Elder Travel Bronze Winner: Finding the House My Father Built

By May Gee

A few thin, gray hairs skimmed the top of the elderly man’s pointed head, just like my father’s hair used to on his. Faint crinkles touched the skin around the old man’s eyes and deep creases ran from the edge of his nostrils to the outsides of his lips. All that was missing was a chest-length wispy mustache and goatee, and he could have been one of the Eight Immortals from Chinese mythology.

The venerable gentleman then held a tea cup above a large bowl and poured scalding liquid from the teapot into the cup. With a magician’s fingers, he deftly flipped it upside down to disgorge its contents while simultaneously pouring tea over the outside of the cup, quickly rotating it so that hot liquid covered every square inch of the surface without burning his fingers. On finishing, he carefully placed the cup upside down on a platter, stacking more processed cups around it and upwards until he finished with a flourish, leaving a small pyramid.

“Now we can drink,” he said with a smile. He then flipped over the cups and started pouring from the other teapot. “Please show me what you have,” he said with a wave of his hand.

“Is the pouring of the tea over the teacups meant to signal an auspicious start for our trip?” I asked the old man, not entirely familiar with local customs.

“Oh no,” he laughed. “You know how dirty these restaurants can be!”

I pulled out the album of four-by-six photos that my husband Ben and I had so laboriously worked on at home and smiled appreciatively across the table at my cousin Nancy and her husband Francis for finding Joe, the elderly gentleman who was to be our guide. I hoped Joe would prove to be as adept at finding my father’s village as he was with manipulating teacups.

“These are my parents on their wedding day,” I said, pointing to an old black-and-white photo. My father still had thick black hair, and he looked sternly at the camera. Dressed in a light-colored Western suit and tie, he had his hand on my mother’s shoulder. She wore a blouse with a traditional Chinese high-buttoned collar and loose floral pants, light stockings, and a pair of Mary Janes with a single strap across each ankle. Long, thin bangs covered her forehead, and she showed an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile.

“There’s more,” I said excitedly. A picture of my father’s whole family on my parents’ wedding day—his brothers and their wives, his sisters, nieces, nephews, and my grandparents. Also a print of the Google Map of where our village is and its GPS coordinates. The name, county, and province of the village in Chinese characters and pinyin. Likewise, the Chinese names of our parents and grandparents. Everything that I thought could be useful to identify our village and our family to anyone who might have known my parents before they left the village for the last time in 1947.

“Looks like you’ve done your homework,” Joe said, now convinced there was a chance for success. “Then it is settled. We will leave the day after tomorrow.”

“I’ll buy the bus tickets,” offered Shirley, Joe’s wife. “And I’ll try to get my old driver to take us around. It will be much better than just using a local taxi driver.”

Having taken care of business, we proceeded to have a sumptuous meal to kick off our grand adventure. Crispy Peking duck stuffed into pillowy white buns. Oversized twice-fried shrimp in a light white sauce spread over a bed of candied walnuts. Mixed vegetables and tofu with baby ears of corn decorating the greenery.

After we all finished eating, Joe and Shirley walked us to the bus station where we would meet them at 7:30 on the morning of our departure.

“Do you think it will take very long to get to the village from Kaiping?” I asked Ben when we were in our hotel room.

“It doesn’t look that far,” he said, scrolling through a map on his phone. “Maybe a half hour with the new roads they have?”

“Well, I’m still going to stuff these ‘good luck’ red envelopes with money, in case we meet somebody in the village.”

My oldest sister Sylvia had said that some of her old schoolmates could still be living there even though all our relatives had long since moved away. Sylvia, like my parents, had never returned to the village after she left for America. She declined to join us for health reasons.

My parents had both passed, but a couple of years before my mother died, she asked to return to China for one last time. By then we were afraid her frail bones and weak heart could not sustain the fourteen-hour flight and trip, and so we never brought her. I was making this trip for me—and them. “Take lots of pictures!” Sylvia had ordered me with a laugh.

That night I tossed and turned on the hard hotel bed. With nervous energy, I alternated between anticipation and anxiety. Would the village still be there? How would we find our house? What would be left of this now eighty-year-old house? I rose early the next morning after a fitful sleep.

We met Joe and Shirley at the bus station and then traveled from there to the mainland China transfer point. Even though China and Hong Kong are technically the same country, you still have to go through a formal border check. We got off our bus to enter the huge transfer terminal packed with hundreds of other people hurrying from line to line, passports and bus tickets in hand. Signs hung everywhere from the rafters and walls, their Chinese hieroglyphics confounding my foreign eyes. Like parents with small children, Joe and Shirley dragged us through security and customs. Shirley went on ahead to find our bus while Joe waited for the last of us to complete customs.

