21 June 2019
After I had set my intention to visit Kinmen Island, Taiwan, I read up more to prepare for the trip.
I would fly from Singapore to Xiamen and from Xiamen, ferry to Kinmen Island, Taiwan.
The song, 漂洋过海来看你 (Crossing Oceans & Rivers to See You) by Jonathan Li had been running inside my head for months.
My motives for flying and ferrying were simple: First to see Houpu (后浦), the place that my grandma spoke about all the time. Second, to visit an ancestral shrine that bear her family name or surname, Weng (翁) which she had fiercely guarded without much success against mispelling and mispronunciation in her lucid days.
This trip was my way of assuring her that in Kinmen her surname is pronounced accurately, and it’s always present even if she’s absent.
As shrines built to honour ancestors are mostly Asian constructs and not exactly tourist attractions, information on them in English was scarce.
For my friends who read Chinese, ancestral shrines are called “cong zi” (宗祠). It is an alien vocabulary for me given the state of my Chinese proficiency.
I just learnt this year that a shrine that’s dedicated to forebears sharing my grandma’s surname is called 翁氏宗祠 in Chinese. It took me forever to identify and pronounce these 4 magical characters accurately and in the right order.
Having done the above, I smugly thought my search should be more productive. Unfortunately all the googled materials that surfaced after I typed in the magic formula were in formal Chinese. Too difficult.
I felt the frustrations of an illiterate person. And now I realise that access to any language in any form is really a privilege.
Humbled, I took to trolling on older users of Facebook who share my grandma’s surname in hope of knowing more.
I figured FB posts in Chinese might be more accessible. And if I could just communicate with one FB user who was even remotely related to what I was searching for, I would be Queen.
And as Providence would have it, sometime in late March this year, around the ancestor honouring period of Ching Ming (清明), one of the few older FB users that I had been trolling off & on, Mr Weng (翁文奥), posted a photo of an ancestral shrine on his timeline! And of course, it had to be a Weng (翁) shrine!
In my best broken Chinese, I wasted no time in privately messaging him about who I was and my reasons for visiting the shrine. (I did feel a bit shady reading his posts all these times without introducing myself).
Mr Weng replied immediately with the address of the village where the Wengs (翁）live and where 4 ancestral shrines are located.
His reply made me feel as if I had won a ticket to Bhutan!🤣
By the time I got to Kinmen Island on 13 June I was able to recall & pronounce the Chinese words related to my purpose with less awkwardness.
Due to my own language inadequacies, I didn’t make any transport arrangements or contact Mr Weng beforehand about my plans.
But the Universe is benevolent and knows my limitations.
It sent Wang Ling from Local Teahouse in Houpu (后浦) to introduce taxi driver, Yuan（袁 ) to me and guide us to the places I needed to see & more.
I would realise later on that I had read about Yuan in my pre-trip preparation. I even highlighted his details. But at that time the thought of contacting him in my near non-existent Chinese seemed daunting.
I would also find out after this trip that Yuan has a Masters in Minan Cultural Studies from the Kinmen University.
It probably explains why he didn’t just drive & leave us at our locations, but took the effort to walk with me happily and point out details to me.
Yuan drove us to the village, “Pan Shan” (盤山）where my grandma’s people originated. And the first shrine we stopped by had just been restored not long ago! My grandma’s surname Weng 翁, was painted in a fresh coat of brilliant gold!
Holding her oxidised silver belt in my palms, I paused prayerfully at the shrine entrance.
“See, your family name is brighter than ever now, so don’t fret. It’s all good,” I told my grandma.
After Yuan learnt that my male ancestors also hailed from Kinmen Island and belonged to the Ong clan, he was very determined to take us to the village where the earliest Ongs from Kinmen began. This was a bonus for me.
We arrived and stood at the Ong village entrance of “Dongsha” (东沙) where a Flame of the Forest Tree was in full bloom. Yuan told us the flowers are called 鳳凰花 (feng huang hua/ phoenix flower) in his part of the world.
Under the bright blue summer sky and sheltered by the flowers of fire cracker red, I smiled and breathed in the fragrant embrace of my long forgotten forefathers.
On our quiet taxi ride back, I gave thanks for the series of events that have unravelled since last year and for the people sent to facilitate my intentions the moment I decided to make a trip to Kinmen for my grandmother.