Moon Bin's house - still with colours showing

Selected for Google Maps and Google Earth

Looking up from the ground at Moon Bin's Diaolou you can see the remarkable cast concrete hand rail and corbels under the projecting top story. Partly still showing its colours and its freize panels, it was very tempting to apply to the Taiping Government to get a restoration subsidy for this house (apparently they are generous) but the quality of the concrete isn't so good and the cover over the reinforcing isn't suitable so there is plenty of spalling going on and earthquake resistance would be very suspect.

Still, I bet it's still standing decades after I have shrugged off my mortal coil.

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Bruce Comfort on October 3, 2011


By: Joyce Gin – now Joyce Comfort.

When I was young, my parents had a laundry business in Newtown where there were other Chinese families, mainly traditional fruiterers. That was in the 1950s and I am now a retired woman with a growing interest in my family history.

I am Sey Yip and I am now living in Oamaru with my husband Bruce. We have been married 41 years.

In the laundry we all worked extremely hard, at times until the small hours of the morning. I remember my father used to sit in his seat which was the only easy chair we had, after an exhausting day. He was red in the face [after a little drop of Chinese whiskey] and the sweat was pouring off him.

Some of you may also come from this community and you will know what we experienced as children and you will know that there would have been very little discussion at home, about why our parents were here in New Zealand or what they left behind in China. I was always curious but although I occasionally asked, I didn’t get any answers.

I didn’t even know where my father was from until late in my life. I knew we were Sey Yip which wasn’t even thought of as being Cantonese, but where “home” was, I never knew.

I am one of seven children but I only met Fon, my eldest sister who lives in San Francisco, in 1986 after my parents died.

Fon was born in China and never came to New Zealand so until then I had only known of her through letters she wrote to my father and a very few photos.

My visit to San Francisco gave me a chance to question Fon about her life in the village after my mother left the village to join my father in New Zealand in 1940 at the height of the war with Japan. My mother came out with Jack my eldest brother (7) and Margaret my older sister (18 mths)

Fon was left behind to look after the grandparents, the farm and the water buffalos and she married an American Chinese in 1948 and went to live in California.

Fon told me interesting things about her life in the village, things that she had never spoken off ever before.
Her own family were there to hear, and they were amazed and moved on hearing what she said. This visit made me quite interested to go and see this place so that I could appreciate my Chinese heritage better.

Later, back in Wellington, I looked for any clan members that remembered my father, or people that knew of his village. About this time I learned its name. Fon never actually mentioned the name of the village, so you can see the mystery went on for years and years.

I also had a faded 1970s photo of my father’s house taken at a time when some relatives were living there. When I visited the Sey Yip Association, I found out that the house was still standing, but unoccupied and a bit run down. Nobody had been living there for 18 years.

Bruce especially was very intrigued by the house. He had researched a bit and was sure that this was no ordinary village house. There was something special about it and possibly therefore about my father, but what it was would be a mystery that we would only solve by going there.

The village name is Hor Eye. It is about a half hour drive South of Taishan.

Although Bruce had, for a long time, said I should go to China to see where my family came from (Bruce is not Chinese) I never felt compelled even though I was aware of the hole in my life.

Also, we have never thought of going to China just as tourists and the “must see” sights were never a priority for me, but when my parents had both been gone for some time and once my children became adults and grew keener to go to see where their family roots were, the reasons for going and taking them became more important.

After a lot of discussion amongst my brothers and other sisters, a trip for us all was arranged. We left in early September 2007. It was great to be on the way at last.

Most of us came from New Zealand, but family members also came from Singapore, Melbourne, London, San Francisco and Boston. There were seventeen of us altogether.

We met up in Hong Kong and in the morning we travelled up the Pearl River to Jiangamen Port on the fast ferry, past Macau and Doumen, a great river journey which took two and a half hours.

When we got off the ferry we passed through customs and were met by a guide with a small bus and we drove off to our hotel in Taishan.
That took one hour and as it was our first exposure to China and their style of motorway driving, it was pretty hair-raising.