“Good thing we made it on time,” Joe laughed as we plopped in our seats. The driver had already started the engine. “Even though we have reserved seats, they don’t wait for you.” I felt lucky that we had Joe and Shirley as our guides. Francis had just reconnected with Joe at their fortieth high school reunion in Hong Kong prior to our trip. Francis casually mentioned we were planning to find Nancy’s and my father’s village near Kaiping, where Shirley had worked for years. On hearing that none of us had ever made this trip before, they insisted on accompanying us.

The bus was surprisingly comfortable, and the modern freeway smooth and lightly traveled. We passed fishing traps in the coastal waters and saw many small farms and the occasional farmer tilling the land using tools that could have been common hundreds of years ago. Joe said this four-and-a-half-hour trip used to take twenty hours just ten years ago, before they built the freeway.

My father traveled this road in reverse when he was only eleven. He came by himself, assuming a fake identity as a “paper son.” It was common at that time for Chinese villagers to send their brightest children to America using false papers so that they could work and send money back home to their starving families.

Later, my father returned to China, where he met and married my mother. Then he used his earnings to build a grand house, the only two-story house in the community. My mother often said it was “the most beautiful house in the village.” I supposed our family was wealthy because my mother would later whisper to me that “we hid gold coins in the walls,” concerned some burglar in America might overhear. As a child, these stories just sounded like fairy tales to me. And yet here I was, about to find out if fairy tales could come true.

We arrived in Kaiping and were greeted by Mr. Wong, Shirley’s former driver. An energetic young man in a white polo shirt and jeans, Mr. Wong was a gregarious sort who wore modish black glasses on his broad face. He laughed easily, showing big white teeth. Mr. Wong studied my photo album carefully, nodding his head at Joe and occasionally grunting as he turned the pages.

“Tell him about the GPS coordinates,” Ben urged Joe when he saw the navigation system in the late-model minivan. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a way to enter the GPS coordinates. Frustrated, all we could do to monitor our path was to view our map on our phones while Mr. Wong drove.

First stop was the central province visitor center. Three officials chattered in Chinese while they looked uncomprehendingly at my map, their perplexed faces clearly indicating that they had no idea where to find 同安村, Tung On Chyun, my father’s village. So Mr. Wong decided to just drive south.

As we left the silky-smooth asphalt of the major arteries to enter the country roads, we saw many crumbling stone buildings; often the pale mortar had peeled away to reveal a skeleton of brick walls underneath. Moss grew freely up their ragged walls and ferns sprang up from the tile rooftops. Watchtowers originally built as lookouts for bandits now looked more like bombed ruins than stone fortresses.

“Where are all the people?” I asked Joe.

“You’ll find there are two Chinas,” Joe said in measured tones. “New China, where they spend money on roads, skyscrapers, and department stores, and Old China, where there’s hardly money for anything at all. People leave to find jobs in New China.”

Entering Old China was like entering a time warp, where a few modern vehicles like mini-tractors, motorcycles, and cars traveled on old packed-dirt roads more suited for ox carts. It was where you saw ancient buildings and small farms tended by people wearing cone-shaped straw hats, thin cotton clothing, and loose pants from an earlier time. Maybe this was how things had appeared when my parents left the village.

I nervously fingered my lucky compass, turning it around in my hand until it was hot to the touch. South. East. West. North. South again. I watched helplessly as we ping-ponged all over Guangdong Province for hours. I guess we weren’t lost, exactly, but we didn’t know where we were.

Finally, Mr. Wong began accosting people in the street. You’d have thought we were in an ox cart the way he’d suddenly halt in the middle of the road, casually lean over to the pedestrian, flash his big teeth, and call out in Chinese, “A Sim, a Sim. Could you tell me where Tung On Chyun is?” The woman would smile back, they’d chat a bit with him, and then she would point this way or that, and off we’d go. Soon he was even getting out of the car and chasing people into their homes, his heels kicking high as he ran to catch up to them. He acted like it was his personal mission to find our village. No ordinary taxi driver would have done that.

“Good thing Sylvia didn’t come,” remarked Nancy. Like Sylvia, Nancy had also been born in China, went over to America as a teenager, but could still read and write Chinese. Ben and I never would have attempted this trip without Nancy.

“Yes, she wouldn’t have enjoyed riding on this bumpy road,” I agreed.

Sylvia, my only sibling born in China, came to America when she was sixteen. She also had fanciful tales about our house, like the time she woke up after a hard rain to find her slippers floating away in the water. She told us how she corralled one of those slippers and used it to catch fish swimming underneath her bed.
We traveled for hours without making progress. I felt stupid and naïve for only allocating one day for us to find my father’s village. Maybe the reason we couldn’t find it was because it was now under a freeway or dam in New China. Maybe we weren’t meant to find our village at all.

