Growing Up by the Sea in Qingdao
Greetings from Chinarrative!
To escape the summer heat, Chinarrative took a brief sojourn to the coastal city of Qingdao in China’s Shandong province.
While there, we reconnected over WeChat with long-time friend Weili Fan, a native of the city who now lives in California. Weili is one of a just a handful of Chinese writing creative nonfiction in English. We’re delighted to share some of her work with readers.
“Graced by the Sea,” which hasn’t been published before, is a collection of memories from Weili’s childhood and adolescence in Qingdao during the 1950s and 1960s, when the city was mired in poverty and even went through a famine. It’s a tale of the sea, of friendships but also of adults who prey on children and reckless development that wipes out heritage.
This piece was written in May 1997 and was inspired by “Lake of Dreams” by Susan Power. It was revised in 2007 for a summer writing program in Prague and revisited in May 2022.
This issue also features original photos from our Qingdao getaway.
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Graced by the Sea: Childhood Memories of ‘Green Island’
By Weili Fan
Qingdao, which translates into Green Island, is a coastal city boasting a meandering
shoreline and undulating land; its streets are lined with lush plane trees and buildings
crowned with red-tiled roofs.
If you stand on high ground, the city appears before you as layer upon layer of red roofs and green treetops, thus the eight-word motto of the city: red roofs, green trees, blue sea, azure sky.
And this is my hometown.
My first childhood home is right across the street from the beach, the oceanfront park and the pier, which stretches four hundred meters into the sea with a golden pagoda at its end.
During the late 50s and early 60s, the years of famine, or the “Three Years of Natural Calamity” in official language, the sea became the main source of entertainment for us—me, my brother, and the neighborhood children.
On the west side of the pier was a sandy beach. My brother and I didn’t visit this beach much because we were not allowed to go swimming without a chaperon. But my parents were always at work; my nainai (paternal grandma), who was our caretaker, would never expose her small bound feet in public, therefore she never ventured to the beach.
As a child I was puzzled as to why bound feet were guarded as sacredly as other private parts. Only years later, when I was in college and read a novella entitled “Three- inch Golden Lilies,” did I learn that, in olden times, women’s small bound feet were the feminine beauty most lauded by men and prided upon by women, and “three-inch golden lilies” was the laudatory term for that ultimate beauty.
East of the pier was a rocky beach. When the tide ebbed away, tidal pools would be left among the jagged rocks, where you’d always find riches of the sea: little fishes swimming back and forth, hermit crabs scurrying away at the slightest touch of your finger, snails in round or pointed shells clinging to the rocks, and many other tiny sea creatures.
What fascinated me most was the flower-like thing we called “sea chrysanthemum,” whose delicate, semi-transparent tentacles, swaying ever so gracefully in the water, would withdraw and close up if touched.
I always poked every sea chrysanthemum I could find, with a twig, never my finger; for my brother, who was two years older than me, had told me that there was a bottomless hole underneath the tentacles that could gulp down my finger. The intensity of the moment—wanting to feel the supple, slimy tentacles with my own fingers while resisting the urge to take the risk—always filled me with an exhilarating thrill.
Fear always got the upper hand, and I never, ever, touched a single sea chrysanthemum with my finger.
Before long, all the sea chrysanthemums closed themselves up, reduced to little mossy lumps camouflaged among the rocks.
Then came our major pastime—catching fish. There were a lot of skills involved—patience, focus, stealth and quickness. If you did not pay close attention, it’d be hard to spot the little fish, whose color blended well among the rocks in the water. You mustn’t give up if no fish revealed itself; all you needed to do was to lift the rocks, very gently, leaving the water as undisturbed as possible. Every now and then, you’d see a fish or two, sometimes a whole bunch, scuttling away.
You could never catch a fish when it was on the run. You had to wait until it calmed down, never letting your eyes off the fish in flight; or you might loose track of it all together. Sometimes, a rock lifted so gently would reveal a still fish, as if napping under the cool shade of the rock. Only when you spotted a still fish or a slow moving one did you know it was time for action.
First you’d find a place on the uneven rocky surface to firmly plant your feet, then squat down as close to the water as possible, holding your breath, slowly bringing your hands, each cupped like a bowl, towards the fish, and at the right moment, make one swift scoop with both hands, and the fish, if it was less quick than you, would be thrashing in your cupped hands.
Catching fish would provide hours of fun and concentration. Sometimes squatting so low over the tidal pool would make the seat of my pants wet, which I wouldn’t even realize until later, and I would certainly feel embarrassed when walking home.
