Village dream (tasweekend JULY 22-23, 2017)

With just a smattering of leads, fourth-generation Hobartian and former ABC foreign correspondent Helene Chung set out to find her ancestral home in the south of China

My first search for my ancestral village was thrust upon me by eager Chinese officials in 1984 when I was working as a foreign correspondent. From Beijing I organised a trip to Guangdong Province in the south of China to film families in the Four Counties area whose ancestors ventured to Australia’s gold and tin mines in the late 1800s and who retained links with relatives Down Under.

To ease my way into a region that then required an Aliens Permit, I mentioned over the phone to Jian Lu of Canton Foreign Affairs that my family came from Dragon Field Village in the Four Counties area. I had no idea the trouble that name would cause.

I met Lu in Canton (now known as Guangzhou) with my cameraman 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 in the Four Counties area. My interpreter, Chen, excitedly told me he had found 14 Dragon Field villages in Taishan with the clan name Chung. But it was actually my mother’s family, the Gins (who changed their name to Henry in Australia), whose village I was hoping to find.

“Never mind,” said a crestfallen Chen, who had organised a visit to a family of Chungs in the far south who remembered an elder going off to an undetermined foreign land long ago. And so we journeyed several hours to the poor south.

The fine colonnaded architecture of Taishan centre gave way to rice paddies with peasants bent over or ploughing with buffalo. Paved roads became gravel then dirt tracks.

As we halted in the mud, 400 men, women and children lined up to greet us. I heard a collective gasp. In that era of Mao suits, when make-up was reserved for the stage and high heels unheard of, I wore casual Western clothes, make-up and blow-waved shoulderlength hair with varnished toenails peeping from 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.

A Mrs Chung Jr introduced me to 84-year-old Mrs Chung Sr, who was steadied by her stick. With the crowd jostling behind, we were forced up an alley into her home, where we were seated on plastic chairs and served steaming tea. As the younger Mrs Chung stood fanning me with a large palm frond, Chen translated the matriarch’s words: “Long ago, before I was born, my father went off to the redhaired devil land.”

“But which foreign land,” I probed. “England, America, Australia?”

“I don’t know,” she said, pointing to the South China Sea. “All I know is he went off to the red-haired devil land.”

Determined to find my roots, Chen directed us farther south to a Dragon Field Village occupied by Gins; then to a third village where pigsty merged seamlessly into straw-filled home. Only in the blackness of night did Chen admit defeat.

Back in Tasmania, I learnt that my mother’s village was in Three Unities (Sanfu) Town, now rezoned from Taishan into Kaiping, and that my father was born in adjoining Xinhui.

In autumn this year, more than 30 years later, I resume the search. I fly to Hong Kong and ferry to China’s border city of Zhuhai, where I meet Zhuhai Hobartian Jinju Liao. We travel by car along a freeway part-tunnelled through mountains to Taishan, where she introduces me to Taishan Hobartian Victoria Chen.

Armed with four photographs taken by my Hobart-born cousin Helen Henry in 2010, we eventually find a Dragon Field Village in Kaiping. Yet no amount of head-scratching by eager villagers poring over photos leads to my Gin family home.

“We don’t have house number plates like that,” they say. “Never seen such intricate door windows.”

A high-curved entrance arch topped by a sinuous golden dragon offers hope, but the second village also proves a dud. I’ve travelled 7500km for what? My heart tumbles to my Timberland boots.

Later that night, in Sanfu, we show the photos to a Police Superior, Chaozan Lao, who asks staffers to inspect them. Soon my jaw drops as a policeman reveals: “The library’s in the Le Chong village group. We’ll drive you there, but first we need to check a few things.”

In the police van, I’m incredulous as we pass through Kaiping’s flickering coloured lights into the village gloom. “That’s it,” I say as I use a police torch to match the library’s pink-tiled wall with the photo. With trepidation, I step down a narrow lane to the blue house plate, No.9, set against grey brick. As in the photograph, left of the plate hang double-panelled wooden front doors.

My heart sings. This is what my grandfather built in 1931 after he’d left Tasmania’s tin-mining town of Weldborough in the North-East. 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 to Hobart.

It’s the house where my grandmother left silver jewellery hidden to enjoy in her retirement. It’s the house Uncle Gordon fought to retrieve from the communists. 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 the torch, I photograph the entrance, the kitchen beyond and other rooms through a window. It’s almost 10pm, too late to disturb anyone to find the keeper of the key. As I gingerly retrace my steps down the lane, exhilaration overcomes exhaustion. After just one day, I’ve found it. I feel Tasmania and Taishan as one.

The next morning we drive with Lao through the high green-arched village gate to park between its buildings and the rectangular lake. An agile octogenarian tricyclist wonders what we’re up to, 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.”

Helene Chung with key keeper Deliang Zhen, left, and village bureaucrat Qingwo Zhen at the base of twin stairs leading to the roof of her family’s ancestral home.

When he appears and unlocks the door of No.9, we swarm in. It’s substantial – about six rooms on each of two floors – solidly built with finely turned woodwork and striking religious relics, but ravaged by neglect. I examine the kitchen’s disintegrating strawfired stove and abandoned clay pots. My 92-year-old mother Dorothy remembers as a five-year-old a big rice urn, a water barrel 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. Dorothy has entrusted me with the Taishan spatula her mother kept to use with her wok in Hobart. That and the Chinese shards I collected at Weldborough are my Tasmanian-Taishan treasures.

Instead of the mahogany furniture Dorothy recalls, though, are indeterminate dusty tables and chairs and lonely wooden chests. Staircases lead to a spacious light-filled upper floor with remnants of a shrine overlooking the atrium. I envisage the family burning incense and pouring liquor into tiny vessels, fruit and roast pork offered to the ancestors. Stairs lead to the three-sided roof garden. Like most of the unoccupied homes of overseas Chinese, this is a place of history, mystery and sadness. I feel it should be restored. Yet that would cost a fortune and to what avail?

Back in Guangzhou, I track down the two-storey Gin property. Now sold, it’s a cafe where I eat a $2 bowl of steaming noodles. I taxi to the Gothic twin towers of Sacred Heart Catholic Cathedral, where my Aunt Joyce was baptised before she had the rest of the family converted to Catholicism back in Hobart. I kneel beneath the towers that led to my schooling at St Mary’s College on Harrington St and contemplate the source of my lifelong sense of sin and guilt.

A few days later, I return to Dragon Field Village. Darkness descends as word spreads and villagers abound, chattering with excitement. “This person says she related to you,” someone says.

Eighty-four-year-old Yajie Zhen turns out to be my mother’s cousin – my second cousin. She points to the house next door, No.11, and tells me it was the home of her late father, who also lived for a time in Hobart.

That I’m still 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 St where I grew up, and 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.

If my grandfather had stayed, would I be one of these villagers? Would I have had to suffer all the political turmoil and deprivations they have endured? How privileged I am to have been born and raised in the material comfort of Tasmania with its democracy and rule of law.

Later, I gaze upon the muddy Pearl River with its myriad watercraft and ponder the accident of history that drove my paternal grandfather Chung and both my maternal great-grandfather and grandfather Gin to venture way beyond their native land to toil in the unknown of Tasmania.

My journey is a tribute to all my ancestors but, in searching for my grandfather’s dream home, I’ve fulfilled a dream of my own that was conceived in the Hobart of my childhood