Suddenly, a woman riding a flashy red motorcycle sped by.

I remembered all the times my mother told us that red is a lucky color in China. “Follow her!” I shouted reflexively.

Mr. Wong gamely gave chase, tracing her path around corners and up and down narrow alleys. She finally halted after bursting into a clearing edged by worn stone houses. We were so relieved and excited to have caught up that we all streamed out of the car as soon as it stopped and headed toward the lady.

But as she was taking off her helmet, a grizzled old man wearing baggy Bermuda shorts, a T-shirt, and flip flops intercepted us.

“Who are you looking for?” he asked brusquely, taking on the fierce mien of a Foo Dog, a guardian lion that protects villages and women on red motorcycles.

“We’re looking for Chang Pooh Gin,” Nancy replied.

“He’s dead,” the old man scoffed, throwing his head back at the ridiculous statement. Had grandfather still been alive, he would have been over 140 years old.

“Yes, we know. We’re his granddaughters. We’re looking for his village.”

His face softened. “Oh. Go that way,” he said, pointing off to his left. “Your house is by the watchtower.”

Finally! A real clue. He actually knew grandfather’s name and where our house was. And that it was near a watchtower, just as Sylvia had described. This had to be it. We thanked him profusely, leaving him and the lady on the red motorcycle who was smiling at us in amusement, and loaded back into the car with renewed hope.

Mr. Wong gunned the engine to speed down the road, only to be blocked by a banana grove that grew across the roadway. Undeterred, he suddenly swerved left where there was a small break in the foliage and a faint dirt path. The car tilted and strained. Then we finally popped out of the brush into another clearing. He stopped the car by a well, a small circular hole choked with weeds in the middle of a ten-by-ten feet concrete pad at the edge of the small village. A half dozen rundown gray brick buildings with tile roofs ran parallel to the pond. More houses stood behind them. The only signs of life were clothes hanging on a line between the buildings and a large pond. Golden-headed wheat listed languorously in the field beyond the pond.

Nancy and I walked over to a building with a small blue-and-white metal sign with Chinese characters written on it.

“Tung On Chyun!” shouted Nancy. “We found it. This is our fathers’ village!” Nancy and I slapped hands in a high-five victory dance.

We were so loud that a couple of elderly women came out to meet us. They looked like twigs in clothing, thin and severely bent over at nearly ninety-degree angles. Short, dusty, salt-and-pepper hair framed dark leathery faces textured from too many days in the sun. Gaps showed in their smiles.

“Hello, are you looking for someone?” the taller woman said, steadying herself with her hand on her hip.
“We’re Chang Pooh Gin’s granddaughters,” replied Nancy. She then told her our fathers’ names.

The woman stared at us for a few moments while she rummaged through her mind.

Then suddenly, “Aiiee! I know who you are. It’s been so long since your families moved away. I’m Guey-Sim, Guey-Sook’s wife.” She told the other lady to get her husband.

I recognized his name. “I’m May. My oldest sister Sylvia went to school with your husband,” I told her in my broken Chinese.

We introduced ourselves to Guey-Sook when he came out and talked for several minutes. Only six families lived in the village now, which might have had 150 people in its heyday.

“Can you take us to our house?” Nancy asked, remembering our mission. Nancy and her family lived in my father’s house for a time after my parents left the village.

Guey-Sook nodded, pointed his bent frame toward the watchtower and tilted forward. He moved surprisingly quickly along the narrow dirt path, his bushy white hair disappearing and reappearing through the overgrown brush as we walked in single file by deserted homes. Past a pile of life-sized pick-up logs, doorways with no doors, rooftops with ferns growing from the gutter. Past rooms devoid of life and light, with only a few broken vases to greet you.

I touched my compass in my pocket for good luck and to ward off my sense of foreboding. The village was practically abandoned now, a ghost of its former self. What would be left of “the most beautiful house in the village”?

Guey-Sook finally stopped. “This is it. This is your house,” he said, pointing at a two-story brick building sprouting up from the brush.

I smiled in relief and delight. We found it! It was still standing. Tall and majestic, fine brickwork framed the windows on undamaged walls that looked almost new. Nancy and I eagerly rushed in.

But as soon as we stepped through the doorless opening, I realized that this once-beautiful house was just like all the others in the village. Empty broken cabinets gaped at us as we walked into the kitchen. Green moss grew along the tops and sides of a water barrel in the corner and on the bricks supporting the concrete countertop. Ivy vines slithered uninvited into the kitchen.

