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Posts Tagged ‘homelandcoming’

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© 2017. Ground level of Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

Our morning tour was cut short when we were summoned to breakfast, another table heavy with hot and hearty dishes. After we couldn’t eat another bite, it was time to take tea.

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© 2017. Tea in Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

We soon learned that tea would follow every meal (in contrast to my immediate family’s habit of drinking tea during the meal), and would also be served whenever we were meeting someone new. But no matter where or when, over a special tea tray, our host would place tiny, three-sip cups and pour hot water into each to warm the cups. Then, he or she would steep the tea, pour a serving in each cup which we would drink, and steep the same tea leaves again for subsequent servings, until either the conversation (entirely in Chinese) had concluded, it was time to move on to the next excursion, or the tea leaves’ flavor was depleted.

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© 2017. Tea at Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

By the end of the trip, our palate for tea had shifted substantially and our family sent us packing with large quantities of tea from the region. So, in the airport before departing for Taipei, we bought our own tea set — tray and cups and all — to take home with us.

We’ve since moved a couple times (within the same county, between states, within the same metro area), but the tea and the tea set have always been packed and unpacked as a priority item. It’s been unspeakably comforting to have this tea, and to know how to prepare it, and I’m hard-pressed to think of a better way to remember our trip than by making the time to sit down in front of the tray and enjoy multiple infusions.


This «homelandcoming» series features film I shot when I traveled with my grandmother in 2017 to her ancestral home in China, which she had not seen in 74 years.

Some frames show the postcard-perfect scenery of «tulou» (“earthen buildings”) practically untouched by time; others reveal the everyday details that fascinated or amused us, and served to remind us that modern-day life continues for the residents who remain.

As a whole, this series is not a comprehensive visual diary of our trip — rather, it is a selection of a selection, showing the intersections of history and modernity, of authenticity and tourism, and of foreign and familiar.

Read Full Post »

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© 2017. Photos of my great-great-grandparents who built Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

My grandmother’s grandfather built the «tulou» at a cost of 80,000 silver dollars in 1912. My great-great-grandfather, who was of the 21st generation in his clan, made his fortune with his brother by establishing a tobacco cutter factory in the village.


This «homelandcoming» series features film I shot when I traveled with my grandmother in 2017 to her ancestral home in China, which she had not seen in 74 years.

Some frames show the postcard-perfect scenery of «tulou» (“earthen buildings”) practically untouched by time; others reveal the everyday details that fascinated or amused us, and served to remind us that modern-day life continues for the residents who remain.

As a whole, this series is not a comprehensive visual diary of our trip — rather, it is a selection of a selection, showing the intersections of history and modernity, of authenticity and tourism, and of foreign and familiar.

Read Full Post »

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© 2017. Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

As we explored the «tulou» on our first morning, we encountered the man whom my Uncle Doug called “the Proprietor” — the eldest in our branch of the family, and therefore the head of the household and the «tulou». He led us to levels and rooms not accessible to tourists, including this iconic view from the fourth level.

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© 2017. The ancestral hall and inner ring of Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

“The Zhengchang tulou spans 260 feet and has two concentric circles of different heights that contain 250 rooms. In its center is a white and pink ancestral-worship hall. Red lanterns wave from the eaves, and several rooms have become souvenir shops.” — The New York Times, 2008.

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© 2017. Tea at Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

A “gorgeous complex” (UNESCO), Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) is prominent in the Chinese tourism industry, likely due to the size, grandeur, and well-preserved condition of the «tulou», and in 2001 was designated as a historic site with additional protections. Also known as “The Prince of Tulou” because it’s the second-largest «tulou» in Fujian, Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) became one of 46 «tulou» designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

All that said — and amid the souvenir shops, the red lanterns, the constant tours — Zhencheng Lou (振成樓), like several other «tulou», remains inhabited. We were told, in 2017, that full-time residents numbered around 80, or 10 family units — a fraction of the potential capacity.

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© 2017. Lanterns and laundry are suspended over an open-air kitchen sink in Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

The New York Times, in 2011: “[T]he thousands of ‘earthen buildings’ here, built by the ethnic Hakka and Minnan people of rural Fujian Province, are the ultimate architectural expression of clan existence in China.

“But as the clan traditions of China dwindle today, more and more people are moving out of the tulou to live in modern apartment buildings with conveniences absent from the earthen buildings — indoor toilets, for example.”

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© 2017. Ground-level kitchen at Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

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© 2017. A mop and clothes on the third level of Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

As “the Proprietor” guided us to levels and rooms not accessible to tourists, we were led to what had been my great-great-grandparents’ bedroom on the fourth floor, above the only entrance into the «tulou». Swinging the window open, we could enjoy views of both the distant mountains and the wide stone-covered area where my grandmother said fruit trees used to grow.

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© 2017. View from the front of Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.


This «homelandcoming» series features film I shot when I traveled with my grandmother in 2017 to her ancestral home in China, which she had not seen in 74 years.

Some frames show the postcard-perfect scenery of «tulou» (“earthen buildings”) practically untouched by time; others reveal the everyday details that fascinated or amused us, and served to remind us that modern-day life continues for the residents who remain.

