I was waiting for the bus at Boon Lay when a thought suddenly flashed through my mind: right now, I am in Singapore. Where was I, this time last year, and the year before the last? And where will I be, this time next year?
This happened a few years ago and I have already forgotten the exact day and time it occurred. What I would always remember, however, is the split second it happened: the very moment when such a symbolic thought flashed through my mind. It was a thought that represented the interweaving of time and space; a thought that often runs through the minds of people living in the era of globalisation. Immanuel Kant built a philosophical empire in his own little town, while Fernando Pessoa galloped through an imaginary eighth continent. They constantly used their thoughts to travel. Yet, in the era of globalisation, people are more than ready to take a real step into the unknown. Time and space of our personal experiences thus often collide.
People with a love of wandering have a constant home in their heart. Although Kant never journeyed out of his village, it was exactly because of his level of familiarity with his home that he was able to travel freely in his mind. He travelled again and again to places farther and farther away, until he finally made a groundbreaking discovery in philosophy. This unchanging home is the wanderer’s safe haven, a place he’ll never get lost in, and the reason he could pick up a map to venture into uncharted territories without second thoughts. It’s where his blood ties are, a place that’ll never disown him regardless of how long and far he wanders, and the reason he can be kind to strangers. It’s also perhaps a place of entrenched values and traditions that has stuck with him since he was a child, and the reason he can fearlessly challenge and re-evaluate them from new perspectives.
Once upon a time, my hometown was such a constant to me.
Right at this moment, I am seated at my study desk. The drawers are filled with precious things from my childhood. Whenever I think about a problem or am simply daydreaming, I would look to my right out of habit, and be greeted by a range of mountains. Whenever I make eye contact with the mountains, I am instantly transported into a mysterious realm, a realm more profound than any problem I am pondering over. I need to lean out of the window and look to the left, before I can see a small street. The street isn’t exactly wide, but it leads to my old school, the fishing port where I can see docked ships and dried seafood, and places much further away.
I recall that every year end and Lunar New Year, I could see fireworks from my window. They would bedazzle Shenjiamen’s (沈家门) sky. We would also launch fireworks from my grandmother’s porch, which was probably the part we looked forward to most in the Lunar New Year eve celebrations. After having our reunion dinner and as the sky darkened, the adults in the family would set off the fireworks, celebrating the New Year together with us. Prior to this highlight of the day, it felt as if we were the ones accompanying the adults in their busy preparations for the new year. They gathered, chatted, and rushed about as they prepared for the reunion dinner. Bored, my cousin and I would purposely jump on the wooden floor of the second storey, chuckling excitedly as we heard angry footsteps of the adults marching up the wooden stairs to stop us from being a nuisance.
My cousin was only older than me by a few months and at that time, both of us were the youngest members of the family’s third generation. Later, when I left my hometown to study abroad, I had to miss a few of these grand familial feasts. And I wasn’t the only one from the third generation who missed the celebrations. As my cousins gradually formed their own families, gathering everyone for a reunion dinner became a huge challenge. And as the family grew, it seemed that the round table at my grandparents’ house could no longer sit us all.
Now, this magnificent maze has been destroyed. All my memories of it as a child are lost.
Subsequently, the government turned my grandparents’ house into a modern building. A few years later, the whole residential area, including the building, was demolished. Once upon a time, this place was a maze to me. There were winding alleys that wouldn’t tell you where they led to. There were buildings atop slopes and at the bottom of slopes. My friends and I would jump up and down the stone steps that connected the buildings, and also play hide-and-seek as these storey-high steps provided the perfect cover for us.
Now, this magnificent maze has been destroyed. All my memories of it as a child are lost. At the same time, my kindergarten, primary school, and junior middle school have all been relocated one after the other, to a new district created by land reclamation. I can no longer find traces of my childhood at Shenjiamen. My primary school has become an office building now, a building even taller than the school compound that it was before. The stores outside the school, once places that we couldn’t bear to leave — the stationery store, toy store, and eatery — are long gone. Even the old site of my kindergarten has become unrecognisable. My junior middle school generally looks the same, but it is now the campus of another school.
