Remembering our Cantonese Forebears: Looking for Mr. Bing

My essay in Vancouver Review, October, 2007.

GUANGDONG, CHINA – The monsoon rains were falling in rivers from black thunderclouds and the windshield wipers just couldn’t keep up, so we slowed down. Then it started raining harder, so we slowed to a crawl. It was raining like this all over Guangdong. In some places, the harlequin-green countryside was disappearing beneath a vast and shallow sea.

bing proper

It was only halfway through the morning, and we were already lost. We’d been keeping an eye out for the turnoff to Chikan, which was supposed to be a half-hour or so south of Kaiping City, but it had been an hour and there’d been only the endlessness of rice paddies, vegetable fields and lonely, moated farms. Here and there, a lush thicket of mango trees or banana trees. Now and then, a water buffalo, or a flock of white ducks. But no sign. Just rain.

In the front seat, Peng Yangyi, the 23-year-old translator I’d taken on in Guangzhou, looked up from the map he’d been studying. His friend Guo Xu Yue, the 29-year-old driver we’d hired, squinted through the rain-washed windshield.

It’s not so bad, Peng said. Here it’s not so bad.

Hundreds of thousands had been flooded out of their homes between Guangzhou and Guangxi. There were villages stranded everywhere, small cities inundated, and roads washed out. Lianzhou evacuated. Meizhou cut off by mudslides. Twelve dead so far.

Guo pulled over to the side of the road and snatched the map from Peng. While the two of them argued amicably in Cantonese, I drifted off and let my gaze wander across the rainy fields, and it struck me just how much the farmland south of Guangzhou was the form, the archetype, of the first landscape I’d known, when I was a boy back in the 1960s, in Burnaby. It was like I’d come all that way just to find myself at home again.

The Flats is what everybody called the rich alluvial bottomland along the Fraser River. The Flats was farm after farm of cabbages, onions, beets and potatoes, all closely planted in the efficient Cantonese style, in impossibly straight lines, row upon row, with farmers in broad, conical straw hats hunched between the rows, weeding by hand.

For a time, The Flats was famous for being the most productive farmland in Canada. There’s still a remnant of it, on Marine Drive, just east of Nelson. There’s the Sun Tai Sang farm, and further east there’sthe Wing Wong farm, and once you’re past the Chinese Evangelical Church and the Iglesia Ni Cristo and the Hare Krishna Temple, there’s Hop On’s farm, and a few more. But it’s mostly gone now.

As Peng and Guo studied the map and argued about whether to turn back or go on, just for that moment I could almost see a smiling man in a Homburg hat and black greatcoat, at the wheel of a dark-blue Studebaker, all bright with chrome, pulling into our driveway on Griffiths Avenue in Burnaby.

That man was the reason I’d ended up on a lonely country road about 100 kilometres south of Guangzhou, and with him in my mind’s eye I noticed something rising up out of the strangely familiar, half-conjured, half-drowned landscape. I could just make it out through the rain, on some high ground in the distance. It was a diaolou.

A diaolou is a kind of watchtower, an architectural anomaly found only in a few small counties in this part of Guangdong. Diaolous borrow from a variety of occidental and oriental styles. There are about 1,800 of them in Guangdong. No two are the same.

Although people here were building them at least five centuries ago, and were still building them well into the 1900s, there’s not a lot of literature about them. The authorities in Beijing, for much of the 20 th century, preferred not to know they existed. Accounts of the older ones tend to be found only in the deepest memory of local folktales, so they’re mysterious things.

Down through the years, diaolous served as places of refuge from floods, warlord armies and roving bandits, but right around the time farmers from Guangdong were breaking the rich estuarine loam of The Flats for their first farms, the peculiar fortresses started taking on a different meaning. Emigrants had begun saving every dollar they could scrape together to send back home to Guangdong, to build them.

It was all bound up in the duty of remembrance and gratitude. Which brings me to Mr. Bing.

Whenever his car turned into our driveway, it was an occasion of great happiness. He’d sit at the kitchen table in our rickety little shack of a house, drinking tea with my mother, and the two of them would look out into the rain and discuss the affairs of the world. That’s my very first memory. Sitting on the kitchen floor, in a corner, listening to the amazing voice of Mr. Bing.