As a whole, this series is not a comprehensive visual diary of our trip — rather, it is a selection of a selection, showing the intersections of history and modernity, of authenticity and tourism, and of foreign and familiar.

Read Full Post »

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© 2017. Hongkeng Village (洪坑), Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

Thanks to jet lag, roosters cawing every two hours of the night, our continued awe of actually being in my grandmother’s ancestral village, and a sense of urgency to soak it all in before the daily hordes of tourists arrived, we woke up early on our first morning in China and immediately set out to explore 洪坑 (Hongkeng Village).

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© 2017. Hongkeng Village (洪坑), Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

Everything was as if we were seeing it for the first time. By the previous evening’s post-dinner tea, the blanket of nightfall, aided by the absence of bright electric lights in this remote country, had fallen. It was in heavy, humid darkness punctuated only by an occasional walkway lamp that we’d taken our bags to the hotel, then returned to the «tulou» for our nighttime tour, then crept back to the hotel.

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© 2017. Hongkeng Village (洪坑) and Zhencheng Lou (振成樓), Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

In the morning, wandering through 洪坑, making our way to the «tulou» before sitting down at a groaning table of breakfast, we relished seeing the village with fresh eyes in new sunlight.

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This «homelandcoming» series features film I shot when I traveled with my grandmother in 2017 to her ancestral home in China, which she had not seen in 74 years.

Some frames show the postcard-perfect scenery of «tulou» (“earthen buildings”) practically untouched by time; others reveal the everyday details that fascinated or amused us, and served to remind us that modern-day life continues for the residents who remain.

As a whole, this series is not a comprehensive visual diary of our trip — rather, it is a selection of a selection, showing the intersections of history and modernity, of authenticity and tourism, and of foreign and familiar.

Read Full Post »

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© 2017. Arrival at Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

The «tulou» my grandmother’s grandfather built is one of about 3,000 that remain in Fujian.

Wrote a New York Times reporter in 2008: “Feng shui correct, the compounds have withstood bullets, fires, quakes, and typhoons. They’re at least three stories tall, and their outer walls are three to five feet thick. The entrance is a wooden slab sheathed in iron. Windows are tiny and only on the upper floors. A well is inside; outhouses are outside. Most ingenious are the walls — a mixture of soil, lime, pebbles and wood chips held together by soupy glutinous rice and brown sugar, pounded into impregnability, giving the structures their name, ‘tulou,’ or ‘earthen building.’”

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© 2017. Arrival at Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

I remember feeling dazed — first from jet lag and then the dawning realization I was actually standing in that cobblestoned path, staring at the “round house” that my parents had told me about.

I remember being warmly greeted amid the cackle of hastily lit firecrackers that startled several nearby groups of tourists.

I remember being ushered inside the «tulou» and taking tea and smiling and nodding among family whose chatter I couldn’t understand.

I remember being seated at a round table loaded with more than 10 different dishes for our first family dinner.

I remember taking a second round of tea in another room, and wondering whether my stomach would burst.

I don’t remember how Jeff, my Uncle Doug, and I managed to leave everyone else to explore the area immediately outside the «tulou».

As I walked with my camera in hand, a man approached, displaying photos inside creased plastic sheets and speaking to me in Chinese. “I don’t understand, I’m sorry,” I tried telling him, but the man continued speaking to me until the woman who had served our enormous dinner appeared in the main gate and yelled at him.

“He was trying to sell you photos, but she told him who your grandmother is and that you’re her granddaughter and to leave you alone,” my Uncle Doug told me.

With that, in addition to the afternoon’s welcoming round of firecrackers, I began to see that my grandmother — and her family — enjoyed a status of which I’d previously heard only hints.

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© 2017. Arrival at Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

After we were settled in the hotel that my relatives operate nearby, Jeff and my Uncle Doug and I returned to the «tulou». I think we wanted to make the most of every moment, even though it was nighttime and the «tulou» was officially closed to visitors. One of our relatives recognized us and we were allowed inside where we saw the red lanterns lit up against the navy blue sky. When we ran into my grandmother’s cousin, he led us on an impromptu tour, showing us the ancestral hall and then the fourth floor, which is off-limits to visitors and from which we could hear the sounds of various residents, young and old, washing up and getting ready for bed. Knowing we, too, should rest, we thanked our relative and returned to the hotel.


This «homelandcoming» series features film I shot when I traveled with my grandmother in 2017 to her ancestral home in China, which she had not seen in 74 years.

Some frames show the postcard-perfect scenery of «tulou» (“earthen buildings”) practically untouched by time; others reveal the everyday details that fascinated or amused us, and served to remind us that modern-day life continues for the residents who remain.

As a whole, this series is not a comprehensive visual diary of our trip — rather, it is a selection of a selection, showing the intersections of history and modernity, of authenticity and tourism, and of foreign and familiar.

