The new house, commanding magnificent views of open sea and bathing beaches, and mountains and forest gardens, and houses. North of the Iltis Huk church, at foot of the big hill, on south slope. Wish you could enjoy it soon with us. Big love, Daddy
- a note on the back of a photo of the house in Qingdao, China, written by my great-grandfather to one of his children on July 31, 1937.
Armed with the photo of the house and the description above, we hopped on a bus in the direction of Huiquan Bay, the area of Qingdao where we figured the house might be located. Our search not only took us deeper into my family’s history, but also into China’s past and present.
If you’re new to this story, maybe you’d like to read the first part.
A Hopeful Start
The first people to whom we showed the photo (left) pointed us confidently down a side street, smack in the middle of what was Iltis Huk (the old name of one of the German neighborhoods in Qingdao). Chills ran down our spines. “This is it,” we thought. It was all we could do to keep ourselves from running. As we reached the bottom of the street, our hearts began to sink. We passed by so many buildings that featured the same grand German architecture from the early 1900s, but there was no match.
“It would have been too easy if we found it on the first try,” I consoled myself.
We showed the photo to another middle-aged Chinese woman. She didn’t speak a word of English, but she was determined to help us – so much so that she took us to the local police station and enlisted the help of the entire neighborhood squad.
The Present: In the Hands of the Police
The photo of the house made the rounds through at least ten pairs of police hands. At one point, a procession – three policemen, the woman from the street, Dan and I – traipsed up and down the nearby streets, comparing each house with our photo. Nearby construction workers eyed the whole spectacle with amusement. We had to keep from laughing out loud at the circus that our curiosity had created.
Considering that our visit to the police station was taking up valuable time and offering little value to our search, we tried to politely separate ourselves from the station. No one there spoke English, so any communication on our part was met with blank looks. The police chief continued to make phone calls and motioned for us to sit and wait.
Eventually, a phone call came in from a woman from the police department responsible for visiting foreigners. She spoke English. I thought the phone call was to help bridge the language gap. Instead of asking what I needed to communicate to the police chief, however, she insisted on asking me a battery of questions regarding my purpose in Qingdao and China.
“Who are you?”
“What are you doing in Qingdao?”
“Why did your family live here?”
“Where are you staying?”
“Why are you looking for this house?”
This line of questioning lasted about ten minutes. I began to feel like maybe I was doing something wrong by looking for the house. My pulse started to rise and I became uncomfortable and desperate for an exit. Dan also grew noticeably worried.
To provide me with an excuse to extract myself from the station, Dan strategically ducked out to a nearby museum, taking the photo of the house with him. I was stuck with the police chief who charaded that I should wait for yet another telephone call. Edging towards the door, I finally managed to communicate to a policewoman who had just returned from lunch that I needed to find my husband and used this as an excuse to leave.
Freedom finally achieved, my heart still raced; I was flushed. The psychology of police questioning is fascinating. Even though my intentions were innocent, the line of questioning to which I was subjected over the phone made me feel guilty. Maybe we had broken some obscure Chinese law that forbids searching for the house of a displaced family member?
Though the questioning was remarkably unpleasant, we were treated politely by all the local police officers and we never felt physically threatened.
The Past: Not So Unique After All
After we shrugged off our run-in with the police, we figured we’d have no problem finding the house. After all, the photo of the house and its description seemed so unique. Each person we showed the photo to would send us confidently in a new direction. We walked and followed these leads for almost eight hours. Our hopes rose and fell repeatedly during the day as we passed numerous houses that were “almost it” or “maybe could have been it with a few renovations.”
We were stunned by the endless streets of German architecture, not only because it made our search that much harder, but because the scope of the historically German part of Qingdao was so vast. We were further surprised by the number of homes from this period that survived (i.e., that they hadn’t been taken out by a wrecking ball).
As the winter sun faded, we accepted defeat, at least for the first day. Later that evening, I logged into my email to find another note from my father. Coincidentally, he had just received a Christmas letter from his cousin – the same one who had found the house in 1990. She included photocopies of old photos and details of the house, giving us a bit more to go on. One of the photos showed my great-grandfather looking out over the coast, indicating that the house, with a pagoda near its northeast corner, was indeed close to the beach.
Day 2: The Search Continues
The next morning, we hopped on the bus again, armed with new energy. We figured that the house must be further west than where we had searched previously. This time, we carefully avoided the police station, going out of our way to give it a wide birth.
We walked the coast from a large shopping center to the Naval Museum, keeping the pagoda on the hill in sight the whole time. We amused construction workers by comparing our photo to the houses they were helping to reconstruct. Again, our discussions often revolved around whether – without this adjusted balcony or that roof top – the structure we surveyed could match the home in our photo. In each case, we found a structural feature that seemed to rule out a match.