We were newly arrived Irish immigrants, and Mr. Bing was our landlord. My dad worked as a night-shift janitor at a bakery in East Vancouver, and my mother looked after me and my older brother Michael, and she was pregnant again, and it became Mr. Bing’s custom to find reasons why we didn’t actually owe him the rent that month. The stairs needed fixing. There was some painting he’d been meaning to do. There was always as reason.

Mr. Bing also took it upon himself to help us navigate the peculiar and intimidating new world we’d come to, and it was because of his guidance and his many kindnesses that Mr. Bing came to loom as a gallant and glamorous figure in family stories about how we managed to make it through those early times.

We soon moved into a proper house, with bedrooms and an electric stove and a refrigerator, and we lost track of him. We’d always promised ourselves to look him up, to see how he was doing, to let him know how we’d made out. But we never did.

So there was all that.

It also happens that 2007 is a year strangely bound up in the importance of remembering things that lead back in time to this same countryside, in Guangdong.

It’s 120 years since the 1887 mob assault on a Chinese shantytown in Vancouver, and 2007 also marks the centenary of the savage 1907 siege of Chinatown by white rioters. It’s also the 60 th anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947, which was also the year that Asians and aboriginal people in Canada were finally allowed to vote.

This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the Immigration Act of 1967, which broke down the last big barriers facing Chinese emigrants to Canada. Britain’s surrender of Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997 makes for another anniversary, the key event in the emergence of a new and dynamic Chinese presence in Canada that has thoroughly overshadowed the circumstances and the sufferings of Mr. Bing’s generation.

One of the most striking things about this history, which begins with 30 artisans and shipwrights who accompanied Captain John Meares to Nootka Sound in 1788, is that almost all the people who ended up making that brave journey eastward over the South China Sea and across the Pacific were from a linguistic and cultural minority of people native to Guangdong.

They were Cantonese people, but more than that, most of them were from a very particular part of the Pearl River Delta, specifically the area known as the Sze-yap, which is bounded by the counties of Kaiping, Taishan, Xinwei and Enping. They were also mostly from an especially brutalized class of peasants. And they were almost all men.

Another thing. It turned out his name wasn’t Mr. Bing at all. It was Byng.

When I tried to find out what I could about him, the first thing I learned from Burnaby’s assessment rolls was that as early as 1956, a “B. Byng” owned the Burnaby lot that included a store at Griffiths and Kingsway, as well as the house where we lived, at 2165 Griffiths, right behind it. The connection between the house and the store makes some sense of a faint family memory that associates Mr. Byng with the grocery business, and with the Cantonese truck farms on The Flats. The ubiquitous Chinese groceries of the 1960s were amply supplied by those farms.

B. Byng’s mailing address was listed as 521 East Cordova Street in Vancouver, and this led me to the Vancouver city directory for 1956, where 521 East Cordova shows up as the location of a business known as Hum Jin Fun, which tells us nothing. That same year, a Bob (Gam How) Byng, salesman, is listed as the resident at 1218 East Georgia Street, just a few blocks away, which could have been him.

But that’s where the trail went cold.

British Columbia’s vital statistics records show no birth records for any Byng with a first initial B. between 1890 and 1910, and it doesn’t help that people from China often had their names reversed for them when they came to Canada, owing to the European tradition of putting the family name last (in China it’s the other way around). And that’s just one of many ways to get Chinese names wrong.

The census records of the time were no help either, but they did raise the remote possibility that Bing rather than Byng was recorded as our landlord’s first name when he was a child. Quite a few people had Bing listed as a given name during those years, and there is a possibility that our Mr. Byng was the little boy, Bing Ah, recorded in Victoria in 1891. (“Ah” isn’t even a name but a familiar prefix, in the same way that the name Billy has a familiar suffix “y” attached to the name Bill, which accounts for so many “Ahs” in the census records from back then.)

Bing Ah lived in a two-room, one-storey building, and although the census gives his age as “less than one year,” his occupation was already listed as “general laborer,” in keeping with the workforce apartheid that prevailed against the Chinese during those years. Religion: Not Given. Birthplace: China.

The British Columbia Archives’ death registry shows only a Hector Byng who died in Burnaby in 1980 at the age of 77, almost certainly too young to have been our landlord. It also seems unlikely that our Mr. Byng would have changed his name to Hector. And there wasn’t a single Byng I called from the listed numbers in British Columbia’s telephone directories who had ever heard of our B. Byng.

