Word might have been passed through the grapevine already, but I wanted to let you know that I’m currently in the process of finding the Moy family village. My program allowed us to organize independent research trips. Originally, my group had planned on traveling to Hong Kong, but new restrictions on research travel destinations forced us to think on our feet and come up with a new location. In a crazy turn of events, I ended up bringing two classmates to Guangdong Province to try and trace my family’s trajectory from China to the United States.
We arrived in Guangzhou a couple of days ago, and had an interesting time walking around the city. My Great-Uncle Tow had said that the family had once owned an apartment near Central Park, and we walked around the area to get a feel for the place. The park still stands though they’ve gotten rid of the gate that once enclosed the gardens. We’ve heard that parts of the park have expanded over time, and that the installation of the subway system caused the old apartment to get pulled down. The subway station at the park is huge – there’s a giant underground mall there now which reaches down three floors.
After leaving Guangzhou, we made our way to Taishan – the town closest to our family’s village. It took us two hours by bus to get here, and the ride was really pleasant. We booked a hotel close to the bus station here in Taishan, and were able to take another public bus route to get to the Moy family village.
永和里 (Pronounced Yong He Li in Mandarin, and Wing Wo Lei in Cantonese) is about a 30 minute walk away from the bus station. The road to the village is paved, although you can still see a lot of hallmarks of village life. Lots of farming still takes place in the area, and while electricity has reached most homes it’s not necessarily a given that every home has plumbing. Each village along the way typically has a public bathroom, and many also have other common spaces/public services (like schools, village canteens, etc.) that serve the whole community.
Something that interested me a lot about this area (and our village as well!) is that there’s a massive number of Chinese abroad that still have connections to these villages. Wing Wo Lei currently has about 150 residents, and an estimated 300 people abroad that continue to support family members living in the village. Many public amenities are donated by Chinese abroad – such as the school that GongGong & Uncle Tow’s father helped build.
The house where my GongGong was born still stands – and has been unoccupied since our family left for America. Because nobody has been tending to it, it has fallen into a state of disrepair – though I’m shocked by how much has been preserved. The beams in the roof have fallen through, and there are a number of plants feeding off the rain and sunlight growing wild in what would have been the central room of the house. There were still some pieces of furniture left over in the first and second floors, and a few ceramic pieces and bottles sitting in cabinet shelves.
It’s a strange but beautiful thing for me to come back to this home during Qingming Festival – a holiday devoted to the cleaning and sweeping of graves, and the remembrance of ancestors. I think that there’s a strong sense of identity in China that gets wrapped up in places and memories of people – almost as if you cannot truly find direction moving forward without having an idea of where you came from. What a surreal experience it has been, to have the opportunity to stand in the same house where my grandfather was born over a century ago.
Our family name “梅” (Pronounced Moy in Cantonese, and Mei in Mandarin) translates as “Plum”. It’s a surname that’s shared widely among the villages surrounding ours – though in the United States, I can’t say that I’ve ever met another Moy that wasn’t a close relative. So it was a lot of fun to come through these villages and say that I was part of the Moy family and that I was from 永和里, and to have some people recognize the name and the place.
I made two visits to the village – the first time was spent wandering around and discovering which building had been my GongGong’s home. I had gotten some details about the home from my Uncle Tow, and had asked questions to a woman in the village that we met when walking around. She wasn’t certain which building we were talking about, so she took us to the home of the village head. As we were walking, I looked at one of the homes and just felt certain that it was the one I was looking for. There was a kind of resonance – seeing a sight from an old photograph, remembering a place that you’ve never seen before in person.
We went to the house of the village head and together we were able to come to the conclusion that the building that I had passed was mine. They let me get into the house to look around, and then into the old school building. I was told that the old school building is going to be taken down sometime next year to make room for a new public dining hall for all of the people in the village – so I’m especially happy that I was able to come back now and see it while it was still standing.
On the second visit, we once again wandered around and took in the sights. I was able to convince the village head that I wasn’t afraid of heights, and he brought out a ladder for me to climb onto the roof of my GongGong’s home. Afterwards, he invited us back to his home to have tea and dinner with his family. I had a lot of fun playing with the children in the village – chasing them down the alleys in the darkness as we played hide and seek or tag. A nice thing about being around children is that language barriers don’t really matter quite so much – I can hold some simple conversations with them, but they’re generally more impressed with the fact that I can pick them up and spin them around. Being surrounded by laughter like that is a really simple & lovely pleasure.
My classmates and I are going around other areas in the south of Guangdong for the next few days, and then I’ll be heading back to Guangzhou on Friday so that I can catch a flight to Hong Kong where I’m going to take a long weekend vacation. I really do like the village a lot though, and hope to make more trips back sometime soon. For now, I’m happy to be in touch with the people there over wechat. I needed to rely a lot on my classmates to help me translate when I was in the village, but having written text messages to exchange gives me a lot of time to compose what I want to say and talk to them myself. It can be slow, but it’s rewarding – and it’s making me really motivated to become more fluent in speaking and writing.
Lots of love,