismount just before darkness descends.
My ancestral home is a short distance not only from the Tanjiang Police Station but from the Pan Tower International where our group is staying.
As soon as we arrive word spreads and villagers abound, chattering loud with excitement. In the din I’m nudged by Sydney-sider Marie Chan: ‘This person says she’s related to you.’
Eighty-four-year-old Yajie Zhen turns out to be my mother’s cousin – my second cousin. She points to her late father’s house next door, No 11. This evokes my mother’s words, ‘Dad’s brother built a house next to ours.’
Granduncle Gin also owed his fortune to Hobart, where he operated a laundry at 151 Elizabeth Street, next door to Grandfather Gin’s combined fruit and fancy goods store at 153 Elizabeth Street, where the family lived before their 1931 trip to China to build their dream home. Unlike Grandfather, Granduncle spent a comparatively short time Down Under. Another brother of Grandfather also went to Tasmania, took over the business at 153 Elizabeth Street and, later, built himself a new house in Taishan opposite Grandfather’s rear door in Lane 6.
That one of the brothers’ daughters still lives here and I’m linked by blood to Dragon Field Village is a revelation. I’m transported back to the kitchen over the fruit shop, Henry & Co., at 139 Liverpool Street, which Grandfather established after his return via Brisbane to Hobart in 1934, the kitchen that previously served as my grandparents’ bedroom and where Grandfather was baptised on his deathbed by purple-sashed Archbishop Simonds, the kitchen where I grew up amid the sound of the large-bladed chopper striking the round wooden block and the sizzle of stir-fry in the wok amid the hubbub of uncles and aunts speaking a mixture of English and Taishanese about life ‘back in the village’. Now I’m surrounded by villagers overwhelming me in full-throttle Taishanese.
With tour interpreter Stony Xiao as translator, Deliang Zhen tells me how the village elders still remember Grandfather and his generous nature, in particular how he helped others and gave them food, including dried provisions.
If my grandfather had stayed, would I be one of these villagers? Would I have been victim to all the political upheavals and deprivations they endured till only recent times? How privileged I am to have been born and raised with the amenities of modern Australia and its democratic system and rule of law.
Yajie opens the door to No 11. ‘It’s rented out,’ she says as I wish my grandfather’s home were in such a habitable state.
Then she whisks me 30 seconds along to another lane, opens the door and switches on the lights to show her own living room with new model kitchen and polished furniture. So, this is how plumbing and electricity update the old.
Bilingual Stony Xiao helps solve a mystery. I’ve known of no family member living in Grandfather’s house since Big Girl fled to Hobart as civil war raged between Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1948. Next year Mao would raise the Red Flag.
Yajie corrects me: other clan members have lived here, though they’ve since moved to California. That explains why Deliang Zhen claims he’s keeping the key on behalf of Zhens in the US, and why Guangdong News Online refers to my ’relatives who moved to America’.
At the table in her home Yajie tells me that she’s the youngest of three sisters, and that one lives in Australia. As I keep hearing the surname ‘Zhen’, it dawns on me that Grandfather’s Tashanese name ‘Gin’, (sometimes Romanised as ‘Gen’), is not only the Cantonese ‘Yan’ (sometimes Romanised as ‘Yian’), but is the same as the Mandarin ‘Zhen’.
Taishanese Gin/Gen = Cantonese Yan/Yian = Mandarin Zhen. Our Gin Dragon Field Village in Taishan is now a Zhen Dragon Field Village in Kaiping.
From my luxurious 60 square-metre room 2208 at Canton’s White Swan Hotel, I gaze upon the muddy Pearl River with its myriad watercraft and ponder that accident of history, which drove my paternal Grandfather Chung and both my maternal Great-grandfather and Grandfather Gin to venture way beyond their native land to risk the arduous and foul voyage by steerage to toil in the unknown of Tasmania
Both Great-grandfather Gin and Grandfather Chung died in their homeland. Unlike Grandfather Gin and his offspring, the Chungs have maintained links with Xinhui in some form with relatively minor interruption. My father and his two sons Christopher and Phillip paid tribute to Willi Chung Sing by travelling from Hobart to make offerings to his spirit in 2006. And cousin Peter returns regularly.
However, World War II and China’s Civil War made it impossible to repatriate Grandfather Gin’s body after he passed away in Hobart in 1941. My mother remembers helping her mother dress him in his best suit and place crisp pound notes into his pockets for him to be placed into a tin coffin that fitted into a mahogany coffin to be buried in Hobart. The family intended to disinter his body and return it for burial in China.
When Grandmother died in 1947 the prospect of communism and the Gin Henrys’ deepening roots in the Apple Isle kept the couple at Cornelian Bay where, as children my sister, Lehene, and I were often taken on visits.
My venture to the unknown is tribute to all my ancestors but, in searching for Grandfather Gin’s dream home, particular homage to him and his wish to be returned to the motherland – a pilgrimage that also fulfils my own dream that was spurred by my dragon chase in 1984 but conceived in the Hobart of my childhood.
I hope I’ve taken his spirit to where he so wanted it to rest, and that I transmitted something of the spirit of Tasmania to my warm welcoming clansmen in Dragon Field Village.
© Helene Chung 31 July 2017
A series of videos, Seeking My Chinese Roots, is in production
1 For striking images for Dengbian Village邓边村, see below:
Note the images contain maps showing the location of the now derelict village.
Information on Dengbian Village in Chinese, said to be in the Three Ports (Sanbu) residential area http://www.mafengwo.cn/poi/24986.html