Horizon at Sandy Point

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Out of China

I can only speculate on what spurred my grandfather to make the long journey and move his family from China to Trinidad. In the 1930s, what was happening in the Chinese countryside, especially port provinces like Guangdong? Were Mao's movements and "long marches" were stirring the countryside? What was the effect of Japan's incursions? How exactly did the growing turmoil affect my father's parents we can only discern from the slow revelations of historical research. But we do know that my grandfather - much as he loved his native land - made a few trips to Trinidad in the 1930s. On one of those trips he brought my father, a boy with a serious determined face, then took him back to China before bringing him back at the end of the 1930s (maybe 1938 or 1939) to stay.

Akung (grandfather) brought the three boys including my father Wong QuiOn. Then he went back to bring out Apo and the younger siblings. Apo, Daddy's mother, was a peasant. She delivered her own babies and went back to work.  But you could be peasant and illiterate but not stupid.

Not to be underestimated is her determination to keep the family together; to earn by hard work what was required to succeed in a place where she did not understand the language, had no friends, and looked at everyone across the shop counter as scamps or tricksters. Discipline was swift: a slap and a harsh Chinese command. When she came here with a baby girl, Wong Tai Yow was most likely in her early 30s; she had three more children, seven in all. Not my grandfather's only offspring, since in between the trips back to China, he had taken a Trinidadian wife with whom he also had seven children.

The late 30s and early 40s marked the end of their lives as Chinese in China. They fled the process that birthed the new China. Perhaps they knew what they were fleeing. Trinidad - a completely alien land with similarities to the landscape and climate of Canton (Guangdong) - represented the new beginning in a brave new world where their hope was not for themselves but for the children.

Paul Theroux, in his 1987 book Riding the Iron Rooster, describes Guangdong: "It was a very wet province, Guangdong, and distinctive for not looking exhausted: it was fertile, orderly and energetic, and yet everything and everyone I saw had a specific purpose, which seemed to me very tiring to the eye - nothing random or accidental." Except for the agriculture and orderliness, this might be Trinidad.

In leaving China when they did, they escaped the generation-long birthing process fathered by Mao Zedong from 1945 to 1976. At the height of Mao's reign, around 1958 - a period known as the Great Leap Forward - exhortations to produce coincided with a time of famine which resulted in privations and poverty, and spelled death for many. It is now estimated that over 45 million were sacrificed. (September 17, 2010 The Independent, Arifa Akbar)

Henry Wong Chong's line may not have perished, but family left behind would certainly have suffered. His wife, my grandmother, was always collecting things to send back to China - the printed cotton of rice and feed bags, the string that sewed the bags shut, were all carefully cleaned, collected and mailed. My grandfather was also responsible for bringing other extended cousins out of China.

As Trinidadians, we do not look back. Akung's son, my uncle Henry, now 90, was a shopkeeper, and took pleasure in hunting with his pack of dogs. He considers himself Trinidadian. Two generations later, in the comfort that Trinidad has afforded, some of us try to find the China our ancestors left behind. Paul Theroux's book offers an inkling, an insight to the country and people that were already rapidly changing in the 1980s. The yoke with which Mao harnessed the people - you were either Red Guard or worker - was being thrown off. Here is another paragraph that rings true.

"It is a great society for mending things, I thought.  There was no need for a man to be put on the occupational scrap heap simply because his arm had been chopped off. You found a way to reattach the arm, and you sent him back to work. … It was always obvious when a thing had been patched - it was a society of patches. They patched their underwear and darned their socks and cobbled their shoes. They rewrote their slogans and painted out Thoughts of Chairman Mao, and come to think of it, that was a form of patching too. But Mao had spoken repeatedly of the evils of wastefulness. … An entire section of his thoughts is entitled Building our Country Through Diligence and Frugality."

Is this why my parents never discarded anything? Fortunately we had space on the farm: for piles of glass bottles; cans; parts, tools, broken machinery that could not be thrown out because we might have a use for them later on. Is this where I got my pack rat gene from?

Paul Theroux's book is an entertaining ride by train through China, an easy journey into the past and a foreign country. One third way through, and I catch glimpses of grandparents. I am looking for a little more of myself.

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