Ancestral Journey: Prologue

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

My trip to China came about through the rediscovery of the Chung family ancestral home in Tam Tong, a village near the city of Huizhou in Guangdong province.  Chung Jen Miau, my great-great-grandfather, and his family had left Tam Tong for Malaysia in the early part of the 20th century.  Several generations later, descendants of the family had spread across the world to Canada, Australia, and the US.

Knowledge of Tam Tong's location had faded throughout the years until it seemed that it would be lost forever.  Even though the family genealogy had been rediscovered, translated, and disseminated in the 80's by my father, it was not clear where the village was located.  The records indicated some cryptic geomantic details -- hardly enough to know where to start looking.

Chen Kim Seng and his uncle, Kim Swee, visited China in 2007 with the intention of finding the village.  Kim Swee had lived in the village during the 1950s while he avoided conscription in Malaysia by the English during the Communist Emergency. Remarkably, when they were in the nearby village of Wing Wu, they were directed to Tam Tong by someone in the back of a shop who heard them asking for directions and recognized the uncle's voice as someone he had known 50 years back.

They were able to visit the home, untouched so far by the ravages of redevelopment in China, and talk to local relatives. They were unable to connect all the genealogical dots as they lacked crucial data. Kim Seng was able to report back to my father, whom he had corresponded with previously on genealogical matters, the location of Tam Tong (Kim Seng is related to my father in that their great-grandfathers were brothers).  At last we knew on a map where the village was.  Time was, and is, of the essence as the older generation sadly starts to pass away and large chunks of family history are lost, so a plan came together for 14 Chung relatives across three continents to visit Tam Tong.

I am writing this in Hong Kong. Tomorrow we meet up with the rest of the family that is making its way here, then we plan to cross the border into China and to the city of Huizhou in Guangdong province. Using Huizhou as our base we will make daytrips into Tam Tong, the ancestral village, located about a half-hour south. We are armed with GPS, computers, cameras, and the latest genealogical data courtesy of my Uncle Sing. Three generations of the 鄭 / 郑 (Chung, Chen, Chang, Zheng, Teh and other variants depending on the dialect and romanization) family will be represented in this little expedition.  Members include my father, my uncle Chee Sing who continued the genealogical work my father started, Kim Seng, several uncles and an aunt, two granduncles and a grandaunt.  Ages range from 40 (me) to 92.

Several questions need to be answered:

  1. One of the relatives in China is a white-haired man who is spitting image of my great-grandfather. How is he related exactly?
  2. How did the ownership of the house pass to the people living in it now?
  3. Are there remaining ancestral graves in the area and will we be able to find them?
  4. Will there be other scions of the family tree in the neighbourhood and will we be able to connect them up to our main family tree?
  5. The local schoolmaster may have further knowledge on the Chung ancestry. What else does he know?
  6. Kim Seng, when asking about genealogical information, had heard there was a family genealogy written in both Chinese and English. When he saw it, he found it was a copy of my father's genealogical work, completed in the 1990's, but in a nicely bound and typeset format! How did this work get from Malaysia to a small village in China? Who took my father's typewritten copy and made a book out of it?

The answer to question #1 may be that he is the son of my grandfather's second wife, a wife that was not well-known to have existed; and not to my father until quite recently. Perhaps all we need to connect him to the family is to ask, "what is your grandfather's name?"

The answer to question #2 appears to have been through Kim Seng's uncle, who, during his return in the 1950's found the house locked and unoccupied. When he left China, he gave the house to someone in the second family.

Complicating #3 above is that people often referred to themselves differently than would be on the grave marker -- the grave marker would indicate the formal generation name (the one historically pre-determined), even if they had been given a different generation name. In effect, the formal generation name would supersede everything else.

We look forward to finding the answers to these, and many other questions.

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