It was turning out a lot like our family memory of him. All the archival records could tell us is that he was there, and then he was gone.

“There is nobody with a name like Byng from around here,” Peng said.“It is a very uncommon name.”

That was the answer Peng derived from his conversation with a clutch of old women playing cards under an awning down a back lane in the village of Xiaban Cun, the village with the diaolou I’d noticed, back on the highway. I’d already reckoned that would be the answer, but I’d thought I might as well ask anyway.

I asked the same question and got the same answer wherever I went in Guangdong. It isn’t as though there is some central repository of exit visas, where one might simply pop in, stroll down a bank of filing cabinets to the early-20 th -century records, and look for an entry under the name Mr. Bing.

“But this man says he will show us the diaolou ,” Peng said. It had stopped raining.
Our host introduced himself as Wenwei Kwan. Everyone in Xiaban Cun, a village of about 200 people, is named Kwan. What I gathered from Wenwei was that he was 61 years old, he was a rice farmer, he had too many relatives in Canada to count, and that we should pay no attention to the pack of dogs that was following us through the narrow alleys.

The Xiaban Cun diaolou rises from a grove of hibiscus and croaking frogs at the edge of the village. Built in 1924 from the money and labour of Kwans here, and Kwans overseas, the diaolou is a lovely ochre colour. It’s five storeys tall, with ornate, soot-blackened cement cupolas at each corner of the roof. The Kwans are very proud of it, Wenwei said. It’s very different from other diaolous.

What makes the Xiaban Cun diaolou so different is that its solid walls, a half-metre thick, were made from an aggregate of local sand, rice, lime, sugar and soybeans. That’s what gives it its colour, and also its sturdiness.

Cannonballs would not penetrate those walls, 70-year-old Ze Zhao Kwan told me.

Ze Zhao is a respected village elder, and we spent some time in conversation at his house, built in the old style, with high ceilings and clay tile floors. I drank piping-hot green tea while Ze Zhao smoked pinches of tobacco from a water pipe made out of a bamboo stem the size of a baseball bat, rigged with a beer can and a broken pen. You use a stick of incense to light the thing. It’s the preferred smoking method among older people in those parts.

With his huge pet turtle nestled at his feet and his cat drinking from a giant goldfish bowl in the corner, Ze Zhao, who has a brother living on Minoru Boulevard in Richmond, recalled the last time the diaolou was used as a redoubt from marauding gangsters. It was at night, in the 1940s, when he was a boy. The villagers had rifles, and they fired on the mob from the roof, and the village was saved.

Those kinds of tumults ended after 1950, Ze Zhao said. That was the year Mao Zedong’s communists emerged triumphant from decades of civil war, mutiny and insurrection.

There’s another especially distinctive diaolou a few kilometres away in the ancient village of Dong Xi Cun, near the town of Nanxingli. It’s known as the Leaning Tower of Nanxing, because that’s what it does.

Some elderly villagers welcomed us there, and the first thing they wanted us to know was that we should not believe reports that their tower is slowly falling, tilting to the right another two centimetres every year. This is bunk, they said. The tower tilted over like that right after it was built in 1902, they said, and it had been that way ever since. 

“They say you should know it will not fall down,” Peng said.

The Leaning Tower of Nanxing is a plain five-storey affair, built of cement, with rifle slits. While it exhibits a disorienting off-kilteredness, it is nonetheless an expression of the affections of dozens of Huangs, Kwans, Zhous and others whose descendants now live in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, San Francisco, and other such places.

The most magnificent of all Kaiping’s diaolous is the Ruishi Lou, the “Auspicious Stone” that towers over the village of Jinjiangli. It’s nine storeys tall, built of reinforced concrete, and it was occupied until recently by the relatives of Huang Bixiu, a villager who went on to become a wealthy merchant in Hong Kong.

The diaolou cost Huang a fortune. It took three years to build and was completed in 1925. That was a year of insurrection in Guangdong, and also the year of the death of Sun Yat-Sen, beloved of Vancouver’s Cantonese, the “Father of Modern China” who came from the nearby county of Xiangshan.

Nowadays, Huang’s great-granddaughter Xiuping will give you a tour of the fortress for 20 Yuan, or about $2.75. There are spacious rooms on each floor, now containing shrines to various ancestors of the Huang family. On the roof, a two-storey octagonal structure with domed cupolas affords a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.

