“So uh, where are you from?”
Looking Chinese, I get this question a lot. Almost every time I meet a new person, it pops up. Depending on the situation, a sarcastic or honest reply usually follows. But it’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve never been fully comfortable with saying that I’m Chinese. I’ve been to China but once in my life – I don’t speak Chinese, I wasn’t born in China, and neither were my parents.
Despite this, we have undeniably Chinese roots. Both my grandfathers were born in China in the early 20th century. But here again there’s a separation – my grandmother (on my father’s side, at least) – was not. She was born in Singapore – at the time, a jewel in the crown of the British Empire. She grew up speaking English, along with a slew of other languages,
You can start to see why there’s hassles involved in researching my family history.
My Own Historical Journey
I only really started getting interested in genealogy after my grandmother died in 2011. She had led what I felt, was an incredible and arduous life, as well as growing up during an incredible time in history, and as part of a unique element of Chinese culture.
I knew very little about my grandparents’ lives while they were alive. My grandfather died before either my brother or I were old enough to know him, and I never felt comfortable asking grandma about him. At any rate, grandma’s worsening Alzheimer’s disease as she entered her 90s meant that by the time I was old enough to ask intelligent questions, it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to answer them. As a result, I learned most of my family history by asking my father, uncles, aunts, and older cousins.
It was only after my grandmother passed away that I gained access to a whole wad of her personal papers. Statutory declarations, passports, immigration papers, household documents, employment slips, hospital records, and even my grandfather’s death-certificate, that I was able to really delve into the history of our family – who was who, when and where they were born, and how everyone was related to everyone else. This was very exciting, but also incredibly confusing and difficult – not least because half the documents were written in a mixture of Cantonese, and Malay – two languages which I know almost nothing about!
The Difficulties of Asian Genealogy
In the Western world, tracing one’s family history is relatively easy. There are workhouse records, war-department records, immigration records, census-documents, birth and death registers, marriage records and school and university records to look through, to find out all kinds of things like when grandpa migrated to America from Italy, where and when he met grandma, what his parents and grandparents did for a living, where your Uncle Tony was born…all kinds of stuff.
Sadly such ease of access to ancestral information is next to impossible to attain for Chinese families. Centuries of war, revolution, invasion, occupation, more revolutions, more wars, more occupations and changing governments throughout China, Japan, the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong and other Asian countries has meant that the likelihood of finding a complete and unbroken chain of records and dates going back more than a few generations is pretty unlikely.
Confucian Filial Piety
Another huge barrier to recording Asian genalogy is filial piety, a notion established by Chinese philosopher Confucius, centuries ago, and something which a lot of Chinese people still adhere to, to this day. Confucius stated that in everything, there was an order, a ranking and a hierarchy which had to be maintained. Every person in this hierarchy, from the emperor downwards, had a ranking and a title. This even extended to the family-unit, where every member was addressed not by name, but by rank and title. And in many Chinese families, this has continued into the 21st century.
“Alright”, I hear you say. “So what?”
Well, imagine trying to trace your family tree through even just a couple of generations, when you don’t know ANYBODY’S names. Not your grandparents’ names, not your uncles or aunts’ names, not the names of your great-grandparents, your grandparents’ siblings, their spouses…nobody, all because they would’ve been known by rank and title, and not by name.
Beginning to see the problem here?
The fact of the matter is that it is very, very difficult, unless you have access to loads of documents, and someone who is willing to sit down with you and go through them all, and explain things – especially if, unlike your parents or relations, you don’t speak your ‘mother tongue’, let alone read or write it!
For my own part, I was lucky enough that my father’s side of the family was largely brought up Christian, and as such, almost everyone had Christian names as well as Chinese ones. This made recording names, dates and relations much, much easier! I didn’t have to think in terms of first uncle, second uncle, third uncle, second aunt, second-aunt’s husband, fourth uncle’s wife’s brother, third uncle’s cousin’s brother…
You get the idea. It can be maddeningly confusing!
Researching My Own Family
Researching family history can be a lot of fun. I found out the names of my great-grandparents, I found out when and where my grandfather was born, I found out that my grandmother had a little brother who died in the 1950s – and that he worked as an apothecary! I found out that our family has had more adoptions in, adoptions out, and adoptions around the family, than a revolving door orphanage, but it helped to explain how we got where we are, and how the current family all fits together.
I found all these details out from photographs, records, and from interviewing family members. Unfortunately for me, finding out about my family history isn’t as easy as doing a Google Search, and that means that every single unearthed speck of genealogical gold-dust that I find is precious and fascinating. If you’ve ever struggled to piece together your family history, you’ll know what I mean!
For some people, knowing who they are and where they came from is a point of pride and fascination. For others, they couldn’t give a damn!…My uncle is one such person – he didn’t even keep his wedding photographs! He told me so! I have copies of them, though, and keep them as a record of everything that’s happened in our family which I’ve been able to find out.
Researching Your Own Family History
Genealogy can be a fascinating hobby, albeit a frustrating one. if you ever intend to start, then the best advice I can give is to find every elderly member of your family that’s left, with decent memories, and absolutely pump them for every single drop of information you can squeeze from them.
Living memories are better than dry words on paper, and questioning people when they’re alive means that you get more details out of them, rather than trying to figure out everything from records, after they’re dead! This is one thing I wish I’d done with my grandmother before she’d died, but unfortunately I just didn’t have the interest back then.
Next, get a-hold of all the papers you can find. Birth records, death records, passports, immigration records, in any way that you can. If you need to, get them translated! And above all, make sure that you cross-reference things. Records are not always as definitive as you’d like them to be!
Once you’ve confirmed what you know, write it down! On the backs of photographs, in a family bible, in a document that you’re keeping – anything! Once lost, information like this is never won back, so guard it jealously! And make things easier for future generations (should you intend to have any), by keeping, saving and recording everything that you can, if not for your own children, then for your nieces and nephews further on down the line. You never know who might be interested in who came before them!