by Anthony Postman
Already mentioned through my journal is how well organized the Overseas Association runs, how immediate they are in responding to requests. This bears mention again, as it was evident stronger than ever in the whole experience of the day Madelyn and I returned to the ancestral village: Long Tau Wan (龙头环 simplified or 龍頭環 traditional). It had become apparent really from Day One of the overseas program that there was little if no time built in for us to make that long-awaited journey Home. But we also felt that there was ample flexibility and a shared desire amongst all of the principals (and everyone else) within the Overseas Association, that we would not only make it there, but that all the arrangements would be made for us, time and transport fully provided.
Even though we had intimated early in the course of the program that we would like to go to Long Tau Wan, our solid request to go came the morning we went to the Overseas Chinese in World War II exhibit—when Madelyn and I saw the pictures of our great grandfather Joe Shoong (周崧) displayed at a couple of places within the exhibit. We had been quickly surrounded by some of the exhibit organizers (who themselves were also members of the Zhongshan and/or Guangdong Overseas Association Bureau of Chinese Affairs), and generals of the Associations, with a bursting sense of mutual excitement at both our arrival in Zhongshan, as well as our desire to see Long Tau Wan first-hand. Even while we were still at the exhibit, they began to talk about a possible day for us to duck out of the program proceedings, timing, possible drivers and translators.
The other note of mention, before addressing the momentous day in Long Tau Wan, is the general sense that people may get these days, faced with that possible life-long desire to return to an ancestral home, to discover one’s roots, to climb up the family tree. Many may imagine themselves cast into the role on a public television program, where they have researched their family tree through interviews with great-aunties; piled through books in the stands of shadowy libraries; ordered DNA tests to help sleuth-out the mystery; and of course all the while, the cameras are rolling to catch the surprises of discovery at who the ancestors once were, the influence and involvement they had in their communities; and even the fact that any of these discoveries could be made. The cameras roll, and the photo shutters blink to capture the surprise, wonder, and sheer emotion of the connection back through the bloodlines, back to the roots. An entourage of community guides and reporters follow the would-be subject to catch every moment, every discovery, every laughter and every tear, shedding information and emotion as the veils are slowly pulled back and the return home is finally met.
Immediately as our Zhongshan program got underway, we could see that most every moment was indeed being photographed, be it at the morning lecture gatherings, out in the streets as we walked to our tour stops, at the tour stops (of course), at meals—pretty much all the time. Madelyn and I joked a couple of times that the vision of that would-be discoverer of family roots in the reality-TV scenario could indeed be us! Going into this, one might be thinking, “Do I take a friend along to video the whole thing?” “What about translating across the language barrier?” “How do I photograph the occasion?” “Should I use a selfie-stick?!?” It was growing rapidly apparent that we would have all of these considerations duly handled by members and auxiliary participants of the Associations. We would find ourselves in the very center of that Coming-Home-Captured-on-TV scenario.
The final day on our program was already one of the most interesting days scheduled, one that began and continued to be centered on food and drink in Zhongshan. I remember being pretty foggy that morning, and really trying hard to pull down some sleep on our way to the rose-wine distillery. That one calls an 80-proof drink wine was pretty amusing, especially after being up till 3AM, just a few hours prior, having a great time conversing and drinking beer with our fellow Zhongshanese brothers and sisters. Upon our entry to the premises, we were all given samples, big shots, of the lovely rose-rice-whisky. Very strong a drink to be taking at 9:30 in the morning. Just enough though to bring us all to our senses, and just enough to calm the great anticipation and excitement of the day’s later visit to Long Tau Wan. One of the really fun things we did at the distillery was make rose cookies, and little folded-over mini-rose-crepe-cookies. The cookies were formed by beating a loose crumbly dough into a cookie-mold; taking a small wooden roller to press the dough in; and then finally thwacking the cookies out of the mold onto the stainless prep surface. The tiny crepes were done just like crepes: on a small round griddle; batter poured onto the griddle for about a minute, and then we folded, using a wide tuning-fork-looking tool to help flip and fold the dough, after sprinkling a bit of rose flower in the middle. Really tasty treats, and making them had everybody getting their hands doughy together and laughing a lot.
