After the defeat of Kuomingtang by the Communist Party, my father had to escape to Hong Kong, leaving his young wife and a son and daughter behind with his parents. Sometime later, he crept back one night and would've been captured if he had not run away after getting news that they were searching for him. By then my grandfather had been taken away by the Commies and found dead with a bullet in his nose days later. He was considered an enemy by the Communists because of his relatively better living conditions (because my father and his older brother sent money back from Malaysia and Singapore where they worked as laborers initially) and maybe because my father was a strategy officer (he had a reputation for being very bright and was the only one from his village to have been selected for military school) with the defeated Nationalist Party, the Kuomingtang. My paternal grandmother too died under the indirect hands of the Communist Party, which led a purge of all 'rich' people although Grandma wasn't rich. In those days, friends and relatives turn against each other in order to gain favor in the eyes of the Communist Party. She had apparently made the mistake of complaining, after sneezing one morning, that she should've worn some socks. Socks were a sign of wealth in a place so poor people were eating roots. The person who turned her in was her own friend, a woman whose child my grandma had taken in so that the child wouldn't starve. Her fellow villagers, frenzied by the new-found liberation and propaganda by the Commies, kicked her until she was half dead. She couldn't afford a doctor, and died of her wounds. Dad's first wife too suffered physical and verbal abuse, but she was (and still is) a clever, fiery woman and is credited by all relatives as the person who held the family together in those times.
When Malaysia finally allowed Malaysians to visit China in the mid-80s, my father returned for the first time to China, after 30 years, with my younger brother and my mother (I had refused to go because of fear of the dirty conditions in the countryside), whom he married in Hong Kong. He was in his 70s and that was the only trip he would make to China.
On my second night in Guilin, I had dinner with my cousin, the son of my father's older brother. He was the first, and I am the seventh, in the line of the grandchildren of my grandfather. In China, you are numbered by your birth rank so my father's older brother's children, who were born first, was No 1 and the next No 2 and so on. It was strange to have a cousin in his 80s even though I am not young myself. After a very delicious dinner hosted by my cousin's daughter (my niece, who's my age), my cousin started to talk about those years when they had nothing but sweet potatoes and roots to eat, and a pair of trousers to share with four people, each taking turn so they won't freeze. It was amazing to think that in one single generation, China has gone from abject starvation and poverty to prosperity. Stories of the atrocities and sufferings during the early Communist years were told again, this time with names of people and dates, making it unbearably hard to hear. It was hard for my kids to understand why people were so cruel in those days. Wey couldn't understand my cousin's Chinese and walked out to discover the surroundings, just like me when I never fully paid attention to my dad when he told us about his past during dinner every night.
My father left us his diary, complete with hand-drawn maps of his village and the places where events took place. I have never read this diary because it is written in proper mandarin, not present-day mandarin. Back at the hotel after the dinner, I stayed awake in bed remembering my father with sadness and longing and a lot of regret for not remembering the things he told us. I also realized why my father was not able to love us totally. He loved us and provided well for us, but he was always very distant. Now I understand why: he had left too much behind. I don't blame him anymore for always longing for his other family. So you see, I have my own Joy Luck Club book to write one day. Maybe that's why he wrote his diary, so I can remember his story for him. For the whole night and the next day, I longed to go back to my dad's village, more than 6 hours away by car but I knew we could not, because we were not prepared. My girl wanted to go but I knew the boys would not appreciate it, not yet.
My niece and her husband drove us 45 minutes away from Guilin to a special restaurant by the bank of the Li River. The restaurant was a cluster of single rooms, all connected by walkways and canopied by vines, making the place very rustic and ancient China. Unfortunately it was too dark to see the Li River.
These are whelks from the Li River, fried in a very tasty but hot sauce. There isn't much meat in the shells and you have to suck the fellas out, sometimes choking yourself because the hot sauce would hit your throat before the meat does.
A stir-fried dish of peanut sprouts with winter-cured bacon, very light and delicious.
Minced pickled cabbage with meat and other veg, went well with plain rice.
Fried lotus with vinegar, a dish my mom loves because she studied in Guilin and many of her dishes are Guilin-influenced.
This was our favorite dish of the night, so good my niece made a second order. It's baby taro, very tasty, aromatic and fluffy. I marvel at the skills of the chef who can use such simple ingredients to cook such a delicious dish.
The first time I ate flour-coated pork, a famous dish in China, I wasn't impressed. This time again, I am still not impressed.
The star dish of the meal was a fish stew but although it was delicious, it was too hot for us.
Gui fish is an expensive fish from the Li River. It has many bones but is very sweet and fine-fleshed.