We would put the fishes in old brown medicine bottles and bring them home, along with extra buckets of brine so we could change their water daily. They would become our pets for a couple of days. No matter what good care we took of them, no matter how much we loved them, we would one morning find them floating with their whitish bellies up. They always died overnight, when we were sleeping, therefore their death always remained a mystery. Of course we didn’t know that the fish belonged to the ocean, and could not survive in a small glass bottle.
We kept catching fish, kept hoping that some day we would raise one. Death never daunted us.
During the early 1960s, in the depths of the three-year famine, the neighborhood children would frequent the beach to gather seaweed for food. Like a good sport, we would line up on the beach, waiting for the waves. When the water retreated, we’d rush up, scrambling for the slimy bottle-green plants stranded on the sand, then retreat and wait for the next wave.
There was a sense of pride and joy when you walked away with a bucketful, knowing that, with a layer of soybean flour paste and a dash of salt, rolled and steamed, it would turn into tasty seaweed rolls on the dinner table.
The ocean was generous and inexhaustible; whether it was catching fish or gathering seaweed, we never came home empty-handed.
We moved away from the oceanfront before I started first grade. For years I wondered why my parents chose to leave our old neighborhood, which was one of the best areas of the city.
The large compound known as 2 River South Road, with two three- story apartment complexes sprawling on its south and north sides, belonged to the municipal government, and only the families of city officials lived in those buildings.
The South Building had three-bedroom units with a balcony facing the ocean and a private bathroom—a sign of privilege and luxury—which housed only officials with the 14th rank or above and their families.
The North Building, where we lived, had two- bedroom units and public lavatories on each floor. Its location was the best in town, close to everything—seafront, shopping, transportation and work (for the city officials).
Our new apartment, in a brand new six-story high rise, the tallest residential building in Qingdao at the time, lacked the warmth and coziness of the old one.
The box-like structure was built when the country was suffering from a severe timber shortage, so the whole building was constructed without wood. The floor was gray cement, cold and hard; windows and doors and banisters were all made of iron. Doors always closed with a clang, windows never shut snugly that in winter we had to tuck wads of cotton from worn-out winter jackets into the cracks to reduce the draft.
Everything looked austere. But the saving grace was that each unit had a private toilet, which we all welcomed wholeheartedly.
It was not until five years later, when an incident involving a friend of mine dredged up some recollections from the deep recess of memory, that I realized why we had moved.
Lan and I were in the same fifth-grade class and lived in the same iron-clanging apartment building. She was tall and slender, with a doll face—large eyes, chubby cheeks, and small chin. We’d walk to school together now and then.
On the way to school, we often saw an army-green jeep of some VIP parked on the street. One day I met Lan at the gate of our compound. “See that jeep?” Lan pointed at the car parked not far away from us, then pulled me behind the stone gateway. “I got inside the jeep yesterday,” she whispered.
“You did?” I yelled, full of envy. How I wanted to take a look inside that jeep myself.
But Lan’s face showed no sign of smugness. Instead, she said, “That chauffeur is a weirdo.” “What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.
When she had passed the jeep the day before, Lan told me, the chauffeur greeted her friendly, the door of the jeep open, his feet on the curb, his body half in and half out against the seat inside. I remembered seeing the chauffeur once in a while, a muscular, medium-build young man.
“You beautiful girl,” the chauffeur said, “Wanna take a look? I just cleaned it inside out.” Then he added in whisper, “I won’t show it to any other kids.”
Flattered, Lan accepted the invitation, and the chauffeur let her in on the driver side, and he himself got into the jeep from the passenger side. While Lan was exploring the meters, knobs, etc., the chauffeur unbuttoned his pants.
“Oh, his thing was like a horse’s,” Lan said, her lips curled in disgust. “He just rubbed and rubbed himself with one hand, and the other hand pressed on my thigh, his expression was so strange I dared not move. Then some milk- like thing came out, his body slumped and he pulled back his hand from my leg and I got out.”
Lan was so scared by his strange behavior, especially “his eerie looks.” She wondered whether she should report this to the teacher. I don’t remember what my advice was, but I do remember what it brought back to me from memories buried deep and long.
Our next-door neighbors in our old apartment complex were an elderly couple, with an only son big and tall. He was probably in his early twenties, and didn’t seem to be in school or have a job. He had often invited me to his home to see his knickknacks while his parents were at work. I had even got to play with some delicate china figurines he collected, and he had candies, too. Nobody had given me such kind attention. I was happy in his home, which was more shipshape, less cramped than ours.
I was never afraid of him. He did the same thing the chauffeur did. I was too young to make any meaning out of it, only surprised that men could also make milk.
I remembered overhearing my parents discuss him in secret; they mentioned my little sisters and me. Not long after that we moved. And now it dawned on me that we must have moved because of him. The thing both he and the chauffeur did must be terribly wrong.
