From Cantonese to Cappuccino - Tracing China's Past (Part 3)

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(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Sunday, April 18, 2010)

March 26, 2008
Mong Kok, Kowloon, Hong Kong

Yesterday morning, Fiona Zhu and I ate breakfast at a noodle shop. I ordered rice noodles with pork in soup. I expected little bits of pork, and was disconcerted to see an entire chop in my bowl. It was tasty, although I could see why some people think Cantonese food bland compared to Szechuan or other, spicier regional cuisine. Our waitress also brought us a pile of steamed Chinese greens. The bitterness was a sweet reminder of childhood, when Chinese food with Gramma and Grampa at a small Cantonese restaurant in East LA was an almost weekly part of our lives.

At breakfast, Fiona told me she’d found a bus that would take us straight to the city of Toishan, come our third morning in China. The ride would take four hours. In Toishan City we would catch another bus to the town of Bok Sa to find lodging. From there, we would find transport to the nearby village of Gong Hao, where Fiona has discovered that the main family name is still Ma. I almost cried when she told me this. I have very distant relatives in that village. Strange, it never seemed important to me before.

Fiona and I ate breakfast at a noodle shop.

I told Fiona a little bit of my family history: how my great-grandfather Ma Bing Sum left China in 1908, how he married a 13-year-old Mexican girl in America and years later raped (or seduced) her 14-year-old sister (depending on who you ask), and how my grandmother was born to that second girl. I told her that my grandmother’s half-brothers and half-sisters moved to China to grow up with a Chinese education. My grandmother, who had not yet been told that her uncle was also her father, refused an invitation to go with his other children to China. The Mar children, as they were known in America, got stuck in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation in World War II.

Ma Bing Sum owned a Cantonese restaurant in El Paso, Texas, where he was known as Ben Mar. Later, after his first wife died in China, he married another Mexican woman. Together they had four more children. So he had at least 15 children, although he probably had more because, as I told Fiona, “he really liked a lot of women.” Ben was something of a scoundrel, who my side of the family never really liked. I told Fiona that I supposed it might seem strange that I would take an interest in him. My only explanation was, “Good or bad, he is my great-grandfather.” Her firm nod of understanding told me she knew exactly what I meant. Ancestors are important to Chinese people. Perhaps it would seem stranger to her if I was not interested in my family history, no matter what beasts and skeletons might lurk there.

Fiona told me that some of her information came from a man who lives in Toishan. He makes a living helping Overseas Chinese find their families in China. This makes sense, because most Chinese Americans can trace their origins to Toishan County.

After breakfast, we walked down Nathan Road to Victoria Harbour, at first walking about two kilometers in the wrong direction, before turning back, laughing. Luckily, she stopped to ask directions of two men, who seemed stunned that we planned to walk all the way to the waterfront. It was about a half-hour later before she told me that they’d told her it was about an hour walk to get there. No matter. Though I was exhausted, I was also too awake to return to my room. We could have taken a bus or subway, but I felt the need to move my limbs, however sore, after sitting so many hours on planes the day before.

We stopped often to sit down and rest.

We stopped often to sit down and rest: once, in a small sheltered spot next to a fountain where water spilled down uneven brick walls, another time, in a public square where men played Chinese chess, some of them surrounded by other men – curious, lackadaisical, placing bets.

We stopped in a public square where men played Chinese chess, some of them surrounded by other men – curious, lackadaisical, placing bets.

We stopped at a pastry shop, where I bought a sweet bun filled with cream and topped with blueberries. I also stopped to photograph construction workers climbing bamboo scaffolding alongside a building - an ironic sight in a city so modern, yet I’ve heard that bamboo is quite strong and perfect for the job.

Bamboo scaffolding: an ironic sight in a city so modern, yet I’ve heard that bamboo is quite strong and perfect for the job.

We took a long pause at the banyan trees in Tsim Sha Tsui. The tall, venerable, elderly gents with arthritic trunks and scraggly beards sat across from a bright white row of young shops. These types of trees were common here when my Uncle Roy lived in Kowloon as a boy, along with my grandmother’s other brothers and sisters.

The banyan trees were common here when my Uncle Roy lived in Kowloon as a boy, along with my grandmother’s other brothers and sisters.

When we reached the waterfront promenade, we strolled the Avenue of Stars. In an homage to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the sidewalk is paved with bronze-colored stars featuring the handprints and names of Chinese celebrities.

When we reached the waterfront promenade, we strolled the Avenue of Stars.

It was a depressingly foggy day, not an inch of blue in the sky, but the scene was still impressive: Hong Kong Island’s crowd of tall and immense buildings clustered across the blue green water that gently slapped the pilings below us. The IFC2 Tower of the International Finance Center rudely blocked a clear view to Victoria Peak. However, the sea air was refreshing, and I tried to explain to Fiona how much I appreciated these sights and sensations after being landlocked for so long in Colorado.

We walked on until we saw a Starbucks, where I gave in to the unremitting coolness of the day and invited Fiona to enjoy a warm drink with me in the outdoor seating area. I’d vowed not to do Starbucks in China, but I couldn’t even make it 24 hours without breaking down and ordering my usual grande non-fat three-pump chai.

Fiona had a cappuccino.

Cara Lopez Lee

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of "They Only Eat Their Husbands: A Memoir of Alaskan Love, World Travel, and the Power of Running Away," and the creator of Girls Trek Too, a blog & workshop dedicated to inspiring women to approach life as an adventure.    

Website: girlstrektoo.com/blog

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