For lunch, we went to the “Happy A-OK+ Chicken” place. The food being created, from the entrance all the way into the large hall, was like a living display of dim-sum creations, with all manner of ingredients fresh and available right there. Huge baskets of vegetables; all cuts of pork and beef; fish of all shapes and sizes; crab; lobster; crayfish; shrimp; insects like crickets, grubworms, soup-worms, scorpions; turtles; snakes. Anything one could imagine (and not!) to eat was on offer here. Every several yards apart from each other, there were stations of one, two or three people making all manner of dumplings, banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice, rolls, wraps, wonton…this place was truly alive with all of the raw ingredients and assemblage of the yummiest eats available in Zhongshan!
In the middle of lunch, Madelyn and I were quickly told that our ride to Long Tau Wan was ready to take us to the home village. En route we picked up a Zhongshan University translator, as well as Overseas Association chair, David Tan Hui. I was very excited to have Mr. Tan with us, as he had been researching Joe Shoong—Tan had even travelled to San Francisco for some of of his research. His overall knowledge of Zhongshan, Shaxi, Long Tau Wan and the region at large, the people past and present, the past and living history of Zhongshan, was extensive. He would be so very helpful in elucidating upon questions that Madelyn and I would have about particulars in the village.
Our drive took us through the neighboring town to Long Tau Wan, Shaxi, where every store specialized in athletic apparel. Blocks upon blocks of sweatshirts, hoodies, sweatpants, with no other stores present. David pointed out that above the retail shops were often offices (and production?) running the businesses below. This was a great example of the “one town, one product” layout of the cities comprising the Zhongshan prefecture.
A couple of turns later, and we found ourselves in the much smaller, non-commercial village of Long Tau Wan. So much smaller in fact, that we reached a road that was too narrow to fit the minivan through. Mr. Tan jumped out of the van, and somehow commandeered a moped driver to not only show us the way into Long Tau Wan, but to also ride Tan on the back of the scooter, so that Tan could wave us through to finally arrive at one of our longest-awaited destinations: the Joe Shoong School (龙头环周崧学校).
Even before we opened the van doors, we could hear the sounds of a schoolyard full of children on recess. The street we parked on was narrow, and the van doors opened up directly facing the school yard, the front yard of the Joe Shoong School.
Madelyn and I made our way out of the van, and could see many of the schoolchildren looking our way, pointing, and a talking amongst each other with rising tones of excitement. I heard a couple of boys on a dragon slide exclaim “Gweilo! Gweilo! [Foreigner! Foreigner!]” to each other. I said to one of the Overseas Association members who had gathered by our sides, “I heard them say ‘gweilo,’” to which she quickly responded, “Oh, yes: you are probably the first Westerners these kids have seen, at least right here in the village.”
Small bands of boys and girls converged upon us, with the kids quickly and eagerly trying out their English with us: “Hello!” “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “How is the weather where you are from?” And I had some fun showing some of the kids photos of the snow on the ground in Reno! These bright and energetic young school children certainly echoed my sister’s and my own excitement to be in Long Tau Wan. Madelyn was overcome with emotion and joy to be there, and her waterworks kept running pretty much from the kids’ impromptu welcome through most of the rest of our visit. The kids let out a sigh of exclamation and wonder when they heard that we were the great-grandchildren of their school’s namesake, Joe Shoong. Madelyn and I both welled up with a tremendous sense of humble pride, to witness just a small part of the continuing stream of young Joe Shoong School students that have been flowing through this school yard across several generations since its founding in 1937.
As much as we wanted to stay and meet more of these children, their recess was ending, and we were being told that it was time to go to the family ancestral temple, and that we would have a chance later to go inside of the school for a brief tour. The temple was only a short walk through streets only large enough to allow scooters, or maybe very small autos. The stone streets and tang houses really gave us the feel that we could have been here a hundred years ago, and that things may have looked much the same. As we approached the middle of a long curving block, we could see the temple stretching out wider than any of the surrounding buildings.
As we stood out front, we could see into a courtyard, with large incense altars further back. Just as we were marvelling at the serenity and humble beauty of the temple, the Temple-Keeper beckoned me in to follow him, right up to the alters. I quickly pocketed my camera, to be fully in that moment with him. He looked so directly at me, with great welcoming, and with a softly imploring cast to his eyes, he brought me directly to the three huge altars for offerings to Joe Shoong, and all of our ancestors. Three sticks of incense were lit for each of the three altars, three prayers each made in deep gratitude to all the moments in my life that had brought me here; for the love, guidance and teachings that generations of family impart, I made an offering of deep respect to Joe Shoong, and all of my family. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt such an all-encompassing sense of solemnity, respect and joy.
