Chinese Culture · Chinese Genealogy

Travels in China – the Heritage of Cantonese Migration Tour, 2019

I would not have been able to do a Chinese genealogy tour on my own. I might have been able to find my ancestral village thanks to hints from my cousin, but I certainly wouldn’t have been able to crack my great-grandfather’s lineage, and I definitely wouldn’t have learned all that I have.

I’m still processing everything. It was life-changing.

What is the tour?

The Heritage of Cantonese Migration Tour, sponsored by the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia.
Cangdong Heritage Education Center, Kaiping, Jiagmen, China. Oct 2019. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.
Photo of Cangdong Village
Cangdong Heritage Education Center, Kaiping, Jiagmen, China. Oct 2019. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.

What makes this tour so special?

In a word: everything. This is not your average sightseeing tour through China. This is a combo-genealogy-and-history tour, geared towards Chinese Canadians with Cantonese roots. Our guides were giants in the field of overseas Chinese migration: Dr. Henry Yu and Dr. Selia Tan. Rounding out this team were students and coordinators, whose names I’ll keep to myself. The tour is organized so that before you leave for your trip, your genealogical research is done for you, leaving you to focus on your actual visit.
Mountains as seen from the Yip ancestral village. Shentang Village, Duhu, Jiagmen, China. Oct 2019. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.
Bamboo takes roots in a wall, Baihe, Jiangmen, China. Oct 2019. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved.

How was the food?

Epic. This could be called the foodie tour of southern China. If you missed it, I have dedicated a in-depth blog post to the food. See Travels in China – the food.

Photo of the neon front of the restaurant
A retaurant concept in a rice field – Wang Gang’s private kitchen cum retreat. Jiangmen, Oct 2019. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.
Our first lunch in Kaiping at the Wuyi Kitchen – portent of many meals to come. Oct 2019. Kaiping, China. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved.
Photo of dinner at AMO
Two Cantonese home favourites: fahn jew soey (crunchy rice) and doong gwah soup (winter melon). AMO Organic Restaurant, Baihe, Jiagmen, China. Oct, 2019. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.
Photo of joong
My fave – we call them “joong” – these are handmade, bamboo wrapped, sticky rice with peanuts, pork belly and preserved duck egg. Cangdong Heritage Education Center, Kaiping, Jiagmen, China. Oct 2019. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.
You know the fish is fresh when… Local seafood restaurant. Oct 2019. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Where did you go?

Southern China – to the area once known as The Four Counties, or Sze-Yup (Cantonese). This is an area in Guangdong Province, now encompassing Taishan, Enping, Kaiping, Xinhui and Heshan.

Past-Presence map of Taishan
Map of Sze Yup focusing on Taishan. Jiangmen Wuyi Museum of Overseas Chinese. Jiangmen, China. Oct 2019. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.

When did you visit?

October 13-24, 2019.

How did you hear about the tour?

Random chance.

I was visting my friend in Burnaby in the summer of 2018, and she suggested spending the day at the Chinese Market Garden exhibit at Burnaby Museum. We met two students taking history with Dr. Henry Yu at UBC, and they suggested I consider joining the 2019 tour.

Once I heard about it, it was more like try to stop me taking this tour. 

How many people were with you?

We had a fabulous group of 10 people, plus tour leaders, coordinators, students, and drivers. Our group’s ages ranged from 18-70s.

What did you do?

OMG. What didn’t we do? This is a full-on 10-day tour, beginning about 9:00 am every day, and returning to our hotel about 8:00 pm every night. In between we learned about arts, culture, fengshui, music, politics, economics, the overseas Chinese diaspora, ancestral halls, historic villages, the nuances of the Four Counties (and why it’s now called the Five Counties), and about 1000 more things besides. We made moon cakes, painted dog’s heads masks and tried our hand at calligraphy. Rounding out the lectures were trips to attractions in the area, such as Majianglong Village.

Photo of Majianglong Village.
Majianglong Village, UNESCO World Heritage, Kaiping, Jiangmen, China. Oct 2019. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved.

