by Kim Liao
“Don’t go to Silai,” my Aunt Margaret warned me. “The house is gone—there was a corrupt cousin, the youngest son of fifth uncle, who didn’t consult with anyone, he just sold it! He demolished the ancestral home, and sold the land.”
I was shocked—this was the first I had heard of the house being gone. This year, I had come thousands of miles to live in Taipei and find out what had happened to my Taiwanese grandfather, Thomas “Wen-Yi” Liao. Thomas was a political revolutionary whose family was hunted for his opposition to Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist government after World War II. It was my grandmother who decided that his political career was becoming too dangerous for their four children—including my two-year old father, Richard—so she single-handedly brought her children to America, and never spoke of him again. My dad grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, fending for himself while his mother worked, and telling anyone who asked that his father was dead. Decades later, I returned to Taiwan—the youngest grandchild looking for answers about Liao Wen-Yi’s life.
I asked Aunt Margaret, “Are any Liao relatives still living there?”
“Only the corrupt cousin—he is still there. If you go back to Silai, you must not go see him. But I don’t think you’ll enjoy going back—there is nothing of our family left.”
Yet I couldn’t resist, wouldn’t let her warning stand—I wanted to see the town for myself. A week later, I set off at dawn from Chiayi, the nearest major city, on a scooter to make this hasty solo pilgrimage. I drove through lush groves of guava trees and acres of rice paddies—little lime green shoots poking up from the water-logged fields. As I rode north, the farmlands turned into industrial towns, baked dusty and brown in the sun.
I slowed my speed as I turned onto Yanping Road, the main street of Silai, which had a hushed, deserted feeling. Shops and buildings lined the quiet dusty main street, squat two-story boxes with overhanging second floor balconies. Compared with the modernized feeling of Taipei, it was like traveling back in time several decades. I looked around, wondering which storefront housed the fossils and ashes of the Liao family tree.
That was when I realized I had never gotten the address of the Liao ancestral home. I had intended to ask Aunt Margaret, but stopped asking questions after she warned me against going. I mean, it’s obvious now—when you go to a small town in a foreign country to look for a sacred spot in your family’s history, bring an address—but at the time, I didn’t think twice. I got on the bike and drove, desperate to know and see for myself. So now, as I coasted down the silent streets of Yanping Road, I had no idea where to go—lost in my family’s own point of origin.
I only had a map of Taiwan and four Chinese characters on a Post-It note. My Taiwanese landlady Susan had scribbled the characters down for me in Taipei before I left—the name of the Presbyterian Church in Silai, which she heard had connections with the Taiwanese Independence Movement. It was called “Zhanglao Jiaohui”—which I thought was the church’s specific name, but later learned just means “Presbyterian Church” in Chinese. Did I ask Susan to help me find the church’s address before I left? Of course not. So here I was, barely speaking the language, without a smartphone, and just my instincts to guide me.
I pulled up to a temple with yellow lanterns adorning its outer gate and an expansive altar inside decorated with statues of gods, baobao blocks, fortune sticks, flowers, fruits, and other offerings to the gods. I saw some women selling incense.
“Qingwen,” I started. “Nimen zhidao zhige jiaohui zai nali?” (Excuse me, do you know where this church is?) And showed them the Post-It note.
“Ahhh!” one of women said, “I know. Hey, you,” she said in Mandarin, gesturing to a workman who was fixing some part of the temple. “Could you bring this young girl to the Zhanglao Jiaohui?”
“Sure, I’ll take you there,” he said, hopping on a bicycle that appeared seemingly out from nowhere. “Follow me!”
He pedaled off with speed, and I followed, jumping back on my scooter and taking off after him. He made a few sharp turns, leaving the main street and taking me down even quieter, residential lanes that formed the porous border between the town and the surrounding farmlands.
He came to an abrupt stop outside the Presbyterian Church of Silai, a grey stone, two-story church that towered over the sparse buildings on a deserted street.
“This is the Zhanglao Jiaohui!” the workman announced, and sped off on his bicycle as I called, “Wow! Thank you—“ after him.
The church was locked and empty. It was a Tuesday morning, and I cursed myself for being too scared to find the address, and call in advance. Because although I had been taking Mandarin Chinese language classes in Taipei for nearly three months, I was still afraid of speaking Mandarin on the telephone. I looked for any signs of human life. Next door was a school, full of children and nuns.