Indeed, as these offerings were being made, Joe and and our great-grandmother Rose Shoong looked on, with four others in the Joe/Zhou family, from their pictures on the wall directly to the left of the altars. We were told how unusual it is for there to be a woman’s picture found in the family ancestral temples, but in Joe’s case, he had done so much for Long Tau Wan, for the creation of the school here, the infrastructure for the town, and the temple itself, that the forces-that-be obliged Joe with the photo of Rose hung right next to his.
(I may add to mention that at this point, Madelyn had lingered slightly behind, taking more time through the entrance to the temple, and having been surrounded by many of the Association members than I—I had been pulled aside and ahead by the temple keeper, to be one-on-one with the altar and offerings…)
After offering my first set of prayers and thanks and respects at the ancestral altar, the temple keeper took me up a small stairway, still so welcoming and warmly beckoning with his eyes. He directed me to watch my head as we passed under the low roof beams heading up the stairs. We reached yet another set of altars upstairs, these for [agricultural] fertility; knowledge; and courage…just as I was finishing offering the three sticks of incense per altar, Madelyn arrived to also offer incense to the aforementioned deities. What an honor it was to enter these hallowed grounds, to be lovingly welcomed, and to make our offerings to our ancestors and to the keepers of good fortune.
Upon descending back down the stairs, we were directed to a large table that was spread full of fruit: bananas, huge beautiful grapefruit segments, and a specialty of of Shaxi, a rolled dried fruit and spice mixture, including ginger and looking like large dates, but more complex, and spicy, and quite wonderful. “All vegetarian,” one of the Association head assured me. I was later told by some program friends that when you come to visit relatives here, you will always be leaving with tons of fruit offerings! And sure enough, these plus an array of warm dishes which we quickly tasted were not just laid out for our immediate enjoyment, but we were indeed sent away with bags and bags full of the sweet offerings and fruit. They reflected our overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude, and the true sweetness of actually being in that very moment, in that very time and place.
At the table, duly distracting us from the lovely array of fruit and other dishes prepared for us, were the ancestry books. These logs were thick with the names of the Zhou (周) families, for whom Long Tau Wan is the ancestral home. It was amazing to see such breath of the records kept for these family trees. Ours as noted traced back 17 generations; and with Milton Shoong’s, our mother’s, then our generations added in, and plus now Finn and Nellie: our tree would reach 21 generations! One of the great (amongst many) photographs taken on our auspicious day features Madelyn and me standing in front of the Zhou ancestral altar, each holding one of the thick family tree books. It really did feel like we had our hands on a bit of personal and definitely shared family histories, within the pages of those books, standing in the middle of the Zhou Temple.
From the temple, we took a brief walk through narrow streets to arrive at Joe Shoong’s Long Tau Wan home. We waited momentarily until we were told to enter through the archway opening up to a humble courtyard. Madelyn and I stopped in amazement, to realize that we on the threshold of Joe Shoong’s very house. David Tan said that this was likely the spot where Joe himself was born. Just as we were taking it all in, a woman appeared, supporting herself in her doorway with her right arm, and waving us over with her left arm. She had obviously been apprised of our arrival—and our ancestry!—and welcomed us with eyes so bright, and a smile stretching happily across her face. We all shook hands eagerly, and looked into each others’ eyes with great joy and amazement. The meeting of relatives across miles and generations can hardly be described! We all shared laughter and tears of joy at this very meeting.
Somebody from the association then produced what at first was a very puzzling document for our review. We could see Joe Shoong’s name, but the date of 1991: decades after his passing. As Madelyn and I were trying to figure out the nature of this official document, David let us know: “The property deed! This is the deed to this house; given to 周乃文 (Zhou Nai Wen) by the Chinese government in 1991. 周乃文 / Zhou Nai Wen now owns this house.”