A short walk away down a narrow lane is another diaolou , a seven-storey tower designed by a French architect and built by villagers with funds provided by Huang Feng Xiu, who had done well for himself as a merchant in San Francisco. It was completed in 1919, on the eve of a bloody civil war that broke out between Guangdong and the neighbouring province of Guangxi.

That’s another thing that must be taken into account in coming to understand the waves of outmigration that led Mr. Byng’s people to Canada: the astonishing violence, suffering and hardship endured by the people of Guangdong in those times. Millions of Cantonese fled, ending up in Southeast Asia, North America, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

When Mr. Byng was a boy, China was engulfed in the chaos attending the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, which had been enfeebled by European powers during the Opium Wars of the 19 th century—wars that allowed the Europeans to seize much Guangdong territory and wealth. (Hong Kong and Macau straddle the estuary of the Pearl River.) Then came the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Sun Yat-Sen’s Revolution of 1911, and the following fratricidal massacres waged by nationalists and communists.

The immigrants preceding Mr. Byng’s generation came from even worse circumstances. The first 300 Chinese gold miners who arrived in Victoria from San Francisco, on June 28, 1858, had fled an almost unimaginable savagery in Guangdong.

Between 1850 and 1873, at least 60 million Chinese died in a succession of uprisings, civil wars, rebellions, plagues and other calamities. Guangdong was the epicentre of the carnage, and the suffering was particularly acute in the four counties of the Sze-yap. It was as though the place was cursed.

During the final years of the 19th century, quite apart from all the generalized warfare scouring the countryside, the people of Taishan County alone suffered four plagues, five famines, 14 major floods, seven typhoons, a clan war that saw 20,000 slaughtered, two killing droughts, and four earthquakes.

For millions of penniless young men, rendered largely unemployable by the Opium Wars that ultimately wrecked Guangdong’s traditional economy, there was a simple choice.

Leave or die.

Leaving usually meant being sold into the near-slavery of indentured servitude. That’s what Chinese “coolie labour” was all about: the enslavement of legions of brutalized, dispirited and often opium-addicted young men.

These were the men who died by the hundreds building the toughest section of the Canadian Pacific Railway line, the stretch between Yale and Savona, through the Fraser Canyon and the Thompson Canyon, in the 1880s. These were the men who were chased into the freezing waters of Burrard Inlet by a gang of white vigilantes in 1887.

They were the men who were terrorized during the Chinatown Riot of 1907, when Mr. Byng was a boy. They were the men whose salmon-cannery labour built the West Coast fishing industry, and the men who tilled those first farms on The Flats in Burnaby.

It was against these men that the disgraceful Head Tax was aimed. Merchants and students were exempt from the tax, which began at the sum of $50 in 1885, which was a small fortune then. By 1903 it was $500, which was a large fortune. The 1923 to 1947 Chinese Exclusion Act was also aimed at these men (merchants and students were exempted from that law, too).

And I say “men” because they were men , almost all of them. In the 1880s, Chinese men outnumbered Chinese women in Canada almost 100 to one. Even by 1911, men outnumbered women 27 to one. It wasn’t until the 1980s that gender balance was achieved among Chinese Canadians, and the phenomenon produced distortions that no other ethnic, religious or racial minority in Canada was forced to endure.

Just one consequence is that the Chinese in Canada, even though they were here long before Canada’s birth, have always been mainly foreign-born. It wasn’t just because of surges in immigration. It was because there were so few Chinese women to bear children in this country.

That is not to say the Chinese community was made up solely of single men. There were inter-racial marriages, but also, well into the 20 th century, many Chinese-Canadian men had wives and children back in China. Most of the men of Mr. Byng’s generation were “married bachelors,” trapped in the forced separations that resulted from the Head Tax, and then the Chinese Exclusion Act. These men would sometimes go decades without seeing their families. Some were married before they emigrated, others married during visits home, and many spent their lives in Canada sending remittances back to China, never seeing their wives again.

Any one of these cruelties could explain why my parents have no recollection of Mr. Byng ever mentioning a wife.

