KEY TO THE PAST
Visitors To A Remote Village In China Discover Some Family Heritage And Travel A Great Distance – Not Just Over Terrain
By Terry McDermott
Seattle Times, 1990
GUANGDONG PROVINCE, People’s Republic of China – Here, in one of the oldest civilizations on earth, in a nation that possesses, among other modern technological wonders, bi-directional, remote-controlled, rotating fans, chainless 12-speed bicycles and nuclear weapons, the second son of the Man with the Keys took from a cupboard an eight-ounce jar of petroleum jelly.
Somebody gave it to me, he said. What is it?
There are great distances in China, not all of them traveled over terrain.
Here in a small town deep in the rice and peanut country of the Pearl River Delta, there are none of those fancy fans, revolutionary bikes or bombs. Neither is there evidence that anything like any of them exists anywhere.
Here, there is that jar of jelly and people who would like to know what it is.
Seventy-five percent of China’s 1.1 billion people live in villages like this, remote from almost everything else in the world.
This is where my wife, Millie Quan, was born. We returned last year to recover not just her heritage, but something at least as Chinese as that – the family jewels.
For years, whenever we talked about visiting China, Bak-Bak, my wife’s grandmother, wanted to be included. She wanted to go home once before she died, not an unusual desire even coming from Bak-Bak, who would never be accused of being a sentimentalist. She is, rather, a flinty pragmatist. A conversation among grandmother, mother and daughter might go something like this.
Daughter: I heard Kathy Cheung was getting married.
Mother: Yes, she’s marrying a man from Los Angeles.
Grandmother: How much money does he have?
Bak-Bak’s homesickness hadn’t entirely overwhelmed what she regarded as her fiduciary responsibilities. She wanted to see old friends and family, yes, but the real reason she wanted to go home was to recover a cache of jewelry she had hidden away when she fled the country and its post-revolutionary fervor in 1954.
It was not uncommon for Chinese peasants like Bak-Bak to store their entire accumulated wealth, however small or large, in jewelry.
In a country where banks and governments were seldom trustworthy, it made sense to keep your savings in gold necklaces in a sock under your mattress.
When Bak-Bak last left her house she had intended to return. She and Millie, who was then four, were going to Hong Kong to visit Millie’s mother. The men of the family, Bak-Bak’s husband and her son, Millie’s father, were already in the United States.
The women had stayed behind, waiting to be sent for. When Mao and the communists had come to power in 1949, the borders were not sealed immediately, but people could see it coming. In the south especially, they were scrambling to leave.
Millie’s mother and younger sister had moved to Hong Kong a year earlier. Millie and her grandmother were to follow eventually, but for the time being they stayed in the home village to keep watch over the family’s belongings and property.
Before they left for what turned out to be the last time, Bak-Bak locked her jewelry away in an upstairs bedroom. While they were away, the borders were closed and they never went back. Decades later, whenever the conversation turned to home, Bak-Bak would talk about recovering the jewels. We had told Bak-Bak she was crazy.
Bak-Bak, we would say, don’t you understand? This is China. Things have changed. It’s been 35 years and China has gone through three centuries worth of trauma: famine, floods, earthquakes, the cultural revolution, war. You would be lucky to find the house, much less the jewels, we told her.
After years of talking about it, we decided to make the trip. But Bak-Bak’s arthritis and age prevented her from going. She entrusted the search for the family jewels to us.
She wrote out directions and handed us the old, worn keys to the room and the trunk within it where the jewels had been left. She told us to get the keys to the house from a man in the village. She even reminded Millie to be sure to close an upstairs window she was certain she had left open.
It was a sad mission, not in the looking but in the inevitability of an empty-handed homecoming.
We took the fast boat to China – a hydrofoil from Hong Kong up a narrow brown river, bordered by people and rice paddies the whole of its length.
The boat plowed up river at a good clip, a 20th-century projectile that seemed to shoot right through a 2,000-year-old landscape without either being altered.
