The World of Chinese - - Contents - TEXT AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY HATTY LIU

In south­east China, long-held mem­o­ries, sto­ries, and even prop­er­ties still await those who've gone abroad to seek their for­tunes. Join the de­scen­dants of th­ese over­seas Chi­nese as they re­turn in search of the an­ces­tral keys to their fam­ily his­tory

Be­fore the Chan fam­ily left, they locked up their home and handed the keys to their neigh­bor, the Si­tus, to keep an eye on things. If the Chans’ de­scen­dants should re­turn ever to the vil­lage of Chikan (赤坎) from over­seas, the Si­tus would be there to open the door.

Thirty years later, Huiy­ing Ber­nice Chan, a New York an­thro­pol­o­gist of over­seas Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties, ar­rives at her grand­mother’s old home the day af­ter the Qing­ming (“Tomb Sweep­ing”) fes­ti­val. Af­ter see­ing Chan’s photos prov­ing her re­la­tion to the for­mer neigh­bors, Situ’s wife fishes a key from a drawer. Situ him­self ar­rives a few min­utes later, beam­ing.

“Sure, I re­mem­ber the grand­mother,” he says as un­lock­ing the door. “I re­mem­ber all the fam­ily. I was very small, but I lived right here. They went to Amer­ica, didn’t they? It was a very long time ago.”

Kaip­ing, where Chikan is lo­cated, is part of a re­gion

known as the Five Coun­ties (五邑) in Guang­dong prov­ince, about 100 kilo­me­ters south­west of the me­trop­o­lises of Shen­zhen and Guangzhou. To­gether, the coun­ties make up one of the big­gest of what’s known as the qiaox­i­ang (侨乡, or “over­seas home­land”) in China. Th­ese com­mu­ni­ties are dot­ted across China’s south­east coast, from Fu­jian down to Guang­dong’s Teochew re­gion, the boom­ing Pearl River Delta, then west­ward as far as Zhan­jiang near the is­land of Hainan. Start­ing from the mid-19th cen­tury, poverty and war forced th­ese com­mu­ni­ties to look to the sea for sur­vival. Young men set out to work in Hong Kong, South­east Asia, the Amer­i­cas, and Aus­tralia, send­ing their earn­ings home, even­tu­ally call­ing for their fam­i­lies to join them abroad.

In many ways, how­ever, the iden­tity of qiaox­i­ang has less to do with who left, as who comes back. The coun­try­side around Kaip­ing is dot­ted with diaolou (碉楼), colo­nial­style watch­tow­ers, UNESCO World Her­itage sites that fea­tured in 2010 ac­tion-com­edy Let the Bul­lets Fly, filmed just off Chikan’s main street.

Fus­ing Chi­nese and Euro­pean ar­chi­tec­ture, th­ese fortress-like diaolou

were built by those who wanted to use wealth ac­cu­mu­lated over­seas to pro­tect their fam­ily’s prop­erty from ban­dits. Lo­cal schools, parks, hos­pi­tals, even a farm bear the char­ac­ters for “over­seas Chi­nese” (华侨) rather than the usual “peo­ple’s” (人民); some were built decades ago but most are spon­sored by di­as­pora groups, who make re­turn vis­its for rib­bon-cut­ting cer­e­monies and the oc­ca­sional Spring Fes­ti­val. And in al­most ev­ery vil­lage in the Five Coun­ties, there are fam­i­lies like the Si­tus, who pre­serve sto­ries, mem­o­ries, and some­times a phys­i­cal home to show de­scen­dants of over­seas Chi­nese should they ever come look­ing.

“It was in­cred­i­ble; I was al­ways un­der the im­pres­sion that we had lost con­tact,” Chan says af­ter vis­it­ing one of her an­ces­tral vil­lages. “But they were very up-to-date with in­for­ma­tion about my fam­ily, they knew about who passed away, and how. That’s what amazed me—the bond that’s kept be­tween vil­lages around the world.”

Both sides of Chan’s par­ents and grand­par­ents had em­i­grated in the 1980s, but it was not un­til she went to her grand­fa­ther’s vil­lage that she found out her great-grand­fa­ther had also been an émi­gré. “One of the el­derly neigh­bors un­locked the house, and there was a dresser with scat­tered pa­pers…in it was a let­ter my great­grand­fa­ther wrote to my grand­fa­ther from New York City, and that’s how I found out he’d gone there. I found his Brook­lyn ad­dress, and I found out he worked in the laun­dries there; he wrote that it was very hard and that his bones were tired.”

In Chi­nese the most com­mon words for th­ese kind of jour­neys are 寻根 (“root-seek­ing”), 寻亲 (“rel­a­tiveseek­ing”), or 返乡 (“re­turn­ing to the home vil­lage”); none quite tell the full story. Over­seas Chi­nese may sim­ply be cu­ri­ous to see a place they’ve heard of­ten men­tioned, without be­ing sure there are records or rel­a­tives left to find. Most don’t in­tend to “re­turn” per­ma­nently, and many don’t linger in the an­ces­tral vil­lage it­self more than the time it takes to snap some photos.

