We’re headed next to Qingdao to look for my grandfather's birthplace and the house my great-grandparents built.
— explaining our travel plans in China to a group of expats at a Thanksgiving dinner in Beijing.
The group appeared utterly confused. I don’t look like I’m of Chinese heritage in the least. So how is it that my grandfather was born in China? And had a house in Qingdao?
When I was a kid, I remember going out for Chinese food during extended family gatherings in Asheville, North Carolina. The repeated joke: a family member would point to a Tsingtao beer and say, “This is where your grandfather was born.” While I enjoyed hearing this and other family stories related to China, it didn't mean much to me at the time.
Until now, I have not been particularly interested in genealogy or researching my family's past. Perhaps it's that virtually all of the research has already been done. There are family trees that go back hundreds of years and my grandfather has written a book about his own life. Unlike many families, including Dan’s, few, if any, mysteries seem to remain about mine. As a result, my search for the house that my great-grandparents built in Qingdao, China began as a simple task that I embarked on in order to please my family rather than something I pursued of my own burning interest.
We believe the house (pictured above) still exists; a distant relative located it on her trip to Qingdao in the early 1990s. However, we have little information to go on other than a rumor that the house is a now a hospital for Chinese naval officers. In order to jog my 92-year-old grandfather’s memory, my father showed him Qingdao on Google Earth and tried to help narrow down where the house could be located in relation to landmarks like the ocean and the Protestant church.
Finding a house built over 70 years ago in Qingdao, China (now a city of 1.6 million people) without an address will not be an easy task. China's recent affinity for sending a wrecking ball towards anything old and rebuilding only makes it that much more difficult. But, we're going to give it our best shot.
Myth vs. Reality
The myth behind the residence that my great-grandparents built in Qingdao was that it was a vital source of Scott family history and memories and a place of important family gatherings. The reality that has emerged based on my father's recent inquiries is that my grandfather never lived in the house, there were never any family reunions within its walls or gardens, and my great-grandparents never saw it completed because they had to flee China in the face of the approach of Mao's army in 1939. Apparently, my great-grandparents gave some money to a White Russian man to complete the house, but he was forced to turn it over to the Communists after they seized power.
Rather than dampening my interest, this unexpected twist has piqued my curiosity in my grandfather's childhood and his family’s experiences in China in the early 20th century.
Digging Deeper into Family History
My great-grandparents moved to China in 1907 when my great-grandfather accepted a position as a Presbyterian missionary in the German colony town of Tsingtao (now Qingdao). The family included five children, my grandfather being the youngest of the bunch.
China was not always kind to the Scott family, especially during the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950) when Communist forces gradually gained control over the country. For example, my grandfather's sister, Betty Stam, and her husband were decapitated by Communist forces in 1934 in Miaosheo, a town close to Jingde where they had been working as missionaries. Their 3-month old baby, Helen, survived after a prisoner gave his life for her. Two days after the beheading, she was found by a Chinese Christian who secretly took her to the missionary compound in Wuhu to reunite her with her grandparents (my great-grandparents) in Qingdao.
My great-grandparents eventually fled China five years later. My great-uncle Lad and his family were the last of the Scott clan to leave China and were evacuated by rescue flight from Central China in 1943.
My Grandfather's Story
My grandfather was born in Tsingtao (Qingdao) in 1916, but the family moved when he was two years old to Tsinan (currently Jinan). He lived in this house (pictured above) until he went to boarding school in PyongYang, Korea from 7th-10th grade (1927-1931), in part to escape from the civil war that had broken out in China. My grandfather left China in 1931 to finish his last two years of high school in the United States and he remained there to attend university. He did see the infamous Scott residence of Qingdao being built during his return in 1935 for a family reunion.
He returned to China in late 1943 as a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in the China Burma India (CBI) Theater of World War II. After receiving some preliminary training in India, he flew to Kunming, China and continued along the Burma road to Chiang Kai Shek's Second Army headquarters. He remained in China until early 1945 and returned to the U.S. thereafter to rejoin my grandmother.
One of my favorite “grandpa stories” is the one where the U.S. Army gave him and his fellow officers, many of them former China missionary kids with a basic knowledge of Chinese language skills, a brush-up language course on the boat from San Francisco to Bombay, India, before their transfer to China.
Along the way, the U.S. Army taught them the Chinese Nationalist anthem so that they could impress the Chinese Nationalist Army upon their arrival. After they arrived in China, they were greeted by their counterparts in the Chinese Nationalist Army. The members of my grandfather’s unit then put on the best show they could, belting out the anthem they had just learned with verve and gusto.
Their show of camaraderie was met with total shock, however. As it turns out, the U.S. Army trained my grandfather and his unit in the Chinese Communist anthem instead of the Chinese Nationalist anthem. Nowadays, when my grandfather tells the story, he finishes it off by standing up straight as an arrow and delivering the Chinese Communist anthem with astounding clarity. He insists it’s just not possible to sing it sitting down.
My grandfather took his last trip to China in 1990. He searched for both houses during his visit, but he was never able to find them.
The big question that has emerged: Why did my great-grandparents spend all their money on building a huge house in Qingdao when it looked like the winds of change were blowing rather favorably in the direction of a Communist victory?
They must have held out hope that things would eventually return to the way they were. After all, they gave money for the house to be completed after they fled the country. What was it about China that made them want to stay? Was it the place? The people? The dedication to their work?
Now I'm curious about my grandfather's life growing up in China, including his interactions with the country and its people. Likewise, my grandfather is curious about our experiences and interactions here in China. Apparently, he’s been following our journey across the country, taking out a National Geographic map and marking our route as we make our way around.
I'm uncovering bits of China's past through my family's stories that make the country's history somehow feel more alive — a challenge here due to the modern Chinese practice of tearing down the old and building anew. I'm also finding something here in China that I did not expect, a family connection.
More Family History to Discover
When we travel to Argentina next year we'll have an opportunity to discover my mother’s and grandmother’s birthplace, and hopefully learn more about my maternal great-grandparents who emigrated to Argentina from Switzerland in the early 20th century. Similarly, Dan's family roots will likely take us back to eastern Slovakia next summer.
One unintended outcome of this entire journey may be that we learn more about our families, where they came from and why they continually chose to discover, to move, and to continually redefine their lives. These choices resonate strongly with us today.
A special thanks goes to my father for his dedication in collecting details from my grandfather and attempting to determine where *the* house is located as I assembled this piece.
Update: You can read the the follow-up article on what happened when we did go searching for my grandfather's house in Quingdao here (spoiler alert: we didn't find it).
However, many years later we received a message from a Chinese reader and architecture enthusiast in Qingdao and he managed to find the house. It seems like it has been in use by the Chinese Navy. A few renovations and changes, but it's still recognizable and we have an actual address for the next time someone in my family searches for the house in Qingdao. Kind of amazing how it was the power of the internet that solved the mystery.