Serendipity is such an underrated aspect of imaginative writing. And life for that matter. Several years ago when my partner and I travelled to Fujian province in China to visit the land of his ancestors, we made a detour to the town of Fuqing, not far from the provincial capital. This was the birthplace of his paternal grandfather, who was born into a family of chopstick makers. There is nothing special for tourists to visit in this town, and our travel company had no idea what we might do there, but it was important to my partner to at least see the village where his grandparents were born.
That village is now a ‘small’ city of 500 000 people. After driving about an hour from Fuzhou, we hopped out of the van in the old part of town and wandered down a street lined with small shops selling food, wine and household goods. Then seeing a cluster of old houses hidden amongst the more modern apartment blocks, we took a turn down a narrow lane and happened upon the house in these pictures. The house was no longer occupied, and it had no functioning doors, but neither was it completely abandoned. Whoever owned it was using it for ancestral worship. There was an an ageing altar, above which hung a number of photographs of ancestors and plenty of incense at the ready.
We like to imagine that this is the kind of house where my partner’s family once lived. It is a traditional house for the region with a small courtyard or skywell in the middle, surrounded by rooms which are open to the courtyard. A door leads to a laneway at the side and another opens to the front. The house is made of mud bricks for the most part, with a curved terracotta tiled roof and timber batten ceilings. In the courtyard was a small well.
As I mentioned in my post on ‘The Scholar’s House in Fuzhou’, photographs are such a valuable resource when picturing settings in your writing. I used these photographs when describing the family home of the silkworm farming family in my next novel, which is set in mid-nineteenth-century China and Australia. The photograph of the well was particularly useful as there is a scene early in the novel where a well features. Of course, I didn’t only use these photographs as references, I also used books about Chinese architecture, pictures of other houses from southern China and descriptions of village houses from reference works. But photographs I have taken myself bring with them sensory images as well as visual memories. I can recall the texture of the bricks, the light hitting the building, the smell of the earth floor and the atmosphere. Our visit to Fuqing was nearly four years ago now. I wonder if the house is still standing.