I knocked on the screen door and a nun came out. “Qingwen, is this school a part of that church? I am looking for the chief person of the church—“ I said, not knowing the word for pastor.
“No, we’re run by the Catholic church across the street,” she said in English, pointing. “The pastor of the Presbyterian Church isn’t here—why don’t you come back on Sunday?”
“I’m only here today,” I said desperately. “I’m looking for the site of my family’s ancestral home, and was hoping the pastor could help me, because I think my family was involved with that church. Do you perhaps know where the Liao ancestral home was located?”
The nun shook her head but had an idea. “I’m not from Silai, but I know someone who could probably help you. Follow me, I’ll take you to him.”
The nun went out to her car, and pulled out an enormous feather duster—it was half her height—to dust off her windshield. Apparently, I’m unfamiliar with people in the religious community, but it had never occurred to me before that nuns drove cars. I don’t know what I thought they drove—broomsticks? This one drove a Toyota sedan, and gestured for me to follow her.
We took a completely different path of twisting local farmland roads, framed by dusty fallow fields, to another school. The nun introduced me to the principal, showed him my documents, and spoke a lot of unintelligible Mandarin.
“He knows the pastor,” she said to me in English. “Du Mushi is his name. But he is away on church business,” she told me, “so call him before you come back next time!” The principal didn’t know the location of the Liao ancestral home either. Maybe this was a mistake; maybe I should just give up and drive home.
In the parking lot, a woman walking by recognized the nun, and ran over. “Hi, hi, hello!” They hugged. “Why are you here?” asked the nun’s friend. The nun pointed to me, and explained my story yet again. The friend’s eyes lit up. “Liao Wen-Yi!! I know Liao Wen-Yi.”
I gasped with delight. “Really??”
“Yes! I am Silai-ren, I am from here. We knew the Liao family!”
“Do you know where the ancestral home was?”
“It’s no longer there, but it was right in town….so beautiful!” she said. “I don’t remember exactly where, but my husband does. I’ll call him, and he will show you.”
Five minutes later, a burly Silai man riding a big, low, scooter came roaring up. “Who wants to see the Liao family home?” he asked.
“She does,” said his wife, introducing me. “She is Liao Wen-Yi’s granddaughter.”
“Huh,” he growled, “no kidding. Well, follow me!”
I set off again, following this man who had lived his whole life in Silai. I wondered if he had known my family, and about his memories of this town from its more prosperous years.
We finally returned to Yangping Street, the road I had originally driven into Silai on. The man stopped his scooter at an intersection and gestured to a building complex. “There,” he pointed before driving off, “your family’s ancestral home was there. The Liao family home was the most beautiful house in the whole town.”
I parked my scooter and walked up to the buildings.
The site of my family’s ancestral home now held a dentist office, condominiums and apartments, and on the corner, a fried chicken stand. I had succeeded in finding this geographic origin, the place where Thomas grew up, where the story of my grandparents began, and it was gone. Rebuilt, razed, knocked down and replaced. It was all I could do to stay standing—my knees wanted to buckle and propel me to the earth where I would kneel, lie down in defeat, or even start digging, clawing at the dirt to find something, anything—to prove that the Liaos had lived here. A stone, a rock, a spare bobby pin. Instead, I willed my legs to move and walked slowly around the premises, down side streets and around the block. Margaret’s warning came back to me, her voice ragged in my ears, “don’t you go to Silai, because everything from our family is gone.”
Why did I even make this trip? I asked myself. In that moment, I wished my dad were here to breathe life into the stark bones of this empty site, to show me where he had stayed during his first trip to Taiwan, when he met his father Thomas for the first time at age 30. Dad told me that during his trip, he slept in one of the many branching wings of the enormous ancestral family home. He also told me that our family’s story was over; it wasn’t important—I shouldn’t write about it. I was here, retracing his steps without a map or a guide, because I had no other choice. Any traces of my dad’s visit to meet his family were buried under several decades of dust.
I was beginning to understand, finally, that I was alone on this search. Silai had always been this myth for my whole life—full of so many untold stories, unanswered and even unasked questions. It was a lost Ithaca to be reclaimed, like Odysseus venturing for so long to reach the homeland. Silai had always been a question in my heart, a void—yet now that I was finally here, it had been emptied of our family’s past. I was too late.