My parents moved us away from the potential danger in utter silence. They never talked to us about it, never offered us any explanation, any warning, any advice. Nobody did. We could only strain our minds, innocent and ignorant, trying to comprehend the world around us on our own.
I remember reading bulletins posted in public on the sentences of criminals ever since I was able to read. Reading such bulletins offered an interesting sidetrack from the monotonous, tedious readings of Mao’s Little Red Book.
Some crimes I immediately understood, such as “counter-revolutionary activities,” or “sabotage of the Proletarian Dictatorship,” which might involve holding secret meetings, spreading bad ideas, slandering the Great Leader and the Party, or passing out reactionary leaflets.
But I was always baffled when I came across “So and so was sentenced to x years in prison for molesting young girls,” or “for raping women.” I always wondered, long and hard, what such crimes were.
After we moved, the beach became out of reach, for we were not allowed to go out of the immediate neighborhood. However, I didn’t miss beach-going for long. Soon the “Unprecedented Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” swept over China. Everyone, old or young, intellectual or illiterate, was plunged into this revolutionary tempest.
I did not miss the sea any more because I was also busy making revolution—participating in denunciation meetings, putting up Big-Character Posters (dazibao), learning songs and dances in praise of Chairman Mao and performing in streets corners and factories...
I repeated sixth grade of elementary school, because graduation was delayed due to the Cultural Revolution. There wasn’t much difference in the curriculum for each grade: We were taught by students in grades above us, as our teachers were engaged in the revolution full time. Every day we hand-copied Chairmen Mao’s quotations, memorized them, and recited them aloud. Or we practiced composition, which was either in a fiery style against various enemies; or piled with laudatory terms to glorify our great leader.
I went to middle/high school (grades 7 through 12) in the early 70s. The school sat on the east shore of a crescent bay with our classroom looking out on the curved shoreline to the west. On the first day of school, I found myself overwhelmed with joy, my heart swelling, my feet treading on clouds, not so much for learning the new as for finding the old—the sea. As if an invisible string had pulled me to the sea, reconnecting me with a long lost friend. Just looking at it, its vast satin surface ruffling and glittering in the sun was immensely soothing.
It was during this period that adolescence descended on me without warning. Along with it came an inexplicable restlessness and loneliness. The blind revolutionary zeal that had once possessed me gave way to a wistful yearning. The political activities—the Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thoughts study sessions; the song and dance assemblies in praise of the victories of Mao’s revolutionary line; the experiments of revolution in education, which sent us to factories, farming villages, army units to learn from workers, peasants and soldiers—began to loose their original appeal.
I yearned for solitude; I felt a nameless longing; something was missing, yet what it was I couldn’t tell.
My best friend, Ling, and I would frequent the seafront as much as we could. We always tried to find excuses to stay behind after school. Then we would stroll along the beach or sit somewhere on the seawall and lose ourselves in endless talks. We always walked with arms linked, our bodies pitched against each other at the shoulders; if one of us were pulled away, the other would fall.
We were always spotted together, so much so that we became known as “conjoined twins.” If once in a while I alone came upon a teacher in the street, he would ask jokingly, “Where is your other half?”
Sometimes we collected shells on the beach; or rather, I collected shells and Ling helped. In a life marked by scarcity and monotony, the simple joy of finding a beautiful shell was gratifying. After a while, my shell-collecting turned into shell-crafting; my tools were sulfuric acid and super glue.
The shells were first given an exfoliating bath in sulfuric acid, which would remove their rough outer surface, revealing a finer, smoother skin underneath. I loved the sizzling moment when I first dipped a shell in the acid, which hissed and smoked around the shell; after the sizzle subsided, the shell would emerge in a complete new look.
The sputter would always remind me of the horror stories I’d heard, stories about sulfuric acid used as means of revenge, such as a jilted lover splashing sulfuric acid on the face of his former lover, ruining her looks. The risk I was taking, with no goggles or gloves, but a pair of chopsticks, added more excitement.
With imagination and skilled hands, a scallop shell would become the fanned-out tail of a peacock; a cockleshell the face of a panda, with tiny mussel shells glued on as eyes and ears; a round whorled shell a bird with the apex as the eye and a tiny conical shell affixed as the beak. A long spiral shell, after I filed it on the granular cement surface of our balcony, would become an elegant pagoda.
I poured my yearning for beauty and my creative energy into this collaboration with the sea. And the sea treated me with handsome rewards.
Sometimes Ling and I would simply sit quietly with arms around each other, listening to the sea. The lapping of the waves was soothing. The sea breeze, moist and a bit salty, felt like a gentle hand brushing our young faces and pent-up bodies. A net of intimacy would enwrap us, and that nameless longing inside seemed subdued.
