“Getting sold down the river” and “Old Man from San Fran” were used to describe the Cantonese people who travelled overseas to be mine and railroad workers during the late Qing dynasty and early Republic of China period. Taishan’s coastal location and deep-water port makes it a natural gateway to faraway lands, leading successive generations of Taishanese to seek livelihoods away from their ancestral home. Taishan is China’s first overseas Chinese hometown. There are over 1.3 million overseas Chinese of Taishanese descent around the world, a number which exceeds the local population.
There is actually a Taishanese village in Hong Kong – San Wai Fuk Hing Lane Village in Yuen Long, which was established more than a century ago. Thomas Yeung grew up there and saw the changes that the village has undergone first-hand. Although the blue brick house that he lived in as a child is now a Western-style villa, he has managed to preserve his clan’s genealogy book which has over 100 years of history.
William Chan is Thomas Yeung’s primary school classmate and friend. His grandfather opened the only grocery store in the village – Overseas Chinese Store has borne witness to the changes within the village. Initially solely patronised by villagers, it became the canteen for construction workers when the highway was being built. Nowadays, however, it is much more convenient to go into town, leaving the store deserted. It has also been relocated from the market plaza to an inconspicuous spot next to the Chan family’s ancestral residence. William Chan has persisted with running the store to fulfil his promise to his late father of “continuing to provide a place for neighbourhood residents to get together”.
Like many other Taishanese, William Chan and Thomas Yeung have both worked abroad. The former went to Africa when he was 45 to manage a car factory for 17 years, climbing the corporate ladder at the cost of missing his sons’ childhoods. Meanwhile, the latter worked in Europe for a few years before returning to Hong Kong as he was unable to adapt to the local life. They both say that the Taishanese of today do not necessarily have to work abroad, because there are many opportunities for development in Hong Kong and the mainland, offering them a plethora of options. Regardless of this, the Taishanese people’s sentimental ties to their hometown remains unchanged. The number of fortified towers which stand in the city are a testament to this. The overseas Chinese remitted money back to their ancestral home, contributing to its prosperity. Subsequently, the residents built fortified towers to protect their home from thieves. The two men are now leading semi-retired lives and go back to their ancestral home when they are free to drive their cares away.
Returning to one’s place of origin is not just a habit of the elderly. Thirty-something Kenny used to go to his mother’s hometown (Zhongshan) with her to visit relatives as a child, and always thought that this was his ancestral home. It was not until he was in his 20s that he learnt that his roots originate in Taishan. His wife and mother-in-law (both of Shundenese descent), as well as his mother, all have their own ancestral residences, but why does he not? Consequently, he joined Hong Kong Federation of Tai Shan Association in hopes of finding his ancestral home. His family has lived in Hong Kong since his grandfather’s generation, with both Kenny and his father being born here. As his father lost interest in searching for his roots long ago, Kenny is tackling the task on his own. In a cruel twist of fate, he discovers that his grandfather had been using a fake name, making his already difficult search an even greater challenge. Will he be able to find his roots in the end?
Everyone has an ancestral home. Whether it has withstood the ages or vanished without a trace, the search for it serves as a cure for homesickness.