Read Full Post »

First, we flew halfway around the world to meet my grandmother in Taiwan. Then, all together, she and my husband, my uncles, and I left her Taipei high-rise to take a cab to take a flight to the mainland. There, we were met by two young men — one a distant cousin, the other a friend of his — who greeted us, loaded our bags into a Honda and an Audi, and drove us through Xiamen, past industrial spaces, banana tree groves, and roadside villages, for three hours into mountainous Yongding County.

Finally, as the sun began to creep behind a neighboring mountain ridge, we arrived and, for the first time since 1943, my grandmother saw with her own eyes the «tulou» where she’d arrived as a 5-year-old and last seen as a 12-year-old.

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© 2017. Arrival at Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

She was home, and so were we.

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© 2017. Arrival at Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.


This «homelandcoming» series features film I shot when I traveled with my grandmother in 2017 to her ancestral home in China, which she had not seen in 74 years.

Some frames show the postcard-perfect scenery of «tulou» (“earthen buildings”) practically untouched by time; others reveal the everyday details that fascinated or amused us, and served to remind us that modern-day life continues for the residents who remain.

As a whole, this series is not a comprehensive visual diary of our trip — rather, it is a selection of a selection, showing the intersections of history and modernity, of authenticity and tourism, and of foreign and familiar.

Read Full Post »

Living in Houston again, among family and friends and old haunts, I’ve been thinking a lot about home.

Coincidentally, The Wangs vs. the World — one of five novels by different female Chinese-American authors that I recently read — touched on the concept of home and, in several ways, really stuck with me.

For the first time ever, I felt like a book was written for me: For second-generation kids who grew up straddling and blurring edges of dueling identities, and for anyone who visited their family’s ancestral land for the first time as an adult and felt strangely at home there.

The Wangs vs. the World covers the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and how the loss of wealth, stability, and status sends the Wang family on a cross-country road trip that makes up the bulk of the novel. While I haven’t quite experienced that sudden financial blow and the consequential chaos, I could relate to patriarch Charles Wang’s feeling of having come home when he arrives at “the land in China” that his family had fled and that he’d never seen til the events of this novel.

I could relate to Charles Wang because, in September 2017, I traveled to China with my grandmother, uncles, and husband to my grandmother’s ancestral home, which she hadn’t seen in 74 years and where we received the warmest welcome from family whom my uncles, husband, and I had never met.

For seven years, my grandmother lived in the tulou (“earthen building”) fortress that her grandfather had built in 1912 in Hongkeng Village. Called the “Prince of Tulou,” Zhencheng Tulou is the second-largest in Fujian, boasting more than 200 rooms in two concentric rings designed to house multiple nuclear families belonging to a clan. We stayed for three whirlwind days, exploring the village and temples and family homes and schools that were familiar to my grandmother but that had previously existed for me only in oral tradition referencing “Grandma’s round house.”

I had never been in China before. I don’t speak or read or understand Chinese. I had never met any of the distant relations who so generously hosted, fed, and transported us.

And yet, somehow I felt as if I hadn’t simply come home — rather, I’d returned home.

Every immigrant is the person he might have been and the person he is, and his homeland is at once the place it would have been to him from the inside and the place it must be to him from the outside. — The Wangs vs. the World

Just like Charles Wang.

• • • • •

Chinese New Year is often referred to as “the world’s greatest annual migration of people.”

It’s traditional in China to go home during the 40-day period that is Lunar New Year — frequently, to the rural towns and villages that urban workers rarely otherwise have the time to visit. Traditions observed throughout the month-long celebration can vary widely, but one remains universal: Whether in China or elsewhere, the Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner is an annual reunion for many families.

Tonight in Texas, we’ll enjoy a Chinese New Year’s Eve feast with my grandmother, uncles, parents, brother, and husband. But even as I look forward to this special time with family, my thoughts turn also to that tiny village in China that, for three days, was my home.

• • • • •

And so today, I’ll start sharing film I shot during our trip to my grandmother’s ancestral village.

Shooting film has always been a deeply personal, completely intentional practice for me. Committing my first and second impressions of our homelandcoming permanently, tangibly, on film was a particularly intensely personal process. Even months later, it seemed unreal somehow that I’d actually visited my grandmother’s tulou, that we’d been so completely welcomed by family she either hadn’t seen since the 1940s or hadn’t met, that we had — if for only a few days — come home. I guardedly showed the film only to close family members, feeling as if sharing it to the broader world meant exposing, and consequently losing, a recently discovered but deeply hidden part of myself.

But now, just over 500 days later, I’m ready. After all, Chinese New Year means new beginnings, fresh starts, and homecomings.

This homelandcoming series will feature a selection of the film I shot in China. Some frames show the postcard-perfect scenery of earthen buildings practically untouched by time; others reveal the everyday details that fascinated and amused us, and served to remind us that modern-day life continues for the residents who remain. As a whole, this series is not a comprehensive visual diary of our trip — rather, it is a selection of a selection, showing the intersections of history and modernity, of authenticity and tourism, and of foreign and familiar.

Here we go.

© 2017. Zhencheng Lou (振成樓) in Hongkeng Village, Yongding County, Fujian, China. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Portra 400, Canon EOS A2.

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