We were thrilled to help plan Passported reader Polly Brandmeyer's special trip to China to trace her family's roots — all with her Tin Tin–loving son, Nick, in tow. From her father's birthplace in Chongqing to her great-grandfather's grave in Hong Kong, read about the highlights of this big mother-son adventure.
"After discovering my Chinese grandmother was adopted by British river explorer, Cornell Plant, who famously opened the Yangtze’s Three Gorges to modern shipping, I had to go to China and see the great river and his legacy for myself. My nine-year-old son, Nick, a self-professed Tin Tin addict lobbied hard to join me, and I couldn’t think of a more suitable travel companion. The thought of a real life Asian journey back to colonial-era China aroused his imagination as he dreamed of rivaling some of his comic hero’s best adventures.
Passported arranged our customized itinerary for our mother-son trip. Here’s a snapshot of our adventures."
We started in my father's birthplace, also Cornell Plant's home, to retrace family footsteps and locate Plant’s house.
Chongqing’s Hyatt Regency welcomed Nick with a stuffed animal from this year’s zodiac – Year of the Sheep - and surprised us with an upgrade to a suite thanks to Passported. An indoor pool, modern amenities, and a comfortable room could have easily sidetracked us, but we forged ahead with our mission to find Plant’s house. Surprisingly, the site was both preserved and landmarked. The 1891 banners commemorated Chongqing’s opening as a Treaty Port.
In the morning, a cable car supplied an aerial view of this massive industrialized municipality of 34 million people and the stunning convergence of two rivers, the Yangtze and Jialing. We spotted the blue, pitched roof of Cornell Plant’s house just below the cable car station and raced down the hill for a closer look! A bit of exploration in the brush behind Plant’s home revealed other vestiges of China’s past. We discovered this exciting trend of historical preservation in all of the cities we visited.
Yangzi Explorer Cruise
We traveled the stretch of the River that Captain Plant opened to modern shipping and saw the impact of the Three Gorges Dam.
Passported booked us on Yangzi Explorer, a luxury liner, for a three-day cruise down river to Yichang. We departed from Chaotianmen docks. I remembered hearing about this famous Chongqing launch from my father. He’d described the Chinese laborers who carried the baggage, and the docks' grand staircase that rose straight up from the Yangtze’s shores. Though much has changed in 70 years, some things, like our porter, harkened back to a time of yore. He strung our luggage onto his bamboo poles with rope and carried it on his shoulders down to our ship.
Lectures, teas, seated meals, mother-son card games, and comfortable room and lounge areas on the ship’s deck or on our balcony provided ample entertainment in between our shore visits. Excursions included a visit to a relocation village for a close-up look at how life on the river has changed since the dam; a sampan trip on a scenic tributary; and a tour of the Three Gorges Dam. Commentary on deck filled in history and legends of the Gorges as we passed through the splendid landscapes.
While entering Xiling Gorge, our excitement could hardly be contained. A 50-foot obelisk, erected over 90 years ago, came into view on the hills to the left. The ship’s director announced it was a monument in tribute to Captain Plant for his role in establishing river’s modern navigational systems. He introduced Nick and me as Plant’s descendants and the passengers gathered to inquire about our story.
The port city where my grandmother was raised, we met the local gentleman who’d been researching and writing about my family and explored old Yichang in search of the Church of Scotland Mission where my grandmother lived.
Passported booked us at the Crowne Plaza, Yichang’s newest western hotel, with gorgeous views of the Yangtze River. To my delight, we located old city walls and several landmarked buildings, one in good condition from the Scottish Mission, and others in disrepair but still standing nevertheless.
The Plant Monument
We paid our respects, met the mayor, toured the township, and saw the site of the new museum where a permanent exhibition on Captain Plant will be housed.
After driving for a stretch, a local ferry shuttled us to the relocated monument site. The local township flagged the Memorial as an important cultural relic during the Three Gorges flooding and paid for its relocation. The gesture has captured the attention of historians and journalists. It's a rare occurrence in China to see a foreigner respected in this special way. But Captain Plant was not a typical colonial man. He adored China, its people and especially the junk pilots, trackers and boat makers who shared his profound passion for the Upper Yangtze River. Instead of living in the British expatriate community, he opted to live in the Chinese local community he loved. Ninety years later, his memory continues to be honored.
We explored the French Concession and found all of the buildings and parks from old family photographs.
Passported recommended Shanghai’s posh boutique hotel PuLi in the French Concession as the perfect springboard for my quest. PuLi is an exquisite blend of east meets west chic modernity. It’s the hotel of cool in Shanghai. Nick and I indulged in an evening of room service, movies and relaxation to recharge our energy for an excursion down former Rue Dubail. PuLi found a local guide to assist with our endeavor to find old signs of my family’s past in the French Concession before the Chinese Civil War forced evacuation. Many of the French Concession buildings have been landmarked and all of the ones in my photographs are still standing!
PuLi gave us the inside track on Shanghai’s best soup dumplings; we shopped at Tianzifang, a maze of lane houses filled with restaurants, clothing stores, tchotchkes, portrait artists, paper cutters, etc.; and tackled Shanghai’s massive underground metro system for a train experience back to the hotel.
Here, I gave a lecture on my grandmother’s Eurasian Experience in China and we visited Captain Plant’s grave.
Passported set us up in the intimate Upper House, within walking distance to mid-levels, the venue of my talk. Another room upgrade, thanks to Passported, offered gorgeous harbor views. Nick and I welcomed the laid back attitude of the hotel. No minibar charges, no grand lobby (but there is a lounge on the 39th floor with panoramic Hong Kong views) and plenty of seating areas both inside and outside for relaxed gatherings. Nick and I visited old friends, poked around Pacific Place, the shopping mall just below Upper House, and paid our final respects at Captain Plant’s gravestone in Happy Valley Cemetery.
Nick did not want the trip to end. I asked him why he would recommend China to his friends. He responded, “It’s a really beautiful place. A lot of people should come to China. It has good food to eat, amazing parks, amazing toys, amazing flowers and amazing hotels.”
Nick’s unbridled enthusiasm enriched my personal journey. That I could pass down a great story of adoption and a glimpse of my Chinese heritage to my son warmed my heart and filled my soul. China could not be a more hospitable place for children. Food options cater to both Asian and Western palates and unlike the United States, the airports in Asia accommodate the young traveler with play spaces and lounges for pay. Bodegas with toys line every street in every city. As a culture, the Chinese adore kids and embrace them in any form – in tantrums or in play – anywhere – from 5-star chic hotels to gritty street stalls. Nick’s presence connected us in a more tangible way to the local people who could not pass up the opportunity to stop and say hello to the sweet young traveler.