What seemed most striking about these little river towns was that they were built and inhabited largely by the same people – the Cantonese – who built and inhabited Hong Kong, a place so utterly the opposite it is hard to imagine them as being products of the same species.
What is unchanged from Hong Kong to Kai-Ping, a provincial city of about 300,000 people five hours up river, is the level of noise. The source is different. In Hong Kong it was buses and taxis and the tweeting of cellular phones. Here it is simply the people. The boat terminal is filled with friends and relatives greeting the new arrivals. The din rises, hits a level and holds.
The city is all grayness and concrete, the worst of modern development. Concrete streets are edged by concrete sidewalks which are edged by mid-rise concrete apartment buildings. Row upon row, block upon block.
Odd outside touches on the town seem almost a caricature. A mock McDonalds has opened. It serves cat.
Millie’s home village is an hour away by car. Each village we pass en route contains a fortress of sorts, old stone watch towers built to give warning of neighboring warlords and after them Japanese occupation forces.
The flat fields are green with young rice, the low serrated hills brown with ripening peanuts and potatoes. The village sits, on the way to nowhere, at the end of a dead-end road, the last couple miles of which could be called a road only with extreme charity. It is a tiny place of surprisingly robust buildings, solid two- and three-story structures built of stone and concrete. It faces a dirty pond that serves as bathtub, sink and sewer for the 200 local residents and cooling-off place for the half-dozen local water buffalo.
Our arrival set the town abuzz, driving entire families, babies on hips, children on trikes, out into the mid-day sun. Of course they remember Mil-Ha, they say. You were just this high, they say. Your grandmother, father, mother?
We parade through town, handing out candies and ball-point pens, collecting compliments and bemused looks in equal measure.
“Everybody from here is very pretty,” one woman says.
“And who is this Englishman?” another asks.
The Man with the Keys sat across the table from me, only half listening to the swirl of conversation around him. Well, that’s not entirely correct.
Chinese family conversations don’t do anything so gentle as swirl. They march, they rattle, they pounce. They storm the ramparts of silence. They do not swirl. Whatever the words were doing that day, the Man with the Keys was practiced, as only a man who lives his life in the middle of others can be, in the art of not hearing.
He sat surrounded by talk, smoking and looking through the soft light of the late autumn sun pouring down a skylight into the house. He was more interested, for the moment at least, in me.
“Never,” he finally said, shaking his head, “never in my wildest dreams did I imagine someone like you would be sitting here at my table.”
Actually, that might give a more triumphant tone to what he said than he intended. Because of ambiguities in the translation, what he might actually have meant instead of wildest dreams was that never in his worst nightmares did he imagine me.
I was the first white person to visit the village in his 65 years, which, given its remote location, tiny size and homogeniety is not surprising. As he so politely put it, everybody else who left and returned had married other Chinese people.
There was a boy in the village once who went away to Beijing for university, but that is not the normal course of village life. Only half of Chinese children finish elementary school. Ony 10 percent complete high school.
If people go away, it’s usually for good – to Guangzhou, Hong Kong or somewhere beyond – San Francisco, Vancouver, even Seattle.
More likely, you go nowhere at all. Guangzhou, the great metropolis of southern China, is a mere 50 miles north of here. It’s three hours away by bus. The Man with the Keys has been there once.
There is little reason to go, he said. Although there is not a single commercial building in town, goods can be purchased at a market town about 30 minutes away by the normal mode of transportation – foot.
The needs are not great. Everyone is a farmer and every family raises most of what it eats. The region is rich. It has water and land and a climate that fills markets with produce even in December. Harvests have been generally bountiful since the farms were de-collectivized during the reforms of the 1970s and ’80s.
The government shows itself here in much the same way governments show their faces to farmers the world over – as thieves, sometimes working alone, sometimes partnered with nature, the object of the conspiracies always the same, to steal the fruit of the farmer’s labor.