I decided to stop for lunch before embarking on the several hours trip back. I went into a small restaurant run by a friendly middle-aged woman. The proprietor noticed my necklace, which I had been wearing all day. It was a golden circular pendant, framing the “Liao” character in Chinese. I had put it on for luck, laughing at my own superstition, and as some kind of identification proof—I’m a Liao! I belong here. Even though I don’t look like you. Yet now someone had taken notice. “Ni xing Liao? Wo xing Liao!!!” she exclaimed. (Is your last name Liao? My last name is Liao!)
“Really?” I said, feeling a sudden sense of welcome. “My family lived here. My grandfather was Liao Wen-Yi.”
“Noo!!!! Really? No!”
“Well, before you leave town you must go to the Silai luoyang wenjiao jijinhui.”
“The what??” She’d lost me.
The woman reached out and grabbed my hand. “Come, on, I’ll show you! Follow me!”
We ran across the street and she dragged me into a building with a stone storefront. Inside, I discovered the Silai historical society, whose interior was a faithful restoration of a traditional Taiwanese house, and which hosted an exhibition space showing historic photos of Silai from the past 100 years.
“Excuse me,” I asked the secretary, “who should I contact to come back and conduct research?”
She gave me the director’s card. “Are you interested in Silai’s past?”
“Yes, my family was from here. My grandfather was Liao Wen-Yi.”
She froze, her eyes widened, and she grabbed my arm. “Liao Wen-Yi?! No!”
“Come with me! You have to see this!” I followed her back upstairs.
The secretary walked through the exhibition space, and brought me to a narrow, dilapidated wooden staircase that was basically just a ladder set at an angle into the wall.
“Xiaoxin,” she instructed (be careful!), and led me up into the attic.
We walked carefully over the rafters. She pointed into the far corner. “Look! Liao Wen-Yi and your family.”
There he was, Thomas Liao, my grandfather, and with him, my family. Four huge exhibition displays held pictures of my grandfather Thomas and his siblings, as well as his nephew, my Uncle Suho, and his wife, Aunt Margaret. Under the photos were descriptions in Mandarin of each family member’s role in the Taiwanese Independence Movement, with a longer historical overview of Liao Wen-Yi’s role as leader of the Independence Movement and President of the “Provisional Republic” he set up in Japan—appealing to the United Nations and to America to recognize his democratic alternative to Chiang Kai-Shek’s Martial Law in Taiwan.
This was the proof I needed, to keep the search going, to bring me back to Silai for another trip. Six months later, I would return, with research contacts who would introduce me to the director of the historical society, the Zhanglao Jiaohui pastor Du Mushi, and, with the help of the director, we would find and confront the corrupt cousin. Yet today, completely unprepared but spurred on by kind help from strangers, I had finally come home.
“Look, the Liao house!” The secretary held up two large framed photos.
There, in the attic, I finally got to see my family’s ancestral home in its former glory. Its opulence spilled through the confines of the glossy printed page. Several stories tall, the main building in the complex had lavish balconies and ramparts cut out in crenulated patterns, like the top of a castle. I was spellbound as I traced the stone columns, tiled walls, and teal detailing with my finger. Brightly colored flags flew from the balconies, and the rest of the wings branched off from that central tower, creating a giant square around a large courtyard. In traditional Chinese ancestral homes, the oldest generation lived in the main central part of the home, and all of the children, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived in these surrounding wings, keeping all members of the family close. I was the youngest and furthest flung wing, branching outward from our family tree, but also circling back, to rebuild our home from the rubble.
Kim Liao was a 2010-2011 Taiwan Fulbright Research Fellow, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received her MFA at Emerson College, and her fiction and nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Another Chicago Magazine, Fourth River, Hippocampus, Cha: A Journal of Asian Literature, Fringe, and others. She has read her work as part of the Lost Lit Reading Series and the Boundless Tales Reading Series, and has reviewed books for the Ploughshares Blog, Redivider, and The Adirondack Review. Kim lives in Brooklyn with her pet umbrella tree plant, where she is revising her first book, My Formosa, a family memoir and adventure story, and working on a novel.