In 1939, my grandmother-to-be was taken to Hang Gee, a not-so-mountainous Hakka settlement of southern Guangdong. It was a world away from the bustle of Hong Kong although it was merely 50 km apart.
In Hang Gee, rice was life. People were in tune with seasons – planting, harvesting, and threshing. Whilst the fertile lowland areas in southern China were already intensively settled, Hakka families made their homes in the rugged, remote areas. Sometimes the soil was so poor that growing two rice crops each year could not feed many villagers. In the most humid April and the hottest August, farmers sowed the seedlings one by one, as if they were kowtowing to the family land. Beads of sweat dribbled down their sickles under the burning Guangdong sun.
In the early morning, people could tell if their neighbour was going to the field by the smell of a peasant transporting night soil. Farmers sold their rice harvest to a nearby market town every week, a half-day journey there. On their return, they purchased cheaper imported rice and vegetables for their family. The Fengshui Forest behind the villages provided protection against landslides and erosion. Wisdom handed down the generations advised that they should never chop down the forest despite the ongoing need for firewood. The way of life was not much different from many centuries ago. For the late-coming Hakka settlers in Guangdong, whilst at home, it was by no means an ideal place to be. Some 70 years later, fragments of everyday life surface in the return trip although my grandmother’s memories have yellowed.
Try the savoury white one, my grandmother suggests. Inside the wok, each rice bun is as huge as my palm and the lush leaves underneath have turned olive green. Do you believe that I could eat three of them at once after a morning on the farm? She later reveals that she was bored with the slightly bitter taste of turnip filling. The old days of hard Hakka were not what my grandmother missed. Grandma stares at the black rice bun with crushed peanuts and brown sugar. I love the sweet one. She winks. The steam and the aroma of herbs fill the tiny clay brick kitchen.
The yard is quiet but once there were chickens. Families kept a crowing rooster and plenty of healthy hens. When not laying eggs, they roamed the paddy fields guarding the harvest against the wild birds. Despite this, some would be offered to the ancestors during New Year and in no time devoured by hungry Hakka peasants. Your great-grandmother made me rice wine chicken. Grandma remembers that chicken was also reserved for expectant mothers with baby sons. As someone childless, I am longing for the salty chicken a relative bought for dinner. That relative no longer raises chickens but works at a warehouse.
Upstairs, the musty, mouldy smell gushed out from the bedroom. Grandma’s eyes open wide as she peeps into the wardrobe. They’re still here. Unlike other minority groups who wear bold and bright colours, Hakka women wore rectangular black head-clothes fastened with hand-woven bands, small black aprons, and flat hats with cloth fringes. They sang mountain songs when they worked in groups. I ask grandma, have you ever sung a love song with grandad? She blushes. Sometimes a Hakka woman and a man sang alone, trying to outdo each other in an improvised ‘war of songs.’ Grandma loves to tell everyone she knows how proud she is of her grandchildren but never talked about her relationship. Perhaps she had an alluring voice, I don’t know.
Today, my grandmother and I return to visit her former home. After a two-hour coach ride from inner city Hong Kong, we arrived in Ping Shan district of Shenzhen. There, I don’t hear any girls singing lullabies. ‘Made in China’ factories now surround the village. Grandma points out the development has changed those wet rice fields into the land of skyscrapers. Walking past one village home, I hear the clash of mah-jong tiles and women gossiping. In another further down the compressed sand alleyway, the TV is on broadcasting severe flooding in Brisbane. Meanwhile in front of another is an overweight kid stuffing himself with a tub of KFC. Life is no longer simply chicken and rice, well, not in the way it was remembered by my grandmother.