Su’s parents were second or third generation Indonesian Chinese. They were high school classmates in a famous school in Jakarta and both came from well to do families. In 1951, they responded to calls from the Motherland to return to China to build up the country. They were then 19. They went to universities in Beijing and Tianjin. Her father became an engineer and her mother a biologist. They got married in Beijing and had good teaching jobs in universities. In 1962, they moved to Dalian, specifically, Dalian Polytechnic which was in the suburbs of Dalian where her father had a teaching post while her mother taught in a medical school close to the city centre. Su was born shortly afterwards and spent all her childhood in the university campus until the family moved to Hong Kong in 1973 in the heat of the Cultural Revolution.
Su’s mother and her younger sister visited Dalian a few years back, but couldn’t make out too much from the visit, partly because her mother spent most of her time in town then and her sister was too young when she left the country, but mainly because a friend drove them to the campus and the friend didn’t know the place too well. They came back and said everything was different. Her father never went back all these years. When Su took me to Dalian Polytechnic University last month, she had left the place for 44 years. She went with a few family pictures taken by her father in the Sixties and Seventies and began her walk down memory lane.
But first, let me digress a little to talk about how we moved about in China. We used di-di all the time, which we found to be convenient, reliable, cheap and reasonably clean. In short, it is excellent, as long as one has a di-di account on the mobile phone linked to an RMB bank account. Wherever one is, even in the most remote places, all one needs to do is to call the centre and a car would turn up within minutes. That was how we were taken to the campus. “To the statue of Mao Zedong at the centre of the campus,” was how Su had instructed the driver. We had pictures taken with the statue, from a similar angle and montage her father had adopted in the picture taken some 50 years ago; and from there, we explored on foot based on the map downloaded from a household internet of China. We spent a few hours walking around and Su found everything she had wanted to look for.
First, she found the flat the family lived for over ten years. There must be over 30 blocks of two or three-storey buildings built as living quarters for university staff at the time. Most of the buildings were disserted, dilapidated or in utter disrepair. It appeared though that one or two units could still house families left behind to watch over the land and properties. Su looked through the broken windows of the flat and explained to us how the interior used to be laid out and where she kept her toys and prized tricycle. She also showed us the backyard where the family hung their laundries, grew vegetables and fruit crops and where she kept three white Leghorn chickens for some five years up to the time she left the place. She also found, not far away from there, the flat of her nanny with whose family she had stayed for some time as an infant. All the windows and doors were locked; and all we could do was to take some pictures through the broken windows and at the backyard. It was a rather nostalgic trip indeed.
Secondly, she found the boiler house where her father had shuffled coal in the winter months to keep hot water running and provided her hot baths sometimes. More significantly, she found and walked around and into the building where her father used to work and teach. The outside of the building was still riddled with bullet holes from the Cultural Revolution. She recalled that the building was very close to the army armoury and the building became an easy sitting target for shooting practice.
Thirdly, she found the memorial library, named after the then College President who was a close friend of her father and whom she called uncle. This uncle was purged during the Cultural Revolution. Su met him wearing tall hats and sweeping the garden floor and tried to greet him. He had to shoo her away, which she couldn’t understand, and she cried. He was rehabilitated afterwards and the library was open in 1997 or thereabout. He would be over 100 years old if he were still living.
Fourthly, Su retraced the favourite paths she treaded or bounced over when she was small, the fields where she captured grasshoppers for her chickens, the piece of land in the campus which was turned into a mini paddy field to give the kids some farming experience, and the various hideaways she frequented, all looking rather undersized compared to what were left and formed in her little mind some 50 years ago.
Moving away from campus, we did some walkabouts on foot, with di-di and on trains and light rails. We found that Dalian is totally comparable to any major international city such as New York and London, except cleaner and bigger. The people we met were all polite and soft spoken; the staff in the hotel and restaurants were professional, friendly, service minded and customer oriented. Things are not cheap though, but then nothing good normally comes cheap. There are no more pictures of leaders or slogans hanging around and about as one would find in a communist city some 40 or 50 years ago. People are so relaxed and confident. Su read up some guide books on Dalian beforehand, mainly on eateries and tourist sites. We went to a few, including a restaurant the operator of which is the founder or inventor of a line of shrimp and crab pastes. She was overjoyed when she met the lady in person at the restaurant. We stayed in Dalian for three nights. It was my first; and we don’t mind going again someday.