Taishan (the world’s largest hometown of overseas Chinese)

I’ve always known that my Yeye (爺爺 – paternal grandfather) came from Taishan (臺山) – and proudly recited as much in a matter-of-fact tone if anyone ever questioned my ancestry. But I had no idea what I was expecting to find when I made the impulse decision to discover it for myself.

A few weeks back, I asked Dad to help chase down the name of my grandfather’s village through old contacts from the Wong’s Benevolent Association (a Chinese cultural organization in Vancouver that my grandfather actively supported throughout his life). He made a couple of phone calls and sent through an image of some Chinese characters in the days following. While I could only make out the words for “mountain” () and the number “three”, I knew this would be valuable information to help plan the next leg of my trip. With the help of My China Roots, I was accompanied by a kind and patient translator/researcher, Helen, who helped me navigate drivers, local customs, village elders, and even making multilingual chitchat with my relatives!

My two days in Taishan were emotional, hot, and a lot to take in.

Like many fellow Chinese-Canadians, my Yeye was from the coastal province of Guangdong, in South China.  Guangdong’s capital is the Cantonese-speaking city of Guangzhou, a sprawling and sweaty metropolis of nearly ten million people. Taishan, the area which my Yeye hails from, is a much smaller ‘township’ boasting roughly one million inhabitants. But, Fun Fact, it’s also apparently the world’s “number one hometown of overseas Chinese” – it’s said that at least half of North American-Chinese come from Taishan!

People have emigrated from Taishan for many generations. The promise of better opportunities and a strong extended network of family and friends already living abroad inspired many young Chinese men (and eventually their families) to set their eyes on countries like the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand during the gold rush era, and later as hands-on labourers willing to get their hands dirty, and often risk their lives, building huge infrastructural projects such as railways. Among the provinces, Guangdong historically supplied the largest number of emigrants, about 68% of the total overseas Chinese population (8.2 million people) in 1957.

And you can see the impact of money being sent back to family members left behind: There’s a long “pedestrian street” with plenty of clothing boutiques and restaurants, clean roads (by major Chinese city standards) and thriving local businesses. Local attractions include nearby hot springs, a beach, and their local dish, eel claypot rice (黃鱔飯). A bit too bony for my liking.

I was greeted by the local clansmen of the Wong Association, who excitedly gave me a tour of their office and pointed out my Yeye’s name on a donation plaque for one of their many projects. The packed rooms containing layers of historical memorabilia, event photos, and certificates of appreciation mounted on every inch of available wallspace made me feel connected to my grandfather’s own sense of purpose he must have felt being connected to this wider network and the linkage between his two homes: the one where he was born and spent his childhood years, and the one he later fled to with his wife and six young children.

We left Taishan city and set out for my grandfather’s village later that afternoon. My Dad had mentioned it was “probably still quite rural” from his memory of visiting in the 80s, but I was still surprised to find us turning off the main road and driving down a dirt path until the village appeared in view.

The village (“Gao Long”) is nearly 150 years old.  Though most of the communal buildings were rebuilt in the last 20 years or so, it was hard to discern old and new.

At its peak, the village had as many as 300 people, all who descended from the same ancestral family. Many people married off with folk from other towns. Like many young couples of their era, my grandparents had an arranged marriage. And like the other twenty-somethings, they left the village (for Hong Kong) during the late 1940s due to civil unrest and mounting political tensions.

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, I encountered a handful of villages enjoying the light breeze by the local watering hole. My translator helped me to offer up candy and snacks, while trying to glean any stories from the past as I was introduced.

In Chinese hospitality, typically the guest would expect to be “treated”, but Taishan is unique. Because of its long history as an emigration hub, where people were more likely to return with more to offer, the expectations are reversed.

Everyone I came across sweetly expressed their approval that I’d made the trip down to visit them. Apparently not many young people (or single women) visit the villages anymore.

In every Chinese village, there is an Ancestral Hall that is built to host the tablets which symbolize the community’s founding family.  However, many of these were destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution. Sadly, my Yeye’s village was one such casualty. And though the hall was eventually rebuilt, it was later damaged again by a typhoon. Today it serves as a storage.

Most of the homes seemed to be quite dilapidated. I learned that my paternal great-grandmother was our family’s last blood relative to live in the village. She stayed in a house along with another family (unrelated) who still inhabits it today. They couldn’t remember the year she passed.

I toured through the village and saw various properties that my Yeye’s father had owned at one point or another (up to three, I was told). But today, most were just plots of land that had overgrown with shrubbery.

I was told many stories by the village elder, who was one of the last people to know my Yeye personally. Even though they were nearly 8 years apart, he had memories of my grandfather taking him fishing at the nearby pond when they were much younger. When I asked how he remembered him, he said he was “a very honest and pure”, words that touched my father when I recounted them later.

My Yeye had 3 other brothers. Two died young, and were married off in “ghost weddings” to other families who had lost their daughters, as per Chinese tradition/superstition.

An elder showed me the village Zupu (族谱), which is basically a genealogy book that documents every village’s descendants and family trees. Apparently I belonged to the 33rd generation recorded.

The following morning, I came back with flowers in hand to pay my respects to the village ancestors, as well as my Yeye’s mother.

We traversed through the fields to three separate plots. There didn’t seem to be any obvious path, but our guides from the village knew these hills like the back of their hands. It was a walk that felt appropriately taken in silence. This was it. I had reached my destination.