We all moved indoors, where 周乃文 / Zhou Nai Wen took to a small stool, which allowed her feet to be extended out in front of her. She said her feet were hurting, and they didn’t allow for her to move around too much. Before we proceeded much further into the room, we lit more incense to offer in the corner of 周乃文 / Zhou Nai Wen’s own home shrine. If I understood correctly, there was a visit from Auntie Doris some twenty-plus years ago; and other than that visit of hers, we were the first of the Shoongs to return home to Long Tau Wan. This to me was so exciting and yet strangely puzzling, as Joe Shoong was such a prominent figure in both the lives of Long Tau Wan, as well as within our own Northern Californian region at large. But I guess one either has that yen to travel to the roots, or not. And Madelyn and I definitely have that curiosity and impetus to travel. Of course travel restrictions now are much lighter than they once were (for those that may have been curious, but may have had more challenges entering China), so our journey to discover roots is much easier to plan and implement than it once would have been.
周乃文 / Zhou Nai Wen directed us to look at an array of photos on her wall, ones of her family abroad, mainly in Canada. We asked if we could “take a picture” of these pictures, that is to photograph them for ourselves…“Which ones,” one of the translators asked, and 周乃文 / Zhou Nai Wen waived as if to say “take whatever you’d like!” We then explained that we didn’t want to actually take any of pictures away with us; that we were merely trying to be respectful of snapping any personal photographs for ourselves: but she was ready to give us her own family photographs! Madelyn and I were duly touched not only by her welcome, but also her ready willingness to share with us.
The photographer arranged the three of us together in the beam of sunlight that was shining through her front door; began snapping, and then realized that we could angulate, so that the sunlight illuminated all three of us equally, instead of Madelyn in the sun, shading 周乃文 / Zhou Nai Wen and myself. We angulated, and then were treated to some of the most beautiful family shots of all time. Truly some Hallmark/Lifetime photos! The amazing surreal part was that there were about 10 people from the associations looking on, as well as the Chinese TV news crew, our translator, and the village head, 周结明 (Zhou Jie Ming). This sharing and intimate moment of long-lost relatives was shared amongst a small entourage of about 15 people! And looking at these photos, you can truly see the family resemblances.
As we sat for these amazing moments 周乃文 / Zhou Nai Wen took our hands in her own, and shook us with warm happiness, the kind that can only be made upon seeing the long awaited return of family or a friend long-gone. She said that she called Joe Shoong her “great uncle,” though it was also recounted that her grandfather was Joe Shoong’s brother; making Joe her great-uncle; and that making her our second cousin once removed. To me, she felt like a great-aunt; and moreover just like family, across the many miles and decades spanning the gulf of our lives. She was as happy to see and meet us as we were to meet her. She really took a liking to me, and I to her…she kept hold of my hand, and kept lightly and excitedly hitting my arm, as if to say, “You! YOU! You are here, at last!”
The transmission of love and joy beaming through the room did not need any translation. On that note, it was a good thing we had the Association folks with us—they were very helpful and essential in being able to translate from Long Tau Wan’s dialect of Long Du through to Mandarin or Cantonese, then into English. Even so, the pure experience of touching down in Joe Shoong’s home; and to be so warmly welcomed and received by our cousin, (and invited back!), was an experience that greatly superseded any words. The feeling of immediate connection through the generations, as well as to the specific house and village in which Joe Shoong (and generations of our ancestors) walked, can only be described as both cosmic and grounding, like points in space finding their way to a continuum.
I couldn’t help but to get a little bittersweet pang of closure, thinking about this day being the final jewel in the the crown of one amazing week in Zhongshan. Madelyn and I had met so many great people in this journey: our fellow Zhongshanese brothers and sisters, gathered from the four corners of our globe, to assemble in our ancestral homeland. And there we arrived—at the Joe Shoong School—to wrap up this momentous journey, right in one of the places where Joe Shoong’s reach and influence still emanate to this very day. Just as the whole week in Zhongshan passed so quickly, the several hours we were afforded in Long Tau Wan flew by, especially knowing that soon we would have to make our way back to the King Century Hotel, in central Zhongshan to ceremonially conclude the Overseas Zhongshanese program.
As we assembled in front of the school with the Association generals, Madelyn and I were approached by the television news crew that had been accompanying our entire Long Tau Wan tour. The brief interview focused on our feelings of returning to the ancestral village of Long Tau Wan. Our translator seemed a bit nervous at the prospect that she herself would also be featured on television news, trying to convey the thoughts and emotions that this experience brought us. The synopsis of the news report (as I would later read) I found touching: though different in culture and in language, though flesh and blood we are family Joe Shoong. Which of course, was our very reason for being in that moment!
