Retracing ancestors' footsteps

Updated: 2012-10-17 10:25

By Hu Meidong and Sun Li in Fuzhou (China Daily)

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Retracing ancestors' footsteps

Sallie Parks embraces the wall of an old villa built by one of her relatives and once visited by her husband. Photos by Jia Liang / For China Daily

Retracing ancestors' footsteps

Gary Gardner (left) and his brother Lee try to draw water from an old-fashioned well in Guling during their recent trip to the resort town in Fuzhou, Fujian province.

Gary Gardner was speechless when he received an old photo as a gift from a resident of Guling.

It was a 20-year-old photo showing the 64-year-old chaplain's great aunt, Elizabeth Johnson Gardner, with elderly people in Guling, a centuries-old resort town in the mountains about 13 km from downtown Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province.

"My parents always had passion for Guling and the people there, and the passion was communicated to us. Deep down, I feel Guling has my family roots," says Gary, who recently traveled to Guling with his brother Lee on a trip arranged by the Fuzhou city government for Americans with special bond with the resort town.

Guling was discovered by missionaries in 1886. It later attracted Western diplomats, missionaries and merchants, who wanted to avoid the summer heat in Fuzhou, one of the five Chinese treaty ports after the First Opium War in 1840.

The Gardner brothers' father and grandfather were born in Fuzhou and lived in Guling for years. They are grateful to be able to make this trip to retrace their ancestors' footsteps.

Their trip is almost accidental.

In 1992, the media published a story about Elizabeth, who wanted to fulfill her late husband's wish of revisiting his childhood home of Guling. Milton Gardner lived in Guling for the first nine years of his life until 1911.

Her wish was fulfilled. The person who facilitated her trip was Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, who was then the Party secretary of Fuzhou. In February, during an official visit to the United States, Xi retold the story.

When the Fuzhou city government was planning this visit for Americans, they had wanted to invite Elizabeth, but she had passed away. The Gardner brothers came on her behalf.

"I have to thank Xi for his gracious care for our family. If it was not for Xi, who helped our great aunt, in the first place, Lee and I probably wouldn't be here. It's Xi's early efforts that made us part of this great trip today," says Gary, who lives in Alamosa city, Colorado.

Lee, who works at a home for the aged in Los Angeles, says Guling played an important role in his parents' and grandfather's lives.

His parents referred to Guling as a comforting spot to dodge the summer heat, while his grandfather often told them stories about tiger hunting there, Lee says, adding that's why he has always associated Guling with excitement and fun.

"My grandfather retained the Chinese habit of eating rice every day. My father taught us to use chopsticks. They kept up with their friends in Guling," Gary says.

When visiting Guling, the Gardner brothers couldn't help comparing the buildings and scenery with the old photos left by their grandfather. They got excited whenever they chanced upon a place or scene that looks similar to the photos.

"It was amazing to see the gigantic cedar tree my grandparents looked on and my great uncle probably climbed," Gary says.

Despite finding some changes, Lee was pleasantly surprised to find some of the century-old Western-style buildings with upright-decorated ambulatories have been restored to such a great extent that they maintain their original look.

The blue stones and hoary tiles create a pleasant sense of deja vu, he says.

Like the Gardner brothers, Sallie Parks also deeply relished the chance to visit Guling, where her husband, Alden E. Matthews, a missionary who came to Fuzhou in 1947, spent three years of his life.

The resident of Palm Harbor, Pinellas County, Florida, says her husband often described Guling as "Shangri-la".

Parks says life must have been hard in many ways in Guling more than 60 years ago.

"But my husband always says it is a magic place you could live easily and a wonderful spa for vacation," Parks says.

She says Matthews used to study Chinese, read books, write letters and go to church in Guling, but one of the things he loved most was playing tennis. He considered himself a professional player.

The former Pinellas County commissioner says her husband still speaks Fuzhou dialect and practices Chinese calligraphy.

"Before I visited Guling, I thought it was a small village, but it turned out to be bigger and more beautiful than I expected, with lush foliage and fresh air," Parks says.

Parks' link with Guling is not just through her husband. One of her relatives, Thomas Rennie, a British doctor, built the first villa in Guling in 1886.

"My gosh! What a small world! We were in the same place, literally. That's unbelievable," Parks says in excitement as she steps into the villa built by Rennie and once visited by her husband.

Matthews, now 91, is not well enough to visit Guling.

"But he couldn't have been more encouraging and wanting me to come here to live what really is his dream and his reunion with the Shangri-la," Parks says.

"I can hardly wait to show him videos and pictures. This is a vicarious experience for him. He would be thrilled, I know."

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