We walked into the spacious main living area, whose contours were dimly lit by small-barred windows on the second floor. After my eyes adjusted to the faint light, I saw that a portion of the upstairs balcony had fallen into the center of the room, forming an impromptu wooden ramp between floors. The actual stairway was splintered and missing steps.

Nature was well on its way to reclaiming the innards of the house. Wooden structures, like the exposed wooden ceiling beams, had weathered into driftwood that now seemed barely able to support the weight above it. The floor, which at first glance appeared to be a packed dirt surface, was actually a layer of dirt that covered the original red tile flooring that peeked through in spots.

We all started exploring. Mr. Wong seemed to be drawn to various piles of rubble that I studiously avoided for fear of any creatures that might be lurking. He paid particular attention to the pile underneath the stairs that consisted of broken vases and bowls partially hidden by old two-by-fours, dried leaves, old rope, and broken balusters. Joe stopped in a smaller room on the opposite side. He pointed at some tall wooden banner boards with large faded Chinese characters. “I think the Red Guard stayed here during the Cultural Revolution,” he harrumphed. It made sense that the Red Guard would have commandeered the grandest house in the village.

As we picked our way through the rooms, I suddenly noticed delicate paintings on the wood of the fallen balcony and fresco artwork on the walls just below what would have been the first-floor ceiling. My mother had never told me about these paintings. Tall carved wooden room separators stood on the remains of the second floor.

Mr. Wong tapped me on the shoulder and lifted a dirt-encrusted rice bowl to my face. Nancy tilted the bowl toward the window to shine light into its center. “I think that’s your father’s name,” she said, looking at me in amazement.

“Bowls with names?”  I looked at Joe quizzically.

“In the old days, for village celebrations, everyone brought bowls with their name inscribed inside so that afterwards they knew who to return them to,” Joe explained.

Mr. Wong quickly returned with three more dirt-encrusted bowls.

“Look! This one has my father’s name,” exclaimed Nancy as she scraped dirt from the center of the bowl.
I gestured excitedly to Mr. Wong to find more. He nodded as his big white teeth gleamed in the dim light. He dug furiously in a dark corner, returning again and again. Vases. More bowls. Teacups. In the end, we found an inscribed rice bowl for my father, my three uncles, and grandfather, and a teacup with my grandfather’s name. Guey-Sim gave me newspaper and bags to pack our treasures while the others left to explore more of the village.

I held the rice bowl that my father once held and raised it up to the light, admiring its abstract and modern design, curling blue loops in serpentine and half-cloverleaf patterns flowing around the outside of the bowl. Then I looked up at the decorator panels, the wooden bannisters, and the delicate paintings. For a moment, I could see a handsome young couple on the second-floor balcony drinking tea and looking down on the open floor below. Filtered sunlight illuminated elegant paintings of birds, flowers, and calligraphy below them. Grace. Elegance. These were not words I ever associated with my hardworking immigrant parents who never took a vacation. How it must have torn at their souls to leave this all behind.

Guey-Sim leaned on a nearby stone platform to support her stooped figure. Past and present merged in the glow of the dimming evening light, her youthful frame withering from unrelenting travail so that she eventually looked twenty years older than my sister Sylvia, her contemporary. I remembered my lucky red envelopes and pressed one into her resisting hand. Finally she put it in her pocket. Our eyes glistened as they met since we both knew we’d probably never see each other again.

We never did find any gold in the walls. It was too dark by the time we discovered the bowls. But it didn’t matter because I discovered something even more precious than the bowls, which are now priceless family heirlooms. I glimpsed the sacrifice my parents had made in leaving their beautiful home and their ultimate wisdom in emigrating so that they and their children could enjoy a far more prosperous life.

We were all quiet on that bus ride back to Hong Kong. I thought about the fortuitous events that led to me holding our precious cargo in the bags in front of me. Francis reuniting with Joe after forty years. The lady on the red motorcycle and the old man in flip flops. Guey-Sim and Guey-Sook, who led us to the house my father built. Shirley.  And Mr. Wong, our most tenacious driver and amateur archaeologist. It was astonishing to think that these bowls survived hidden in the dirt for more than sixty-five years, through the Cultural Revolution, rain storms, and abandonment—just waiting for us to find them.

I told Joe how lucky we were and thanked him profusely for his help during our adventure. Joe chuckled like my father used to, and with a twinkle in his eye, he took my hands and said, “Lucky? Maybe it was just meant to be.”


After a long career in the computer industry, May Gee has returned to her first love, writing. She takes advantage of writing classes and seminars available in the San Francisco Bay Area and participates in a monthly writing group. May’s other hobbies are nature photography and agility training with her dog Toby.

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