After the completion of the railroad in the late 1880s, most of the Chinese in Canada returned to Guangdong, leaving only 9,000 (among these was the young Bing Ah, the “common laborer” in the 1891 census) from the railroad peak of 44,000. By 1901, the population had risen to 17,000, but during the 1930s and 1940s, when Mr. Byng was a young man, the community was slowly disappearing.

It wasn’t until after 1947 that the Chinese in Canada began to flourish again, reaching 120,000 in the late 1960s. Then the boom years began. The number of Chinese Canadians grew five-fold to more than 630,000 people in 1991. During the next 15 years, the rate of increase slowed dramatically, but the community kept on growing, and Chinese Canadians now number well over a million people.

While all this was happening, Guangdong, too, was being utterly transformed.

After Beijing began opening China’s coastal cities to the West in 1979, Guangzhou, Guangdong’s capital, tripled in size. It’s now home to about 11 million people, more than a million of whom are overseas Chinese. The city is a capitalist dynamo of high-rises and freeways, and it throbs and hums in a dozen or so commercial districts, each of which are like several Metrotowns piled on top of one another. It makes Manhattan look like a provincial town in the Midwest.

There’s practically nothing left of the Maoist regime. There are the obligatory monuments, of course, like the ones at Martyr’s Memorial Park, which is a bit like Stanley Park, only without the ocean. There’s the Sino-Soviet Union Blood-Condensed Friendship Pavilion, and the Tomb of the Martyrs of the Guangzhou Commune. But that’s about it. Now it’s all about Walmart, Honda, IBM, Nissan and Microsoft. The factories go on forever.

Ottawa and Victoria are now pumping more than a billion dollars into their Pacific Gateway strategy to expand port, rail and road infrastructure, and much of this investment is directly intended to accommodate production from Guangdong, which is officially British Columbia’s sister province, just as Guangzhou is a sister city to Vancouver. China is now Canada’s second-largest source of imports. Over the past five years, its exports to our country have tripled.

And just as Vancouver has its old and exotic Chinatown district, Guangzhou has its equivalent, in the form of Shamian Island, where the European enclave established itself after the Opium Wars. It’s what’s left of Old Canton, in the heart of Guangzhou, on the Pearl River. It bills itself as Guangzhou’s “Romantic European Culture Island.”

It’s like something out of a Graham Greene novel. There are quiet lanes, courtyards and verandahs. There are banyan trees, gingko trees, camphor and eucalyptus trees. There are curio shops and teahouses in old trade missions. The Basaar is a wedding emporium just across from Our Lady of Lourdes Church, built in 1892. Young brides in frilly gowns pose for photographs in front of it with their grooms in wedding tuxedos.

Number 60 Shamian Street is The Canton Club, built in 1868. Nearby is a Blenz Coffee bar, in the old U.S. City Bank building from the final days of the Qing Dynasty, and across the street, at Number 45 Shamian Street, is the Office of the Guangdong People’s Association for Friendship With Foreign Countries. Just outside, there’s a wrought-iron fence enclosing a rhododendron bush with a plaque that reads: “Planted by the Hon. Glen Clark, Premier of British Columbia of Canada, on October 26, 1998.”

It’s here I met Chang Bo, a senior consular officer with the Guangdong Foreign Office. The first thing he asked me was how Vancouver billionaire Jimmy Pattison was doing. Then he asked after former premierMike Harcourt. We talked about China’s red-hot economy, about the explosion in trade between Guangdong and Canada, and what it all means, for Guangzhou and for Vancouver.

In some respects, Bo said, all this trade means the same kind of things, for both cities.
Bo is 41. He studied economics and foreign languages at a town called Tienhue, on the outskirts of Guangzhou, and the bus he took to school followed a winding country road through vegetable fields and chicken farms. In other words, it was a lot like The Flats, when I was a kid. Now, Tienhue is a hive of skyscrapers and malls that radiate out from the Grandview Plaza, one of Guangzhou’s busiest commercial centres. Tienhue is like Richmond. Only a lot bigger. It’s all Tommy Hilfiger, Starbucks, Hitachi and Samsung.
“And that has just happened in the last 10 years,” Bo said.

Bo can say without exaggeration that China’s economic strategy—abandoning totalitarianism, encouraging a kind of authoritarian capitalism, opening up to the West—has lifted at least 300 million people out of abject poverty over the past two decades or so.
But there is another side of the story. The workers who are building all this spectacular wealth are often little better than coolies.