Per­haps this is why the Chi­nese terms are of­ten paired with 旅, de­not­ing travel or tourism, as in 寻根之旅 (“root-seek­ing travel”), while in English, th­ese jour­neys are some­times re­ferred to as “ge­neal­ogy trips” or “an­ces­tor searches,” con­jur­ing up images of por­ing over ge­neal­ogy data­bases so that one can claim de­scent from Charle­magne at a din­ner party. In an email, Hui­han Lie, the Dutch-chi­nese founder of My China Roots, a Beijing-based agency that helps over­seas Chi­nese find their an­ces­try, once refers th­ese trips as “pil­grim­ages,” but even that can’t cap­ture the ex­pe­ri­ence of vis­it­ing one’s an­ces­tral vil­lage. Though some­times a trip brings pil­grims closer to their roots, the start of the jour­ney is more like a de­tec­tive story.

Liang Yan­jun, deputy di­rec­tor of the state-run Kaip­ing Over­seas Chi­nese As­so­ci­a­tion, seems puz­zled by the need for pri­vate or­ga­ni­za­tion like My China Roots. “Over­seas Chi­nese can just con­tact us, give us their sur­name, the name of their vil­lage, and we’ll con­tact our li­ai­son there and ar­range a visit,” she says.

As straight­for­ward as this seems, there are ob­sta­cles. One would need to know enough about China and the Five Coun­ties to be aware of or­ga­ni­za­tions like Liang’s; lan­guage skills in both Man­darin or a lo­cal di­alect are vi­tal as well, as web­sites are only in Chi­nese and few staff speak other lan­guages.

Un­like Chan, who ar­rived with the names of all four grand­par­ents’ vil­lages in a note­book and was for­tu­nate to find neigh­bors who’d kept in touch, most “roots-seek­ers” have far rock­ier starts.

“The spell­ing of place names in English didn’t used to be

In other cases the de­scen­dants may not know any­thing, other than that rel­a­tives were once Chi­nese. Two sis­ters, Eu­nice and Jing Yi Beh, third­gen­er­a­tion Malaysian-chi­nese, tell TWOC that their grand­fa­ther never shared any de­tails about his for­mer life, pos­si­bly due to painful ex­pe­ri­ences. The only clue was the name of a vil­lage en­graved on his tomb, a Chi­nese burial cus­tom for those who’ve died over­seas.

Ar­riv­ing in Yangkeng vil­lage in Pun­ing, Guang­dong, the Beh fam­ily found that there was no one left who could re­call any­thing about their branch of the fam­ily. Even be­ing shown the vil­lage’s copy of their clan’s ge­nealog­i­cal records, or zupu (族谱), proved to be dis­ap­point­ing, as it only went up to the gen­er­a­tion be­fore their great-grand­fa­ther’s.

“So we just saw our clan’s an­ces­tral tem­ple, and asked the vil­lage of­fi­cial to spread the word on Wechat that we were look­ing [for rel­a­tives]; he hasn’t heard from any­one yet,” Jing Yi Beh says, a year later. “In­stead, I’ve found all of his rel­a­tives that he asked me to look up in Malaysia.” The only thing the fam­ily could do was sam­ple the lo­cal food, says Beh; that, at least, tasted like home.

A best-case sce­nario is doc­u­mented in All Our Fa­ther’s Re­la­tions, a Canadian doc­u­men­tary that had its over­seas pre­miere at the Beijing In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in April. In it, four sib­lings of the mixed-race Grant fam­ily visit their fa­ther’s home vil­lage near Zhong­shan in 2013. The Grants dis­cover an un­cle they never knew about, meet the daugh­ter left be­hind by an­other un­cle who’d im­mi­grated to Canada, and are shown pic­tures of their an­ces­tors dec­o­rat­ing the walls of their great-grand­fa­ther’s house. “I was told, ‘You are the 17th gen­er­a­tion of this house,’” Larry Grant told the Vancouver Courier af­ter­wards. “‘Oh my God.’ That was my re­ac­tion.”

“Ev­ery per­son in the world, of


stan­dard­ized, and of­ten­times that’s all that [clients] have,”says He­len Lam, a Hong Kong­based project man­ager with My China Roots, who de­scribes a typ­i­cal scrap of ev­i­dence as “their grand­fa­ther’s head tax form with the vil­lage name on it, [translit­er­ated] from Can­tonese.”

1 Lam does archival re­search and oc­ca­sion­ally takes clients to vil­lages on the main­land. “Of­ten, the im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cial wrote what­ever they thought they heard. Or they’d just write ‘Canton.’” Sur­names aren’t fool­proof, ei­ther; apart from in­con­sis­tent spellings, im­mi­grants some­times changed their names to pose as “pa­per sons” to fam­i­lies that had al­ready set­tled abroad, and avoid the ex­clu­sion­ist laws of coun­tries like the United States and Canada.

