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Childhood memories of a Toysan Village


Ben Hong
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There have been several mentions of "dace" in recent threads and at least one query as to what it is. Dace then, is my muse for writing this thread. No, this is not a "fish story" for 'pon my word every word is true. :rolleyes:

My natal village is located in the region of Guangdong Province commonly called Toysan (Taishan, Toisaan, Hoysaan will also do) and it is found amid 4 other villages belonging to the "Hong" or in Mandarin, "Hsiung" clan (my Japanese friends always make a big to-do in greeting the fierce "Kuma-san" (Bear) :biggrin: Each of these villages had about 20 families, and physically they were about 300 meters long with a couple of lanes and alleys dividing the arrayed houses. Three of these villages had a large hand dug pond in the front of it, running the length of the village. These were dug/built for several reasons...irrigation, washing, firefighting, and to us kids, swimming . Of course, since no Chinese endeavour ever gets done without a food component, the most important use of the pond was for aquaculture.

Each year in the springtime, the time the rice seeds were planted and the shoots were being incubated, the monsoons have abated, the new clothes and toys that we got for CNY were forgotten, and the weather was generally warming up , we'd see fish sellers delivering "tanks" on their shoulder poles full of water and fish fry, purchased from a hatchery quite a distance away. The fry would be released into the pond and left to grow unmolested by poachers or kids or anglers. You see, they belonged to the villagers who joined together to pay for the seeding of the fish and it was a big issue for anyone to take/steal a fish before the appropriate time.

There were several species of fish bought each year, including carp but the primary one would be dace. Dace is not what I would consider a prime fish, being about a half pound in size and bony, but it is delicious deep fried to and sauced with a black bean mixture, panfried with dark soy and garlic. The most common way to prepare dace was to sun-dry the lightly salted fish in the cool autumn breezes, and later steam it on top of cooking rice.

So, after a long spring and summer of growing up in the largely polluted pond, the day is picked to drain the pond and harvest the fish, usually after the Harvest Festival. These village ponds are marvels of Chinese hydro-engineering as they have a series of gates and sluices to open and shut that fills or drains the pond. The day that the pond is to be drained is a HUGE day for us kids, for it is probably the only day we were "allowed" to get dirty without Mother's scolding :laugh:

Once the pond is drained, after a day or two, the families who paid to join the fish "co-op" descend into the filthy quagmire with baskets to catch the floundering fish, which were brought up on shore to be washed, sorted by species and weighed by the appointed tallyman. At the end of the day, when all the fish have been gleaned, the fish would be distributed according to financial participation. The choicest "found-ins" like eels and turtles, freshwater crabs, etc were usually claimed by the people who contributed most money.

Now whenever there is a windfall of fish each year , sometimes 200 lbs. per family, and no refrigeration the only recourse is to salt or dry them. That is what's done with the harvested fish. Along with the fish, my mother and grandmother usually dry a few ducks and some lup yoke at the same time. Dace is the preferred species because it grows well, is fairly good tasting, is of the proper size for drying and when dried it is delicious.

This is one food inspired memory that I can manage to claw back from the abyss.

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Ben-sook, you painted your memories with a watercolor artist's strokes, fluid, beautiful. :wub: I can picture the scenes so well, thanks to your mastery in storytelling.

My paternal grandfather had a poultry and vegetable farm (not far from where I stay now), with a pond the size of half a football field, surrounded by an orchard (banana trees, papaya trees, rambutan trees, durian trees, starfruit, ciku and guava too). Fish were also bred in that pond. I wasn't much of a tomboy when I was growing up, so I watched my brothers happily catching fish from a distance. Till one day, in my adulthood, I brought a few colleagues (including future hubby) to fish, and I caught my first fish, quite a prize and the envy of all, because it was a soon hock (marbled goby), a difficult fish to catch as it was so sedentary, its meat so delicious. And, to add insult to injury, the other 'fisherman' couldn't believe I caught it with a dough (mixed with chicken feed) bait, rather than the live bait (ugh) they were using. I gave it to my future FIL who not only didn't have the heart to eat it, he lovingly fed and talked to it for years till its size tripled. Ahhh...my grandfather is gone now, so is the pond...it has been filled up and my relatives have rented out the land for good money. But, at what price? The place is so ugly now, all concrete.....gone too is the laughter and giggles of children enjoying and being one with nature.

