A GUST of cold wind brushed his face as he stepped into the gloomy, mouldy room.
There, 64-year-old Aheng, who had travelled all the way from Taman Riveria, Kuching, Sarawak, stood mesmerised and speechless in that moment when everything felt so surreal to him.
His eyes scanned around the living room of the antiquated stone house where, over 100 years ago, his grandfather had lived to middle age.
He saw some of the things his grandfather had left behind such as clothes, a basket, a wooden pail, a meat-safe, and several other strange-looking items.
The chilly air that had drifted in through a small cracked window to hit Aheng’s face a minute earlier, had come to him like a collective breath from the ancient past, exhaled by his ancestors as they greeted him, “Welcome home, our dear great grandson. We are so happy to see you at last.”
Presently, Aheng felt as if several pairs of arms had come forward to hug him.
“Well, of course that was just my imagination, but it seemed so real … so very real that it stirred up an emotion in me,” he said, almost teary-eyed, as he kept pouring out his story.
He continued, “Then a lump grew in my throat bringing forth a pang of sweet sorrow. I would have dropped to my knees, covered my face and sobbed like a child had there been no one around who might see me.”
But at that moment, he had to fight back his tears for he did not want to look mushy to the small group of siblings and relatives who had come along in the ‘pilgrimage’ to the deserted old village of their ancestors.
The village of Heng clan, known as Ei Buoi Heng, is over an hour’s drive from the city of Puning in China – plus some 15 minutes on foot through a countryside-like landscape.
The village has been abandoned because all the younger generations have moved to urban places to seek better lives, especially when China began its frantic pace of modernisation and development over the past several decades.
When the youth first left the village, most of the old folks, who had refused to follow their children to the bustling towns or cities, would stay put in the village. But as time went by, the elderly who remained in the village passed away one by one. Eventually, only a few elderly couples remain to tend to their little farms – and only occasionally being visited by their younger kin, who have found jobs or businesses in the city of Puning or at little townships nearer home.
The about 400 houses, now mostly vacant and wasting away, are already overgrown with grass and creepers.
Putting a bit of history into context which is around the middle of 1940s when his grandfather still had not migrated out of his homeland, Aheng said back then, China was basically a weak and torn country, embroiled in a civil war between the Kuomintang-led government of the Republic of China and the Communist Party of China.
Moreover, it was still reeling from the effects of an eight-year-old second Sino-Japanese war.
Life for the ordinary people was, thus, extremely challenging. It was during this hard time that people who were more adventurous decided to seek better prospects elsewhere.
And it was also around this time that Aheng’s grandfather, already reaching 50, left China all alone first – and after a brief stint in Bangkok and then Singapore, eventually ended up in Sarawak or more specifically, at the Malay riverine village of Kampung Goebilt, where he finally settled and later got his family to join him and set up a sundry shop.
That was the time when Sarawak was still governed by the Brookes. And it was at Kampung Goebilt that Aheng was born.
On his trip to his ancestral village in Puning, Aheng revealed that one awkward problem he encountered when meeting his relatives there was in communicating with them.
He went there with a brother, two sisters, and a niece, and he was the only one most disadvantaged because he doesn’t speak Mandarin.
The rest could quickly switch to Mandarin if their Teochew relatives could not understand what was being said and vice versa.
But Aheng said for him personally, he did look a bit silly every time communicating with his relatives hit a snag.
According to him, although all of them are Teochew, the Teochew dialect in Puning sounds very different from that spoken in Sarawak.
The intonations, including many of the original Teochew words, are different.
Aheng could understand fewer than half of the words spoken. He noted that the Teochew dialect in Sarawak has been heavily mixed with Hokkien words and the Malay language.
He and his siblings would every now and then inadvertently blurt out Malay loan words, commonly found in Sarawak Teochew or Hokkien parlance such as “bay tahan” (cannot stand or cannot last), “sayang” (needlessly wasteful), “suka” (like), “tapi” (but), “alang-alang” (not much), “mana” (where), “patut” (by right), and many more.
Aheng said one surprise was that the phrase “bo lui” (no money) is not actually a Teochew expression, adding that the word “lui” is derived from the Malay word duit (money).
The “lui” sound came from the inability of the first Chinese migrants to pronounce duit properly.
He noted another surprise was that the Teochews in Puning also have the word “lah”. But the way the people there use “lah” is different from how it’s used in Sarawak or Malaysia.
We use “lah” as a suffix or a morpheme added to the end of a word. But the Puning Teochews use “lah” as a separate individual expression of its own to mean something like “you know”, which many English speakers are fond of adding to their utterances.
Other than the language hiccup, Aheng said the single most important thing about his trip to Puning was the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the house and the village his grandfather came from. In other words, he saw the root of his genealogy.
When Aheng was small, he heard a lot of stories from his grandfather about the latter’s adventures during his younger days in that far, far away land where he grew up.
Aheng could only imagine and fantasise about the narratives and had secretly hoped one day he could visit and see for himself the place he heard so much about.
“So, it was like a dream come true when I finally came to the place and stepped into the house where my grandfather used to live.
“More exciting still is the fact that the basic structure and features of the house are retaining their original character,” he said.