And what could better exemplify that feeling of seeing points on the continuum, than to see the Joe Shoong School bustling with children, the next generation of Zhongshanese and Zhou descendants readying themselves for the steps they would take in this world. Who amongst them would come and start new branches of their family trees in faraway lands, just as Joe Shoong had? Maybe decades up the road their descendants would also pass through Long Tau Wan, and marvel at the village that their great-grandparents once hailed from, and walk these narrow streets, away from the hustle and bustle of the big city…
As we walked up the stairwell into the upper floors of the Joe Shoong School, some of the same young children we had seen when we first arrived greeted us again, excitedly yelling more “hellos” at us. We were guided to a small gallery hosting the photos of all of the Joe Shoong School headmasters, with even more photos outlining the history of the Joe Shoong School, including some pictures of Joe Shoong’s schools and Chinese cultural centers in the U.S., and the Locke Chinese School in the Sacramento Valley in particular (now a museum). On the wall behind us, there was a larger picture of Joe Shoong, with the quote in English: “If I achieve my ambition, I should firstly vitalize education to bring up more talents for our country.”
Once again, Madelyn and I felt the timeless swirl of ancestral continuity, to be gazing upon Great-Grandfather Joe’s words, in the heart of his very own school, with the strains of this generation’s Shoong School students echoing through the nearby hallways.
At this point in our afternoon, we were already pushing the time allotted us for Long Tau Wan. There had been the possible chance for us to hear a musical presentation from the schoolchildren, but alas this—and so much more—would have to wait longingly for a future trip back to Long Tau Wan and the Joe Shoong School. Only time for the requisite group photo with the village head, 周结明 / Zhou Jie Ming, all of the esteemed Overseas Association directors (including David/Mr. Tan Wenhui, who had so dutifully and generously facilitated this time and his personal accompaniment, so replete with translations and background for us), Henry He (the one initially responsible for getting Madelyn and me to Zhongshan), the school headmaster, Madelyn and myself. And then barely time to get us, and Deputy Director David, back to chair the Closing Ceremonies for the Workshop for Descendants of Outstanding Overseas Zhongshanese. The invitations were extended for Madelyn and me to return again to Long Tau Wan, to spend more time, even to stay in the village to spend longer with some of our distant family here, and to get to know better this place from which came our inspirational ancestor, school founder, philanthropist, entrepreneur, community and family man—Joe Shoong.
Translated quotes from the Chinese Television coverage of our day in Long Tau Wan:
The two “foreigners” root even in Shaxi! They are leading the original ring “Zhou Song” [Joe Shoong] sons!
Recently, leading circumferential Song Elementary School welcomed two “foreigners,” the two “foreigners” by the town and village cadres and school, the villagers for their hospitality. Want to know why? Because they are the leading Central Elementary School founder, Zhongshan education celebrities, famous overseas Chinese descendants Zhou Song. Take a look at the details of the case.
One o’clock in the afternoon, two “foreigners,” accompanied by the Foreign Affairs Bureau deputy director Tan Wenhui, Federation Vice-President and other towns 梁冬晓 leadership, appeared in the leading circumferential Song primary entrance, their arrival, students’ attention. Students who have surrounded them and communicate with their bold use of English. The enthusiasm of the students to make the beauty of foreigners leaving tears of excitement.
It turned out that the two foreigners who are sister Madeleine [Madelyn], who is the younger brother Anihony [Anthony] [I am actually the older brother, by about three years], they are born in 1879 Shaxi leading Central Village, across the ocean at a young age and later became the well-known overseas Chinese enterprises Zhou Song sons home.
The roots in their hometowns, they first stop is the leading circumferential Song elementary school, and then to the hall leading ring incense, regarded Renjieguizong. In addition, they also back when young grandfather had lived in the place visited Zhou Song, also see their loved ones with mom peers. Although the language is different, communication difficulties, but flesh and blood family, so that they are closely linked to each other.
It is understood, Madeleine and Anihony were living in the United States and Britain, they also revealed that the mother would say are long words, but has died. Their grandfather, the son of Zhou Song, also for them to take over Chinese name, but unfortunately because of Chinese and foreign cultural differences, the last name wrong, it has not been enabled. This line in their hometowns, very productive, they say the future will always come back here to see relatives.