Home away from home: A Singaporean’s emotional journey back to her ancestral village in China

A year after her father’s death, Angeline Tse pays a visit to his hometown outside Haikou for the first time to learn about her roots.

  • Angeline Tse
  • August 2019

It was when I was writing my father’s eulogy early last year that I realised I didn’t know much about his past life; the time he spent in China before settling down in Singapore in the late ’60s. I knew he was from a village in Hainan. But I did not speak the dialect, and had never ventured anywhere near a Chinese second-tier city, let alone rural China. Like my father, I had also wandered far from my roots — I had left Singapore eight years ago to settle in my husband’s home country of Norway.

This countryside scenery couldn’t be more different from my birthplace of Singapore.

Through the years, my father had stayed in touch with his family, who had also left China in the diaspora and were scattered throughout Asia. But this fizzled out after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and lost the ability to write and speak. Shortly after my father’s death, my husband was serendipitously posted to Suzhou for work. I was living in China, and it was the perfect chance for me to learn more about where my father was from. After months of reaching out to relatives, I finally managed to convince two aunts living in Hong Kong to take me and my brother to my ancestral home.

A Family Reunion

We were warmly welcomed at the airport by one of our aunts and a man called Xiao Ming. He was not a blood relative, but was from the same village. My aunts had known him for a long time, which made him de facto family.

He was also a lifeline for my brother and me because he could speak Mandarin — my aunts only spoke a blend of Hainanese and Cantonese that was impossible for us to understand. We drove for 40 minutes along dark, unbusy roads to Luo Dou in Wenchang county, a small village with a population of 8,000. This was where we would spend the night before making the short journey to my father’s home in the morning.

The kitchen that kept us well-fed on our trip.

But first up: a reunion dinner with the rest of my estranged family. I was especially intrigued to meet my younger cousin. My father had once shown me a photo of him — an adorable little boy sitting on the back of a motorbike. He was now 32, and a man of very few words.

Nothing brings strangers together like food. While it was difficult to communicate with my aunts through words, I understood the universal language of them fussing and urging us to eat more. And boy did we ever, as we wolfed down local dishes like red-braised lamb, fried bittergourd, and the sweetest, freshest prawns from Xiao Ming’s fish farm.

Luo Dou’s traditional coffeeshops reminded me of Singapore’s kopitiams.

The next morning, everybody met for an early breakfast in one of Luo Dou’s traditional coffeeshops. We crowded around a table filled with steamed buns, fried dough fritters, and local tea and coffee. My aunts seemed to know everyone, and villagers kept coming over to say hello. A tall, talkative man sat down at our table; he was a distant relative.

My brother had brought along photos of our family in Singapore, and we looked at them together. Our Hainanese relatives got visibly emotional when they saw photos of my father in his later years, a man ravaged by illness whom they no longer recognised.

Setting Foot on Home Soil

Motorcycle trishaws are a common form of public transport.

We finished eating and flagged down motorcycle trishaws. The early morning air was still cool, and we hurtled into the countryside, whizzing past large green fields, tall coconut trees and grazing buffalo. Within 10 minutes, we were trundling along a stretch of narrow concrete road that was built by my father in the ’90s. We alighted near a large pond where geese roamed wild and free, and made our way into a complex of low houses before stopping outside a compound — we had arrived at my 400-year-old ancestral home.

My 400-year-old ancestral home.
We entered through the wet kitchen, where several women were squatting on the floor, busy preparing a meal. Everyone was smiling and welcoming me “home”, which I found disconcerting but also profoundly moving. In the main hall, I saw two painted portraits of my grandparents, whose faces I’d never seen in real life. My aunt pointed out the exact spot where my father was born in 1941. I got to see the backyard and the bathroom, both built by my father in the ’90s as well. Before this, they answered nature’s call in chamber pots, and bathed using water stored in large earthen jars.
Hanging in the room are two painted portraits of my grandparents — I’d never met them in real life.

It was evident that though my father had left China for Singapore, he still felt rooted to this country, this land, this old house.

Those Who Have Gone Before Us

My aunt burns paper money for the ancestors.

We had a busy morning — there were ancestral rites to perform, and my aunts were fervently preparing the offerings to pay respects to our ancestors. My brother and I were told to bow three times in front of the altar and tell the ancestors who we were. Paper money and joss sticks were burnt; deafening firecrackers were lit. We then moved to the village temple to repeat the process.

Outside the temple, there was a plaque inscribed with the names of people who had donated money. I saw my father’s name, as well as others who shared my family name. It was humbling to contemplate that there had been many, many generations before me — an obvious but weighty fact I had never really considered as a born and bred Singaporean.

A Taste of Home

The famous Wenchang chicken is also known as the original Hainanese chicken.

The villagers had prepared a feast for lunch, which included dishes like winter melon soup, celery fried with dried squid and Chinese sausage, and the famous Wenchang chicken. The skin on the chicken was paper-thin, and there was a thick layer of yellow fat cushioning slightly rubbery meat. It took some getting used to, but was nonetheless delicious when dipped in light soy sauce. “Wenchang chicken is free-range and older,” explained Xiao Ming’s wife. “The chickens you eat in Singapore are raised in farms. They might be more tender, but they’re not as fragrant.”

Souvenirs from Hainan

After lunch, Xiao Ming and one of our aunts took us back to Haikou, where we said our goodbyes. All morning long, people had been talking at me in Hainanese, while I stared back wide-eyed and apologetic. Suddenly, they were gone and I was bereft.

The bustling streets of Haikou are a stark contrast to the peace and tranquility of the countryside.

I had greatly enjoyed seeing my father’s home with my own eyes, and meeting distant relatives whose lives were tied to mine even though our life paths were completely different. There was a family out there I never knew I had, and finally meeting them filled me with an indescribable warmth and sense of belonging. My brother flew back to Singapore with a suitcase bursting with fruit and frozen Wenchang chickens, which the aunts had insisted he accept. As for me, I returned to Suzhou, which had become my third home after Singapore and Norway.

But now, I had inherited a fourth home — my father’s home. A place that, in such a short time, had wormed its way into my heart. It was a red thread tying me irrevocably to my father, the people around him, and also those who came before him.

And my heart was full.