The worst time in anyone’s memory here was during the revolution. Afterward life gradually improved until border disputes with the Soviet Union fed a huge military build-up and sapped the national treasury during the `60s and `70s. Everybody was poor then. The Cultural Revolution was one of the worst times, too, but the peasantry was spared its worst effects directly.
“No one came here from the cities because there was no work for them,” said Leung, a neighbor.
“Like last year with Tiananmen Square, there was nothing here,” she said. “There was news of it, that’s all. It’s just too far.”
The Man with the Keys did, indeed, have the key to Bak-Bak’s old house, which sits exactly where she left it in 1954. About that part, at least, Bak-Bak was right. The house, built with money sent home by her sojourning husband, had stood the test of some very troubled times.
The house was sometimes used as a village granary, less frequently as a temporary residence. Most often and, in a nation of perpetual housing shortages, most improbably, it was abandoned.
Late that afternoon we took the house key and those we had brought and went to explore the house. Its iron-grated windows leaked rust down the concrete walls. Dust and mice leavings gathered inside. The general state of the place, though, was surprisingly good. We dug out Bak-Bak’s keys and climbed the stairs, where the treasure had been stowed. There the room we wanted was guarded by a Yale padlock the size of a softball.
One of the three keys fit the lock, but wouldn’t budge it. Thirty-five years of sub-tropical humidity had rusted it shut. Twenty minutes of twisting, turning and slight feathery feints did nothing to perturb the lock. My kingdom for a can of three-in-one oil, I thought. Lacking that, we poured into, over and around the lock most of a pint of peanut oil. To no avail.
The door itself was insubstantial and I was for knocking it down. We couldn’t come this far and leave Bak-Bak’s dream undisturbed, outcome unknown. Millie thought this would be bad manners. She proposed instead going back to Kai-ping, buying a hack saw, and returning the next day.
The upstairs air was close and warm. I was covered with grime and peanut oil. I was sweating. We argued. The lock fell open. I could scarcely believe it.
Inside the darkened interior, the floor was covered by scraps or shavings of some sort, proof surely that someone had been there before us. There were, however, two of the old steamer trunks Bak-Bak had described. A second of the keys from her pouch fit one. This lock opened on the first turn. We lifted the wooden tray out of the top of the trunk and dug through the contents below. Blankets, shirts, assorted other clothing, but no jewelry box.
We went through the dry goods again, but there was nothing. We had by now been at this for most of an hour. People would be wondering what had become of us. We put the top tray back in the trunk and before shutting the lid, felt through the tray’s contents once more.
There it was. A small metal box, its tiny lock a perfect fit for the last of Bak-Bak’s keys. Inside lay more little boxes, pouches, envelopes, filled with gold bracelets, jade necklaces, crumbling banknotes, a 1912 U.S. $20 gold piece, a roll of silver dollars.
We were dismissive before. We were nervous now. What would we do with this stuff? We jammed it into a nylon bag I carried, locked all the locks and doors behind us and reeled back out into the village sunlight full of equal parts triumph and guilt. We guarded the little black bag and said nothing about it to anyone for the rest of our stay in the village.
After we left the village, we went to Guangzhou, which at the time was hosting a world trade fair. On display at the fair was an enormous amount of goods manufactured throughout China, everything from missiles and computers to reindeer horn elixers. This was the contemporary treasure of the country.
When we laid out Bak-Bak’s crude gold bracelets on the king-sized bed of a deluxe hotel room, they seemed paltry in comparison. The total worth of the jewelry wouldn’t pay for a week in the hotel.
Its true value, though, is in its survival, in its ability to withstand all that China and its people have been subjected to. The fact that it was there at all gives hope.
The village, the jewels and the people share a fate. They are remote and isolated. Outside events intrude only fitfully. The village people have more immediate concerns – tomorrow’s weather, next spring’s rice.
Politics is something that happens somewhere else and shows up wearing the face of the tax collector, not the hangman. In this China, things don’t change.
Before we left the house the day we found the jewelry, Millie had one more thing to do. Bak-Bak was right. Thirty-six years ago, she had left a window open.
Millie closed it.