March 31, 2008
Bok Sa, Toishan, Guangdong Province, China
Another misty, rainy day and night in Toishan. I haven’t really seen the sun since I walked out of the airport in Hong Kong seven days ago. I do recall one five-minute reprieve when the clouds parted just long enough yesterday, or perhaps the day before, to remind me that the sun does still exist here in China.
My camera battery won’t eject, and I hope it’s only because of the intense humidity here. All my books and papers are swollen, I washed some socks that took four days to dry, and my jeans have dried into a mildewy stink. Even my dry clothes are damp.
Another misty, rainy day and night in Toishan. (This is the view from my hotel room, during a pause in the constant drizzle.)
I’ve finished reading the book I brought, and I can only find two English-language channels on TV. I suppose I should be grateful for any TV at all, during the many rainy, restless hours in my hotel room. But it seems I’m only in my room and awake when children’s programming is on: Thomas the Train, Barney, two guys finger-painting with a little boy, a bunch of kids competing to make a water-balloon launcher from random objects, and the real low-point: a cartoon rendition of “Old MacDonald.”
For a few minutes I was rescued from kiddie hour, but sadly my rescuer was a dead person. The sound of drums and firecrackers announced a walking funeral procession in the street below my hotel window. Mourners wrapped and hooded in white carried colorful umbrellas through the mist. The family members closest to the deceased walked doubled-over, others guiding them by the elbows and holding umbrellas over their heads. Men carried the body on a palanquin draped in a red cloth with ornate embroidery. Drummers brought up the rear. People tossed firecrackers at both the front and rear of the procession, to frighten away evil spirits.
A while later they came back the other way. The funeral has been going since this morning, sometimes accompanied by an entire band of musicians, sometimes just the drums. Sometimes the mourners stop walking and gather in a clutch for other funereal rites, and then they begin marching again.
“Will the funeral go on all day?” I asked Fiona earlier.
“Funeral?” she asked.
“A ceremony for the dead.”
“Yes, all day. Maybe three or four days.”
Fiona didn’t like to look, saying that funerals scared her. The scene did not evoke sadness in me, only solemnity, but then I didn’t know the deceased.
We took a ride to the village of Long Kai, hidden in the hills about 20 minutes outside town.
Earlier today, we called our driver one last time, for a ride to the village of Long Kai, hidden in the hills about 20 minutes outside town. The setting was prettier than my great-grandfather’s village of Git Non, more secluded, hilly, and vividly green. The clouds hung low on hills crowded snugly around the village. A pale mist only added to the quiet beauty of the place.
This village has one of Toishan’s signature European-style guard towers, where long ago guards stood watch for approaching bandits.
The village layout seemed to have remained more traditionally Toishanese. The same soot-gray brick buildings huddled together, but this time in a stricter pattern of: hills behind, trees to one side, ponds in front, and fields beyond. Unlike the villages of Gong Hao, this village has one of Toishan’s signature European-style guard towers, about five stories high, where long ago guards stood watch for approaching bandits, who often sought the rumored riches of Overseas Chinese. A few grand old houses, now faded, testified that the riches were once real.
We climbed an old wooden ladder the rest of the way, to the balcony at the top.
The ruined guard tower was still solid enough for us to climb the old wooden stairs to the fourth floor. Then we found an old wooden ladder, which we propped up and climbed the rest of the way, to the balcony at the top. We stood looking out over the parapet, where the peasant guards used to watch over the small valley below. In the valley, men and women worked together in the rice paddies and vegetable fields. When and if necessary, long-ago villagers could have gathered inside this fortress for protection from approaching gangs or renegade warlords, while the village’s men fired guns through its T-slotted turrets.
We stood looking out over the parapet where the peasant guards used to watch over the small valley below.
After exploring the tower, we strolled through Long Kai, passing three plump hens perched precariously on a branch, a small fenced enclosure of juvenile geese that lifted their beaks at us to cheep for food, and a woman carrying two baskets on a bamboo pole slung across her shoulders – still a convenient way to ferry farming supplies to the fields. A narrow concrete road circled around the ponds, past fields where farmers and water buffalo drove plows through rain-drenched mud.
Men and women worked together in the rice paddies and vegetable fields.
“In my fantasy, I picture my great grandfather living here,” I said to Fiona.
I’m writing a historical novel that’s loosely based on my family history, part of which began here in Toishan. Because the book is fiction, I can take the liberty of placing my ancestors in a village that combines the friendly warmth of Git Non with all the beauty of Long Kai. I can also turn them into people who are prettier or uglier, kinder or crueler, crazier or saner than they really were. That’s the beauty of fiction, where sorrow can become sublime, and where we remember the past the way we wish it had happened.
Somewhere inside me lives the untold tale that can transform generations of losses and griefs, betrayals and misunderstandings, until it feels as if they happened for a reason. Perhaps they did.