In the afternoon, our search eventually brought us to the Protestant church. The church was in remarkable condition and it still operates, bell tower and all. We found this surprising given the apparent wrath of the Cultural Revolution and the destruction it visited on historical and religious sites.
We tried asking whether or not this was the only Protestant church that served the Iltis Huk neighborhood. Unsurprisingly, no one in Qingdao today recognizes the German name. We determined that this must have been my great-grandparent’s church, since the only other church in town is Catholic. In the church shop, we searched through books full of pencil-sketched historical buildings in Qingdao in order to find a match for our photo. Again, nothing.
After scouring more streets near the foot of the church and chasing houses in the distance that looked similar, we had exhausted all our tools, save one.
One Last Attempt
The woman working the reception desk at our hostel took an interest in our search the night before and gave us the name and address of the Qingdao Property Office. She thought that the property office might store historical records of homes and buildings in Qingdao.
It was close to 4 PM and the light was weak by the time we found the property office. We had imagined a room with an underemployed person sitting at a tired old help desk, which is what you seem to find at most offices in China. We figured that we could point to words in our dictionary in order to communicate something like “We need the historical records department.”
Instead, the property office was a frenzy of people, not unlike the images we’ve seen of the New York Stock Exchange. People bounced off one another like pin balls in a large pit. Fast-moving employees manned large counters. Stacks of paper moved quickly with each transaction. An electronic bulletin board called the next 30 customers. It was all too much to take on and marked the end of our search.
Coming to Terms
I’ve played out several scenarios in my head. The house could still be there in Qingdao. In spite of all the ground we covered along three different bays, it could still be hidden behind a newly built building. The possibility also exists that it was torn down to make room for one of the several shopping centers that now line the coast.
I’m not sure if we’ll ever know until we return someday to try again.
Although I didn’t find the house, I did find my grandfather’s birthplace. On our first walk into town, we passed a large, pastel yellow building with a historical plaque outside that indicated “Faber Hospital.” I looked at Dan and said, “I think this is the hospital where my grandfather was born.” Dan looked at me, “You’re joking.” I hadn’t done any research on Faber Hospital, yet we had literally stumbled upon it within our first few hours in the city.
While I felt that I had let my father down by not finding the house – especially considering all the work and research he had done – I began to think that maybe it was appropriate that I didn’t find it. Of course, I could just be trying to make myself feel better, but stick with me.
While the initial research on the house shattered the myth of the Qingdao house being a place of family reunions and memories, further research indicates that my grandfather’s connection with the house was virtually non-existent.
My grandfather has an excellent memory, particularly for someone who is 92-years-old. He can remember the most minute details from 70+ years ago – the name of a boat or the names of fellow students. However, he doesn’t remember the house at all; he told my father – incorrectly – that it was built after my great-grandparents left China in 1939.
My father, playing detective, put together the facts based on details found in family letters and on the backs of family photos. The house was in fact built between 1934 and 1937. Apparently a photo exists somewhere of my grandfather standing on the building site during a family reunion in 1935. The reunion was called to gather everyone together after the murder of my grandfather’s sister, Betty Stam, and was intended to help the family grieve. Needless to say, this was not an easy time. My grandfather seems to have blocked much of his visit – the house included – from his memory.
What We Found
Although I was disappointed that I failed to find the house, I observed first-hand the vast history of the German concession in Qingdao and the actual building in which my grandfather was born. I now have a better understanding of my own family history through this process. I can appreciate and understand now why my great-grandparents dreamed of retiring there – the coast of Qingdao is a beautiful and peaceful place.
Without the mission of finding this house, the names, dates, and events attached to my grandfather’s stories would lack a personal connection for me and therefore remain flat. Although I’m still curious about what life was like for him growing up in China and Korea, I can now imagine it just a bit more clearly. The physical house may still be out there, but rather than being an end in itself, its possible existence served as my motivation to take a closer look at my family history.
While I mentioned family connections in Slovakia and Argentina in my previous post, I momentarily forgot my family’s connections with India, a country we’ll visit in the next few months.
My grandfather also lived in Ludhiana from 1964-1974 while working for the Christian Medical College and Hospital. Coincidentally, my mother’s family also lived in India between 1954 and 1958 as her father taught journalism under the auspices of World Literacy, Inc. I also spent my very early days in Madras, India following my father’s assignment to the American Consulate there.
Although my family’s connections in India probably won’t dictate our route through the country, they will, however, add a personal dimension to our visit there. These connections also motivate me to better understand not only my family history, but the countries in which my family chose to live. As Dan and I search for our next home on this journey, maybe we’ll learn something from their decisions that will assist us with ours.
Article Series - Grandfather's House in China
- To Grandfather’s House We Go
- The Search for Grandfather’s House, Part Two