I learned things about my heritage that were revelatory. Midway through, each member of the group travelled to their own ancestral village, most of us meeting near- to distant-relations. This second part, the village tour, made the tour personal in a way that cannot be overemphasized. Chinese genealogy is hard – there are so many roadblocks it can seem impossible. This was genealogy in real time, all our questions either answered immediately or ASAP.

What was the shopping like?

How’d you deal with the money?

From my perspective, it was fascinating. Shopping in Canada is purely transactional – you see a thing you want, pay with a credit card, and if you’re online you can be done in minutes. In China there are a number of other factors to take into consideration:

  • credit cards are not widely accepted except at the airport
  • the locals use WeChat and QR codes to buy larger ticket items
  • cash is king
  • a museum might offer its best merchandise online only (UNESCO World Heritage Museum at Kaiping)
  • what’s on the shelves is what they’ve got – too bad if you’d like to see another colour, size, or buy two of them
  • Chinese clothing is built for Chinese-sized people
  • street stall vendors expect you to haggle in Chinese, and if you’re going to haggle, you’d better have small bills
  • A yuan’s exchange rate is about 5 yuan: $1 CAD (or 6:1 USD)
  • ATMs dispense 100 yuan bills, and locals really won’t take bills bigger than 100 yuan
  • withdrawing enough cash for a decent shopping trip means a fat wad of bills you’ll have to hide somewhere on your body
  • the really small bills are one decimal point over, not two like we thought – they’re called jiao, and they come in denominations of 5 and 1, which are 0.5 yuan and 0.1 yuan
  • the exchange rate was pretty favourable, but the combination of sensory overload had me gasping to figure out simple divisions like 268/5

What was your hotel like?

Very nice.

For the entirety of the trip, we were based at the Country Garden Jade Bay Phoenix Hotel, Kaiping. It was good to have a “home” base, and the bathtub was pure heaven after some of the long days getting grungy.

What did you wear? What worked? What really didn’t?

Even in mid-October, southern China is hot & steamy. It was about 28-30 degrees Celsius, with over 90% humidity, every day. Think overheated, sweaty,  and grimy (that’s you – I don’t know how the locals stay so cool & collected). My best pieces were all Lululemon, because Lulu focuses on technical, sweat-wicking, anti-sagging, no-wrinkle fabric technology. (I personally tested the no-sagging claim by sitting on my butt for 13 hours on the flight from Vancouver to Guangzhou.)  I had 3 pairs of loose-fit crop pants – they were perfect, but I could have used 4 pairs. The best last minute purchase was the Lululemon runner’s belt, because I wore it next to my skin stuffed with cash at least 14 hrs/day and it was never itchy, uncomfortable or even noticeable. The second-best last-minute purchase was a rain jacket with a hood. I didn’t need it for rain per se, but the day we visited the mosquito-infested abandoned village was the day I fully appreciated having a long, lightweight, bug-proof layer cover me from head to knees. (That was the only day I didn’t get bug bites, and I was wearing deep woods, 30% Muskol.)

The worst clothing choice was a thick cotton tee. I was a sodden mess within 60 minutes of putting it on, with no chance of changing for the next 11 hours.

For footgear, I could have done better. I brought a $3 pair of Superstore flip-flops, a lightweight pair of Nike trainers, and a pair of hiking boots. I wore the Nike’s on the long day of travel to China (3 flights, 2 stopovers, 1 long taxi ride) and they never recovered from the ordeal despite being washed twice. I ended up wearing the flip flops for 8 straight days until they too died and I got a replacement pair at the local supermarket. The boots came in handy during the buggy village visit, and on arrival back home in snowy Saskatoon.


In re-reading the above, I realize I could have learned a lot about where I was going beforehand and been better prepared than I was. But something was holding me back – perhaps a sense of adventure, perhaps a yearning to see things through fresh eyes. In the past I’ve approached trips like I was studying for an exam – nothing left to chance, every map memorized, every Western toilet location sussed out.

This time, it was all new. And it was good.

Next time

My geek friends always want to know about the tech: what camera did you bring? How many travel adapters did you bring? What size of card did you have in your camera? What did all of that cost? In my next post I’ll break it all down for you, and give you ratings on what worked, what sort-of worked, and what were the epic fails. Here is the link.

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