After settling into a great air conditioned hotel with lovely gardens and a swimming pool, we set out on a quick trip to our village. This was an unplanned visit, no-one was expecting us although the elders of the village knew we were in town and were coming to visit shortly.

We had with us relatives from Boston, Dad’s second cousin Gok Gee and his wife. Gok Gee’s family lived in my father’s house until 1990 when they left to go to the USA.

My father’s house was immediately obvious as we approached Hor Eye. It is one of two watchtowers in the village. It was amazing to see the house. It is sited away from the cluster of other houses and it had beautiful bamboo groves around it with a garden out the back.

It is a special building and my husband Bruce was really excited as he had studied the Diaolou buildings of Kaiping and Taishan before we left. He was full of expectations.

In other respects Hor Eye appeared to be a typical very small Toishanese village with low grey brick houses with flat or tiled roofs, a village pond and a large concrete village square facing it. Surrounding it are acres of rice paddies, more villages, more ponds and hills in the background. It was very rural and very beautiful.

We got an amazing reception. It was a Saturday and there were lots of kids there and once we arrived, people seemed to come from everywhere. The talking was excited and noisy and no-one seemed too shy to come up and join in. Bruce was overwhelmed. The heat of 36 degrees and the very high humidity, didn’t help. Sweat was pouring off all the visitors as soon as we got out of the bus!

Hor Eye is a subsistence farming village. It has probably been a distinct village for a long while. The families grow the staple rice crop which is harvested twice a year. They also grow sugarcane, bananas and peanuts and they breed chickens, pigs and dogs.

They still do their farmwork manually, ploughing with water buffaloes. Water is still carried in buckets from a well or the better of two ponds nearby. There are motor scooters everywhere but no mechanised farm machinery.

There was only one water pump and one tiled “crouch” toilet in the whole village. Most houses seemed to have electricity, there was a few with TV and one telephone.

Despite its comparatively primitive facilities, the village was a tidy well kept place and the residents were happy enough and were not poor as we understand it. They just lead a very basic life.

That night we all met in a restaurant in Taishan and had a real big feast.

The next day we all went back to the village. I am not sure how many families live in the village now (about 30 we gathered) but the word got around, and when they knew that the descendents of Moon Bin Gin were coming, over a 120 people, family, clan and distant relatives turned up to join the feast. What a day.

Then we went to “hung san” at the family graves on the hillside, where Joss sticks were lit, the roast pig and cakes were offered along with the burning of paper money. Each one of us bowed three times in front of our great grandfather and grandfather’s graves.

After all the rituals were done the villagers offered us the food and together in the forest in the hills of Hor Eye Choon the Gin Clan, past and present shared time together. It was a moment which I will treasure forever.

Now we had to face another feast!

Before we sat down to an elaborate banquet lunch we were all ushered outside the community hall to see the long string of Double-Happy bangers go off (to ward away evil spirits) There were 400,000 individual bangers on the string – that’s nearly half a million!. It was so loud, I swear it could be heard in Hong Kong.

What fun, great food and beer, lots of noise and what a huge mess afterwards but it was mysteriously cleared up in no time by helpers after we had all finished. There was NO food left over!

My fathers Diaolou is made from reinforced concrete and was built in 1927 the year of his first born child, from money earned in New Zealand. The interior was like all village houses, pretty plain, but there is stencilled frieze and some quite beautiful frescos in places. There are coloured glass windows just like the villas and bungalow houses of the period, here in New Zealand.

There are many Diaolous in Kaiping, which is 20 kms northwest of Taishan and visiting that city and seeing them was another highlight of our ancestral trip, again, particularly for Bruce.

Some clusters of Diaolou in Kaiping have just been included on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list. They are a must see if you are interested in architecture and history.

One day Bruce and I want to go back to our village again and have another look around the area where my roots are. But we will not go in September when the heat and the humidity are so unbearable.

I wished that my parents had accompanied us back to their homeland. They were there in spirit.

If anyone would like more information about our trip or to see some pictures, I would be happy.

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Photo details

  • Uploaded on May 10, 2010
  • Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works
    by Bruce Comfort