We were one in communion with the sea. We had no other recreation, no other close relationship. During the years of confused and suppressed adolescence, the sea nourished our friendship; sustained our growth.
Once during a walk by the sea, Ling told me a rumor she had heard. A girl in upper class was pregnant, expelled from the school. Rumor had it that this girl shared the same bed with an adopted brother. Sharing a bed with family members was not uncommon since most families lived in overcrowded quarters.
“How could you get pregnant by sharing a bed with a boy?” I asked. “Beats me,” Ling said with the same puzzled look.
Baffled by its mystery and scared by its consequences, we warned each other to be careful in our contact with boys, though boys and girls had no social contact in those days—they were not even on speaking terms. There was always a safe distance kept between the sexes, which seemed to be an unwritten norm.
But since we were student cadres—members of the student council responsible for organizing all school activities—duty often called upon us to work with boys.
The rumor also had it that the girl was very pretty. Neither Ling nor I knew her, so we tried to picture her beauty in our minds. The girl grew more and more beautiful in our mind’s eye so that at the end of our long talk, our disgust for her disgrace turned into pity and sympathy.
Upon graduation from high school, I, like most other graduates of our generation, was sent to the countryside to receive “re-education” from the peasants. Ling and I were assigned to different places. We made one last visit to our favorite haunt to say goodbye to the sea and to each other.
Overwhelmed by the uncertainty of what lay ahead of us, we sat still, saying little. We held each other’s hands, looked hard into the unfathomable end of the ocean, into the unreachable horizon. I said, to her or to myself or to the ocean, “Please, wherever I go, let me be with the sea.” As long as I am by the sea, I thought to myself, life will be bearable, my heart will be content.
Little did I know that the sea would not be my companion again, that life would one day become more fulfilling than the days I spent with the sea. That life would be on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
In the summer of 1993, six years after I last laid eye on the deep blue ocean of my home town, I returned from America, with my four-year-old daughter, Mona, to the Green Island to see my folks, to visit friends, to look for the childhood years long gone, to embrace the sea again that had given me so much during the years of poverty and ignorance.
I came with excitement and anticipation; I left with a sense of loss and disbelief.
On the one hand, I was pleased with the economic development. More modern skyscrapers had been erected, especially along the coastline; markets were flooded with kaleidoscopic commodities and free-spending people: long strands of shiny pearls forming glittering curtains in front of the peddlers’ stalls, gaudy clothing fluttering in the breeze like flags, shoes, handbags, scarves, straw hats... all piled up in great quantity and a riot of colors.
I found myself drowned in a multilingual well of accents and dialects. I marveled at the freedom people now had to travel and set up quarters wherever they like. The far-away stretches of the coast, which used to be poor farming or fishing villages, had turned into modern suburbs with tall buildings and chic villas.
But on the other hand, I was saddened by the “de-construction and de-composition” of the city I used to know: The oceanfront area, my favorite childhood haunt, had been sold to some developer from Singapore; the dove-gray, warship-shaped building where my father used to work as a city official, which was regarded as an important landmark of the city, had been demolished to make room for the Singaporean developer’s new constructions. Many other parts of the city, including landmark buildings, had become parts and parcels belonging to overseas developers.
The city swarmed with traffic. The back streets, going up and down and zigzagging among residential buildings, which had been used by pedestrians only, were now dangerously taken over by cars. Vehicles ranging from VW bugs to Cadillacs to double-deck buses choked the thoroughfares, moving at snail’s speed. The oceanfront was crowded with tourists, bustling with shoppers and peddlers, and the beaches scattered with litter.
The serenity along the seashore was nowhere to be found.
I took Mona to the rocky beach to catch fish, but we found none. Instead, we saw in the tidal pools cellophane candy wrappers, wooden popsicle sticks, swollen AA batteries and what not.
In the end, I managed to find a sluggish crab smaller than my thumb nail. I become lost.
Lost in the city where I grew up; lost at the oceanfront where I passed countless hours as a child. I realize, with a pang, that the sea of my childhood is forever gone, that the quiet and quaint coastal city I called home is no more. In its place another city of modern hubbub and skyscrapers is erected; a city separated from the tranquility and riches of the sea by too much commerce, too much traffic—a city in which I am a stranger.
I left my home city with an acute sense of loss, but also a hope—hoping that I can come back to reacquaint myself with Qingdao, the Green Island of my childhood, to rediscover the sea of my past. Until then, I will always feel the pull of that invisible string: I have been nurtured by the sea, by its depth, its intensity, its generosity and its unrelenting surge; the sea is deep inside me, in my blood, in my heart and soul.