The Search for Grandfather’s House, Part Two

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

Grandfather's House - Qingdao, China
The Scott house in Qingdao, China

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

Qingdao House - Qingdao, China
A close candidate for my great-grandfather’s house.

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).

Scott House Under Construction - Qingdao, China
Scott house under construction in Qingdao, China.

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.

Qingdao's Coastline - Qingdao, China
On the search for my great-grandfather’s house.

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.

Protestant Church - Qingdao, China
Protestant church in Qingdao, Church.

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 to Find the House

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

Shopping Center - Qingdao, China
Where my grandfather’s house was? A newish shopping center in Qingdao.

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.

Another Discovery

Faber Hospital - Qingdao, China
The hospital where my grandfather was born.

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 in Qingdao

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.

Family Roots in India

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.

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Comments

  1. Olivier says

    Audrey & Dan,

    That was an amazing story you wrote there!
    I am happy that you fulfilled one of your dream and that you will still move forward to your next journey.
    I do also understand now your amazing taste for discovering places and people with this introduction of your family story.

    Enjoy your next trip and please feed us with these stories!

    Your Reunion Island’ buddy in Beijing.

    PS: I did not find the add to click on… lol :))

  2. says

    Olivier,glad you enjoyed the story about my grandfather and the search in Qingdao! We hope to return to China in the springtime, so the search may continue then. Until that time, we have India to explore, which I’m sure will yield lots of stories!

    We’re working on an itinerary for the rest of the year – looking at Africa, including Reunion, probably late in 2008. Once we *finally* get out of Asia, we’ll have a better idea.

    PS – Ads are under the story and above the comments box ; )

  3. Pete De Ritter says

    I enjoyed reading about “Your Grandfather’s House”. I’ve booked marked your site and hope to come back and read more about your adventures. You might find the story of how I came across your site interesting. I now live in Comstock Park just north of Grand Rapids, MI. When my parents moved to the Holland Home here in Grand Rapids we got some of the books they had. One of those books was The Triumph of John and Betty Stam by Mrs. Howard Taylor. I went to High School in New Jersey with Karen and Paul Stam and Mary Beth Stevens. John and Betty Stam would be there great uncle and aunt. When I saw this book I asked my folks if there was any connections to the New Jersey Stam’s and they told stories of Peter Stam (John’s father) preaching on the streets of Paterson, NJ and founding the Star of Hope Mission which is still in existence today. They told me that Paul, Karen and Mary Beth were related to John and Betty. With that much of a connection I figured I just had to read the book. I am so glad I did. That little book really affected me. Their faith was inspiring.
    At the moment I am laid up with a tibial plateau fracture and won’t be able to put any weight on my leg for 3 months. (Skiing accident – great story) Since I’ve got a lot of spare time at the moment I have been researching the story of John and Betty Stam. Today I was surfing the net looking for information and pictures of the towns that John and Betty lived in while in China and came across your website. I was familiar with Betty’s parents (Audrey’s great-grandparents) from the book and was also looking for information about them. So that’s how I came across your website. It’s been the highlight of my day.
    Where you able to find out anything about where Dr. and Mrs. Scott lived in Tsinan? They apparently lived there for quite some time. They were living there in October of 1933.
    I pray the Lord will bless you in your travels and keep you safe.

  4. says

    Pete, thank you for your comment and for letting us know how you found our site – pretty fascinating! Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit Tsinan before our Chinese visas expired. My grandfather visited China in the early 1990s, he visited Tsinan, but wasn’t able to find the house where he spent several years growing up. The house may still be there, but the guide didn’t know the historical German areas very well.

    I have passed your comment on to my father so that he can print it out to show it to my grandfather. I’m sure he will appreciate your interest in his sister.

    Wishing you a speedy recovery and thanks for your good wishes with our travels!
    Audrey

  5. says

    Hi there,

    I read your article a few weeks ago but not sure my comment went through. Just wanted to ask if you had any updates in your search? I have been living in Qingdao for almost two years now, am quite fascinated with the history of the area and every free moment is spent researching the history.

    Really wish I could have tried to help you find it when you were here a couple years ago. Actually, looking at the picture with the temple in the background, I honestly feel I may have a good idea of where this house is found. I lived over there for a while and I think it would be just west of Bathing Beach No.1 as you start to head up Yushan Hill. I actually have a picture of the house I am thinking of, but couldnt find it at the moment.

    Do you have any updates or any additional information? I would really like to try and help you find it so you can have the chance to see it if you ever have the chance to stop back by Qingdao.

    I write for some local magazines and am even thinking about putting a book together and feel your family’s story would definitely be of interest to some local folks.

    Please feel free to email me!

    Cheers,
    Marcus

  6. says

    @Marcus: I’m sorry your previous attempt at commenting didn’t work. Thanks so much for your offer to help find the house built by my great grandfather in Qingdao. It would be wonderful to get a photo of the house if it does still exist – I know my family would really love to see it. I will send you an email shortly with some more information. Thanks again for your help and perseverance in getting the comment through!

  7. says

    Loved this post as well! I almost felt your disappointment of not finding the house. However, the journey, as you said, is also very valuable. Again, that is the best reason for traveling. It makes something amazing so much more meaningful!

  8. says

    @Natalia: Although I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to find the house (especially as my father was so looking forward to seeing the house), I’m so glad that I made the effort and was able to take this journey. The entire experience was fulfilling and was the perfect end to our travels through China.

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