To have been brought up in Hong Kong in the latter half of the twentieth century is to have been both blessed and cursed. A tiny territory, thriving on a free enterprise system that attracts people from all over the world, ruled by the British but living under the giant shadow of the Communist mainland to which it will revert at the end of the century, Hong Kong is the insecure home of more than four million people. Many fled inimical governments, uprooting centuries-old family traditions, to live there; those who can afford to leave are ready to move again and make a life elsewhere; some have already left.
Frank Ching, a Chinese-American journalist, is one who returned to Hong Kong to search for his family origins and to live, one of a band of progressive reformers. His father, a prominent lawyer who helped draft the constitution of the Republic of China, left China in disillusionment. The author consequently was born in Hong Kong in 1940 and was named for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom his mother admired. The family returned to China temporarily in 1942 when the Japanese attacked and occupied the city. After the war, the Ching family returned to Hong Kong, where the author lived until he moved to the United States at age nineteen. Benefiting from the renewal of relations between the United States and China in 1971, Ching started his search in 1973, when he was in his early thirties. Ancestors: Nine Hundred Years in the Life of a Chinese Family is the remarkable result of his patient research, travels, and good fortune for more than a decade.
One of the most interesting chapters in the book is the prologue, in which the author briefly describes the search process. His experience finding a hotel room illustrates the paradox of his voyage of discovery and, more generally, of China’s relationship with the West. Having already encountered difficulty in obtaining a visa because of his job as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, Ching had argued for his right to visit China as a Hong Kong-born compatriot. On the mainland, however, that status could not get him a room. Only when he produced his American identification did the hotel clerk offer him a selection of rooms.
Once past the official bureaucracy, however, Ching found that many people, strangers and relatives alike, were willing to help him, proving that the Chinese tradition of honoring one’s ancestors had survived the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, more effectively than a lengthy sociological or political disquisition could, tiny details reveal the stubborn power of the Chinese people to endure political turmoil. In one incident, the peasants in the Wuxi area, the ancestral seat of the Qin family, hearing that the Red Guards were digging up the graves of those once considered to be feudal overlords, cunningly plastered over the names on the gravestones, so they could not be identified.
The fanatical zeal to sweep away the old did result in considerable destruction which could have made Ching’s task futile. Many families, fearing the wrath of the youthful Red Guards, destroyed precious legacies of family history. Luckily, Ching discovered, Western bibliographers had managed to collect many of these family records, now housed at several major American universities. Amazingly, his own father had held on to a fragile volume, printed on rice paper and held together with thread, containing the names of all of their ancestors for nine hundred years, starting with the ancestor common to both the...
(The entire section is 1449 words.)