A century of enduring bonds renewed in a summer resort in southeast China
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2023-07-07  ·   Source: NO.28 JULY 13, 2023
Guests attend a panel discussion at the Bond With Kuliang: 2023 China-U.S. People-to-People Friendship Forum in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, on June 28 (XINHUA)

When a running stream showed up over a video call from China, centenarian Len Billing in the United States raised his voice with excitement. "Oh, I remember this stream," he said over the phone. "John once fell down in there!"

The 103-year-old can hardly speak articulately most of the time, but his memory of his childhood home in China is quite clear, even though he has never returned after leaving there at 16.

Guling, or Kuliang in local dialect, is a mountainous area in the suburbs of Fuzhou, Fujian Province in southeast China. Since the first house was built there by a British doctor in 1886, hundreds of foreigners had built their summer houses there in the following half a century. During its peak, the town boasted over 300 villas.

Many children of these families, after leaving China, have continued to recall those days, telling their children and grandchildren about their childhood paradise. 

The bond has brought some of these former Kuliang residents back to China. On June 28, some of them and their descendants attended a reunion gathering in Kuliang. They also attended the Bond With Kuliang: 2023 China-U.S. People-to-People Friendship Forum, jointly hosted by the Chinese People's Association for Friendship With Foreign Countries and the government of Fujian Province. President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory letter to the forum, saying that their stories have shown once again that the Chinese and American people can transcend differences in system, culture and language to forge profound friendship.

Billing, who couldn't make the trip, was given a tour of Kuliang via the video call. Elyn MacInnis, who spoke to Billing over the phone, is the daughter-in-law of Donald MacInnis, who lived in China in the 1940s and spent most of his summers at Kuliang. Now, Elyn MacInnis, 72, plays an important role in exploring stories of the town.

"Foreigners and local Chinese lived together like friends in Kuliang," Elyn MacInnis said during a speech at the Bond With Kuliang forum on June 28. "They collaboratively worked to make Kuliang a better place."

Elyn MacInnis visited Kuliang for the first time in 2015, even though she had been living in China for almost three decades by then.

An aerial view of Kuliang in Fuzhou on June 28 (XINHUA)

A centurial bond 

A trip made in 1992 by the wife of a late Kuliang resident called Milton Gardner is considered the beginning of the renewal of the old bond between these U.S. families and Kuliang.

Once a professor of physics at the University of California, Gardner spent 10 years of his childhood in Fujian in the early 1900s and each summer his parents would take him to Kuliang.

He moved back to California with his family in 1911 and was never able to return to Kuliang in his later life. In his final days, he kept murmuring the word "Kuliang" in bed. Mrs. Gardner only knew it was a place in Fujian of China but couldn't get from him a clue as to where it was exactly.

After Gardner passed away in 1986, Mrs. Gardner never stopped looking for the place. She even travelled to China a few times to find it out but only returned with disappointment. As Kuliang is the area's name in the local Fujian dialect, it was difficult for people who don't know the dialect to figure out what or where it was.

Finally, Liu Zhonghan, a Chinese student studying in the United States, figured out where Kuliang was, with clues from 12 faded stamps left by Gardner, and gave Mrs. Gardner her long-awaited answer. Liu wrote a story about Mrs. Gardner's efforts in finding the place and submitted it to Chinese newspaper People's Daily.

The story was published in April 1992. Xi, then Secretary of the Fuzhou Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China, read the story and soon invited Mrs. Gardner to visit Kuliang.

This visit helped to bring the stories of other foreign families who had lived in Kuliang to light.

By then, Elyn MacInnis and her husband Peter MacInnis had been living in China with their two daughters for several years, since 1988.

Her father-in-law Donald MacInnis lived in China in the 1940s and worked as a teacher at a middle school and then at a college, and was once a member of the Flying Tigers, a formidable group of U.S. volunteer fighter pilots who helped China fight the Japanese invasion in 1940s.

In 2004, at the age of 84, Donald MacInnis accepted the invitation to teach at Wuyi University in Fujian for a year. After teaching there, he passed away in the United States in 2005 and included in his will that he wanted half of his ashes to be scattered in the Minjiang River, a major river in Fujian.

A decade after her father-in-law's decease, Elyn MacInnis and her husband went to Fujian, fulfilling his wish and it was then that she paid her first visit to Kuliang.

Getting back in touch 

In the seven years following her 2015 visit to Kuliang, Elyn MacInnis and her husband visited many libraries in the United States. She gathered over 1,000 pieces of information. East China University of Science and Technology, based in Shanghai, utilized artificial intelligence technology to process the old photos she found and eventually created a genealogy archive of former Kuliang families.

She finally got in touch with more than 10 U.S. families who had connections with Kuliang. "I heard many touching stories of Kuliang in the process," she recently told Xinhua News Agency. "These stories tell us that people from different cultures and countries can build firm friendship and the friendship can be passed down for generations."

An interesting thing she found was that some Kuliang seniors spoke some simple English while the American seniors who once resided there could still pick up some words in Fuzhou dialect. Gail Harris, who was born in Kuliang in 1942, took a picture with a local baby girl who was born on the same day she was.

This year, Harris met up with the baby girl in the picture, who, like herself, now has silver hair. Even though they still needed an interpreter to chat with each other, Harris occasionally spoke some words in the local Chinese dialect. "It is a surprise," she told Fuzhou Daily. "It is like something built in my brain. I don't need to practice. I am sure that if I stay longer, I will remember all the words I knew before."

Based on all the available information, Elyn MacInnis, who is now the lead researcher of the Kuliang Tourism and Culture Research Association, established a website introducing Kuliang history and telling these stories.

"Almost every item in Kuliang carries a memorable story," she said. From the swimming pool filled with water from a small mountain stream, to a swing on the porch, and from the large rocks where families gathered for picnics to the tennis court that Billing loves most.

Lee Gardner, grandnephew of Milton Gardner, shared a story about a millennia-old cedar tree, known as the "king tree" in Kuliang. "My granduncle loved to climb the king tree in the center of the town with his Chinese playmates to find baby birds," he said at the forum. "When my grandaunt visited Kuliang in 1992, she brought a piece of the tree's bark back to the United States with her. When my brother and I came here in 2018, we put our arms around the tree."

"I hope the friendship between China and the United States can be like this king tree that can endure for generations," Elyn MacInnis said.

(Print Edition Title: Kuliang, Kuliang) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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