Hoi Ping (Kaiping)
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Posted by David Chan on 2008-Mar-02 15:56
The boat from Hong Kong took about two hours to reach Zhong San. a port on the south coast of Canton Province. Our relative, Hoi Sun, met us at the harbour with a people carrier and took us on a two hour car journey to Kaiping. Ho Sun is an official with the Kaiping government and has a role in inward investment and development, and, therefore is used to showing people around.
After checking into one of the best hotels in the district, The Peninsular, we had a great lunch with dishes traditional to this area at its excellent Cantonese Restaurant. Then Sun took us on a ride to the outlying districts. We passed a flat landscape populated by villages within half a mile of each others. The area is clearly fertile with goose lakes and fish farms interlaced between fields of vegetables and rice. It is a flat land fringes by some high hills. The alluvial plain is densely populated with a landscape obviously shaped through millennia of farming.
Here clusters of building occur every half a mile or so. In between, there are fields, some flooded others bearing bright green crops. In amongst the buildings, concrete towers called Diao Lou, spring up amongst the clusters of buildings that form hamlets and villages. Diao Lou were built to protect the farmsteads from bandits and formed a firing platform to deter marauders. Some were built purely as forts. Others were dwellings that were normally inhabited but could be used in defence. They stand guard over the little hamlets and villages proud in their role as protectors.
I arrive at the village of my ancestors. It is called Lung Tien Fong. It too has a Diao Lou built when the village was established by my Grandfather. It is a splendid testament to the wealth of My Grandfather and his four brothers as they had this built with the proceeds of their work in the West. The Four District area of Canton was one of the main area of the Chinese Diaspora starting in the 19th Century. Men (and it was normally the men leaving the women and children behind) would journey through the far-flung areas from the US to India to Europe; wherever there was opportunity to make money. My Grandfather and his brothers had done this and made enough to retire back to the home village. Here they bought land, erected a Diao Lou and built houses in the midst of their land to enjoy the fruits of their labours.
Here, Grandfather enjoyed his retirement raising children and living the life of a minor grandee. He had three wives, fourteen children surviving to majority with ten sons and four daughters. All should have been well for him. He had land, a family, security against local bandits in the Diao Lou, a good position in the area. So what could go wrong. Sadly in the 1930s the Japanese invaded and put an end to this idyllic existence. When the WW2 ended, the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists caused an exodus from this area as people. Ultimately, the land had to be ceded to the PRC Government and the comfortable life ended.
At the village, my relatives made us all welcome. We were shown into a house built by an uncle for the descendants of my Grandfather. This was a three storied place with four bedrooms and a massive reception area. The house sat in a walled garden. The village itself consisted of five houses including ours. Here we went up to the family shrine on the top floor of the house. Next day, we would be paying our respects to our ancestors and family members.
The village is lovely. It is nothing special and there are bigger and better villages within five miles. However, it is ours. Chans have lived here for over a century. Indeed, all the inhabitants in this little cluster of buildings, this hamlet, are or have a connection with the Chan family; aunties, uncles, great-aunts, second cousins twice removed etc. They seemed very excited to see us, their relatives from abroad and they were all looking forward to "bai san" the next day. Now this normally takes place at Ching Ming round about March or April. This is the annual pilgrimage to the graves of the ancestors and relatives. Because we were coming, they decided to hold it this year early so that we could take part. After a initial look around, we went back to Kaiping.
Kaiping as a city is nothing special. There are no dramatic monuments nor places of historical interest in itself. The city seems to have grown over the last 30 years on the back of Canton#s status as a special economic region. Foreign firms have set up manufacturing operations in the area and the people have benefited from the employment opportunities presented. It can be compared to English cities such as Bradford, Reading or Coventry. However, like these cities it is somehow more real than places that are mainly tourist magnets.
Even though or may be, because, Kaiping is nothing special, I find it a more appealing and attractive place than Hong Kong and Kowloon. Without doubt, the prices here are much cheaper than even Hong Kong. My son and I had a great lunch for less than ninety pence. For three pounds a head, one can dine on a banquet fit for a king.
We visited one of the best preserved Diao Lou at Jianmin. We also visited the Li gardens and Chaikin, the latter is a town that has preserved many of the character of the 18th and 19th Century. The highlight of my time was the visiting of the ancestor's graves. About thirty of us spanning 4 generations when up to the grave sites to "bai san". There we lit incense sticks and bowed three times to various relatives who had "gone before". We then set down food such as roast duckling and roast goose before the graves and poured a libation of alcohol for them. We then burnt paper money and set off fireworks.
I was impressed with the close feeling of community and family. Even though we had difficulty understanding each other, I felt a closeness and connectedness to these cousins. The "sei yip" variation of Cantonese can be likened to a broad Yorkshire in relation to BBC English. When ninety year old grannies came up to me recognising that I was the ninth uncle's son, it brought home to me how much family relationships meant to the villagers.