China has no free trade unions. There is only a sprinkling of the most inconsequential sort of democracy. Dissidents are routinely jailed. There is no free press. Corporations like Google and Yahoo routinely collaborate with the government in censorship, and in ratting out and jailing dissidents.

Even my own website is banned. Vancouver Review ’s website isn’t. Yet.

Last year, Hu Xinyu, a 25-year-old white-collar worker, was quite literally worked to death in a Guangdong factory. He’d worked steady, with hardly any sleep, for several weeks. He died of bacterial encephalitis. Earlier this year, Yang Xixiang, a Guangzhou toy-factory worker, died from brain-stem bleeding after working non-stop for 21 hours. Getting worked to death is becoming commonplace In Guangdong. There’s even a name for its victims: gulaosi.

But the confounding thing about China is that most things are actually getting better, and where they’re obviously becoming worse it’s sometimes hard to know what to make of it.
China is on the verge of surpassing the United States as the world’s worst greenhouse-gas producer. Air pollution is ruining the health of millions of people. In most big cities, the water is nearly poisonous. Vast stretches of farmland and pastureland are becoming desert.

When Foreign Affairs magazine recently published a lengthy analysis of environmental decline in China, its headline was: “The Great Leap Backward?” But when the Washington Monthly published a similarly thoughtful treatment of the same subject, its headline was “The Green Leap Forward,” emphasizing Beijing’s encouragement of environmentalists as partners in a crackdown on bribe-taking local environmental regulators.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have been allowed to go wandering around the Chinese countryside interviewing anyone I felt like, asking inscrutable questions about someone named Mr. Byng. That wasn’t something a foreign journalist was allowed to do. Now it is.

What all this means for Vancouver—the dizzying increase in trade, the ongoing migration of people in both directions across the Pacific, the cross-pollination of East and West—is not something that’s easily discernible from the dunning statistics on offer from Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa.

But a good bet is that culturally, Vancouver is heading towards the kind of place already very familiar to Todd Wong, also known as Toddish McWong, the kilt-wearing, accordion-playing Dragon Boat skipper whose great-great-grandfather was the Methodist preacher Chan Yu Tan, who emigrated to Canada in 1896.

“It will depend on how we build on our history of inter-cultural relationships,” Todd told me over coffee. “Retreating into identities means you lose opportunities to learn, you lose the chance to be surprised, so what matters is how we teach new immigrants how we’ve lived together all these years. What matters is how we react.”

Todd is the animateur of Gung Haggis Fat Choy, an annual Vancouver event that combines Chinese New Year with the Scottish Robbie Burns Day. Although the tradition goes back to the Chinatown Lions Club Robbie Burns celebrations of the 1930s, Todd’s event, which began 10 years ago, is rather more audacious.

The menu, for one thing.

When I was in Guangzhou I ate a pigeon, and considered myself adventurous. At the last Gung Haggis Fat Choy, at the Floata Restaurant in Chinatown, 400 people were privileged to choose from such dishes as traditional haggis (various internal organs of a sheep cooked with oatmeal and onions in a sheep’s stomach), haggis haw-gow (shrimp dumplings), haggis su-mei (pork dumplings), haggis wonton and sweet-and-sour haggis.

The music, for another.

At the Floata celebrations, Todd led a rap version of a Robbie Burns poem, accompanied by bagpipes and tabla. It was inspired by such Vancouver groups as the Orchid Ensemble, which approaches jazz with traditional Chinese instruments and a Caribbean marimba, and Delhi2Dublin, which fuses Irish jigs with Indian music, using fiddles and sitar.

It’s like building diaolous . You borrow from a variety of occidental and oriental styles. No two are the same, and accounts of their origins are often found only in the deep memory of folktales.

The week after I got back from China, several clusters of diaolous in Kaiping were granted World Heritage Site status by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). One of the clusters includes the village of Jinjiangli and its great “Auspicious Stone” diaolou, the Ruishi Lou.

What really matters about a diaolou is that it’s all bound up in the duty of keeping promises, the duty of remembrance and gratitude. And that is the duty my family owes a man in a Homburg hat and a black greatcoat who was kind to us, a long time ago.

Copyright © Terry Glavin, 2007; Winner, Silver prize, National Magazine Awards, 2008.

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