Edited by Tepee (log)

TPcal!

Food Pix (plus others)

Please take pictures of all the food you get to try (and if you can, the food at the next tables)............................Dejah

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Jo-Mel, I am not really certain how the ponds were refilled, but I imagine that there were natural springs and brooks in and around the ponds. Rainwater would most definitely play a part because we were in semi tropical China.

As a bonus, the mud at the bottom of the drained pond was much sought after for it was excellent fertilizer.

Tepee, when I first revisited my village after a 40 year absence, I found that the houses were pretty much derelict with only a few being occupied. Our own particular village's inhabitants were luck, most of us emigrated out of China. In walking around the intact pond, I was struck by the stench emanating from it, for it was neglected and the only water in it was rainwater filled with garbage. I strongly empathize with your feelings about the loss of your Grandfather's pond.

Nevertheless, in walking around our pond, I can hear once again the laughter of children at play just before bedtime, felt the gaiety of celebrations that took place on the bricked areas around it, hear the water buffalo boys alternately singing to and cursing at their charges as they watered them, felt the despair of losing a favourite toy boat. I took a lot of pictures in 1990 to bring home to my brothers and friends in Canada. To a person, they were absolutely stunned by the scenes. Such is life. :sad::sad:

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Have you thought about putting together a book on the Toysan experience?

When that happens, Ben-sook, will you give me the honor of illustrating the book and doing the cover for you?

Thanks for the comments and encouragement folks. Gastro88, among others, has been trying for a long time to get me to start a book. There might be a something in the future as a retirement project.

Sweet Tepee, I would be honoured to have you illustrate it.

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Put me down for copies: one for me, one for each of my kids, one for each of my nieces...in exchange for joongzi! :laugh::laugh:

You need to retire and write this book, Ben-Gaw.

Dejah

www.hillmanweb.com

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Ben -- you can only start by starting! So you are not retired ----yet, but you can begin to write notes and momentum may take over.

Put me on the list for some copies --- autographed!

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Please write this book!!! Reserve a copy for me too. Actually, reserve four. My Dad, who grew up in Toisan, did not talk much about his childhood--no matter how much we prodded him, so we can only imagine what it was like for him. My sister and her husband visited the house in which he was born (which is still there but uninhabited) several years ago, and said that it was a very emotional experience. But I have not yet been. I'd love to read your memories.

Karen C.

"Oh, suddenly life’s fun, suddenly there’s a reason to get up in the morning – it’s called bacon!" - Sookie St. James

Travelogue: Ten days in Tuscany

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Ben: To boost the value of your book, you can include some authentic Toisanese home-cooking recipes! We can help you write the recipe portion! :smile:

Why wait until you retired? You have already told many interesting stories on this board. Just collect them as a first draft and expand from there. We here can all help you review the first draft... (right, guys and gals?)

Yeah... remember to tell about the dining onboard a shampan in Victoria Harbor and served by a Dan Ga Nui! :laugh::laugh:

W.K. Leung ("Ah Leung") aka "hzrt8w"
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Yeah...  remember to tell about the dining onboard a shampan in Victoria Harbor and served by a Dan Ga Nui!  :laugh:  :laugh:

Can't rightly remember what exactly happened almost 40 years ago, but I remember that the undulating boat to-ing and fro-ing made me hungry.

Ahem, it was all about the food, yeah...that's it...the food.. :blush: :blush:

Edited by Ben Hong (log)
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