In the past, a small department store could already satisfy the public’s purchasing desire. Now, give the people a few massive shopping malls and they would still be dissatisfied and nitpicky.
With the development of a new district, my hometown has become bigger. In the past, everything in Shenjiamen was within walking distance of one another, and one could cover the entire place on foot. Gradually, residents of this old town realised that many of their daily activities — be it their daily commute to work, bringing their old parents to the doctor’s, or sending their children to school — could only be carried out via car. They were in a dilemma: should they stay put in this old town? A place where all their friends and family were, and a place filled with familiar streets and alleys? Or should they move to a newly developed district? One that was more equipped with advanced facilities? Subsequently, they would even realise that many of their friends have left for the newer districts, and their neighbours have become foreigners.
Similar to virtually all of China’s cities, the “fall” of my hometown in the name of “development” was inevitable. In the past, a small department store could already satisfy the public’s purchasing desire. Now, give the people a few massive shopping malls and they would still be dissatisfied and nitpicky. People nowadays want to go to bigger cities, or even want to shop overseas. But the building of huge shopping malls and hospitals with better facilities requires more land. Thus, the city’s expansion became inevitable.
Following the city’s expansion, friends and family who used to live in close proximity to one another and who could knock on your door at any time of the day were scattered everywhere. Sure, advancements in transportation and communication methods seem to compensate for the increased distance between one another, but they can never bring people closer together the way footsteps can.
In the past, while three-person families constituted the most basic and common family unit in China, these small families from the same family line often lived in the same neighbourhood. Living close to one another meant a higher chance of crossing paths in their daily lives: they could bump into one another at the department store, the park, or at any street and alley. Now, as various single family units are scattered across different corners of the city, people need to be more proactive in maintaining familial ties.
Another common cause that resulted in the dispersal of family members, apart from the changes in way of life as a result of the city’s expansion, is the need to relocate to another Chinese city or province, or even overseas, to study or work. Some of these relocations can be temporary, while others are for good. As a result, Chinese families have to readjust the way family members interact with one another, thereby indirectly affecting their understanding of tradition.
It’s not that tradition is unsustainable; it has simply evolved and is preserved in a manner that’s more aligned to the new environment and circumstances. After my grandparents passed away, the adults who originally belonged to the family’s second generation were "promoted" and became the most senior in the family. The original third-generation juniors became the driving force of the family, and their children made up the third generation that we were previously a part of.
Few Chinese disregard the importance of family reunions and the celebration of the Lunar New Year. Newly-formed extended families do organise reunion dinners as well, to keep the tradition alive. However, it is clear that celebrations are no longer the same in the past and at present. The second generation and third generations of new family units are typically born under China’s one-child policy. Thus, new extended family units are much smaller than before, and cross-generational relationships between various family members have become more casual, free, and open. They are no longer so rigid and stubborn in their interpretations of what constitutes a reunion.
But one thing’s for sure: my hometown is no longer an unchanging home. Whenever I came back to visit, I had to give the place a long, hard stare before I could recognise how it used to look like.
While my hometown is unique because of its geographical location, resources, and history, I believe that it’s not that different from other Chinese cities: all of them display common characteristics of China’s current stage of development. In fact, I do not feel that it is a mere illustration of a Chinese story — perhaps my hometown bears a resemblance to another corner of the world at present, or could be similar to the past, or future of a different corner?
But one thing’s for sure: my hometown is no longer an unchanging home. Whenever I came back to visit, I had to give the place a long, hard stare before I could recognise how it used to look like. When that thought suddenly flashed through my mind as I was waiting for the bus at Boon Lay, I tried to recall if I was at a different place every year. Yet, times are rapidly changing — a place we’re all so familiar with can become unrecognisable the very next second. The interweaving of time and space has never been so complex and diverse.
I am seated at my study desk again. Outside the window, a range of mountains are on the right, while a small street is on the left. Perhaps they will all disappear very soon. My hometown will look very different and new roads will be built. Perhaps it’s the same in all of China, and in all the world.
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