Gen­er­ally, says Lam,the ear­lier the fam­ily em­i­grated, the more chal­leng­ing the search be­comes. There may also be chal­lenges when the client is an adoptee, mixed-her­itage, or sev­eral gen­er­a­tions re­moved. “In those cases we just ask the client to find what­ever in­for­ma­tion they can—names, old doc­u­ments, where they landed—and our re­searchers start with those,” Lie ex­plains.


any eth­nic­ity, any skin color, has some yearn­ing to know where they come from,” says Yang Shereng, a re­searcher af­fil­i­ated with the over­seas as­so­ci­a­tion in Toisan (Tais­han, 台山), an­other of the Five Coun­ties. Yang has had clients who’ve searched fruit­lessly for 10 years, armed with just fam­ily lore that “the vil­lage their great-grand­fa­ther left 200 years ago had a well in front of an an­ces­tral tem­ple in front of a hill.” Other clients ar­rive with de­tailed in­for­ma­tion, only to find the an­ces­tral home razed, the vic­tim of ei­ther nat­u­ral dis­as­ter or ur­ban de­vel­op­ment. “Not ev­ery­one is lucky enough to find rel­a­tives,” Yang says.“it has been too many years, lots of vil­lagers have mi­grated, and older peo­ple who had mem­o­ries of their fam­ily have passed away.”

But when all the pieces fall in place, whether through luck or per­se­ver­ance, the ex­pe­ri­ence is “mirac­u­lous,” says Yang. “Two years ago I had an Amer­i­can client. We were walk­ing around a vil­lage for two hours, it was pour­ing down rain. Then an old man passes by on a bike. ‘Maybe you’re from our parts,’ he said to us,” Yang re­calls. The old man took them to his own house. “There’s an al­tar on the wall with about a dozen an­ces­tral tablets, and he climbs a lad­der and takes one down. It was caked with dust, but he wipes it off, and on that gloomy day, it just seemed to glow. It was [the client’s] an­ces­tor’s name. That young man…tears were just stream­ing, and he kept say­ing it was des­tiny.”

Not ev­ery trip home car­ries the same emo­tional heft. “Grow­ing up, my par­ents al­ways gave the im­pres­sion that they were glad to have left, so there wasn’t a long­ing feel­ing. I wasn’t in­ter­ested in com­ing when I was younger,” ad­mits Grace Lowe of Vic­to­ria, Bri­tish Columbia. Lowe made the trip to Chikan with her hus­band and a num­ber of Canadian friends, all with roots in Guang­dong. “I just wanted to find any sign that my fam­ily was here,” she says. Vil­lage el­ders led Lowe to a house be­long­ing to her grand­mother. More than 20 years af­ter Lowe’s last rel­a­tive had left, the build­ing was still im­mac­u­late, cleaned and cared for by two women in their 80s.

“Of course we have to look af­ter it for them,” says the son of one, sur­named Chen. His fam­ily lives next to the Lowe’s fam­ily home and, like most in the vil­lage, they are dis­tantly re­lated. “We’re a big fam­ily; so we help them take care of it when they’re away.”

He takes it for granted that the fam­ily never left per­ma­nently— and that, ac­cord­ing to Chan, is an ir­re­sistible idea to many in the Chi­nese di­as­pora. To any­one who has ever felt alien­ated or torn in what Chan calls “the in-be­tween space” of a di­as­poric iden­tity, the idea that there’s a fam­ily record wait­ing for you in China, or neigh­bors who lit­er­ally hold the keys to your past, is an en­tic­ing prospect.

Hav­ing vis­ited her fam­ily home, Chan is now hop­ing to lo­cate all four grand­par­ents’ zupu and trace their his­tory back 100 gen­er­a­tions. In Chikan, she vis­its the li­brary of the Guan clan as­so­ci­a­tion, where the ge­neal­o­gists are work­ing on a fam­ily tree of the male mem­bers of her grand­mother’s clan. As the el­derly re­searcher flips through the thick tome, fath­om­ing a path through the sprawl­ing lines and un­marked pages, there’s a mo­ment of recog­ni­tion. “My fam­ily,” Chan points sud­denly at a page.

A mo­ment later, she has her own note­book open to a page with the names of cur­rent rel­a­tives, which the re­searcher is adding to the an­cient tree, pen­cilling new names in mar­gins and leaves that have been wait­ing for them all along.

The staff of the Guan clan li­brary as­sist over­seas re­turnees to lo­cate their fam­ily branch and vil­lage name

The house where mem­bers of Chan's ex­tended fam­ily re­turn to pay their re­spects dur­ing Qing­ming

This pic­turesque wa­ter­front of Chikan is a pop­u­lar stop on the itin­er­ary of over­seas re­turnees

Chan and a ge­neal­o­gist of the Guan clan as­so­ci­a­tion pore over the new names they are adding to the fam­ily tree

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