Guest post: Feeling Connected – Tracing My Roots and Visiting the Villages of My Ancestors

In today’s guest post I’d like to introduce you to Huihan Lie. Huihan is the founder of My China Roots. Established in 2012 and based in Beijing, My China Roots provides ancestry and roots-related research and travel services targeting overseas Chinese. When I first visited their website, I was captivated by the stories about past emigrants from China and historical events connected to the reasons for their emigration. Check out these stories on the My China Roots website or email huihanlie@mychinaroots.com for more information on their services. Here’s the post:

Huihan Lie (Photo courtesy of Huihan Lie)

Huihan Lie (Photo courtesy of Huihan Lie)

I was born and raised in the Netherlands. Apart from the color of my skin, long-life noodles on birthdays, and a somewhat peculiar name, there was nothing Chinese about my upbringing.

My parents were born in Indonesia and had moved to the Netherlands when they were young. As a boy, we often visited Indonesia. China, however, was different. China was distant and unknown.

In my late teens, I wanted to go and see China, but felt conflicted about going: I looked Chinese, I “was” Chinese, so going like a regular tourist observing from the outside somehow didn’t feel right. However, I didn’t speak a word of Chinese, which already made me feel bad in a restaurant in Amsterdam’s Chinatown; how was I going to feel when my “limping Chineseness” would be exposed to millions of “real Chinese”? Delay and distant attraction was the safer option.

Finally, I nervously went on a long-awaited blind date with China in 2004. I started with an intensive Mandarin course in Beijing, and after that was quickly seduced by the country’s career opportunities and sociopolitical and economic developments. I decided to stay.

Living in Beijing and Guangzhou during the next eight years, I focused on building a career, which was in business consulting and government relations. However, as I had started to find “my own place in China”, I also started to wonder: “Where in China is my family actually from and why did they leave? How is ‘my China’ different from my ancestors’ China? What was it like for them to build a whole new life, miles from home?”

And so the search for my roots started, evolving from a young and unassuming curiosity to a mature hobby with a life of its own. It was the start of an immensely rewarding journey that taught me about my family, our history, and about myself.

I learned that my ancestors from both my parents’ sides were from Fujian, home to many of the bravest seafarers and merchants in China’s history. In the late 17th century, my first migrating ancestors had left the Zhangzhou area, where many Ming loyalists were resisting or escaping the foreign Manchu rulers of the newly established Qing Dynasty. Other ancestors had left some 150 years later, when the bloody Taiping Rebellion was raging its way north, out to bring down the same House of Qing.

Before the mid-19th century, the place to go for emigrants was Southeast Asia, where European colonizers had settled and were in need of labor to facilitate booming international trade. Through established migration networks based along clan and regional lines, most of my ancestors left China from Xiamen and headed to the port of Semarang in Indonesia, often via Singapore.

I learned how my ancestors built their new lives, families and businesses in Indonesia. One ancestor was a ship owner, another became rich through the sugar trade. I learned about magic stories of ancestors that were Captains or Majors, which were administrative titles that the Dutch colonizers bestowed upon the most influential Chinese community leaders in Indonesia. Following the rise of glittering family fortunes, there was often demise three to four generations later with spoiled sons gambling the wealth away. I learned how my great-great-aunt placed a curse on her adopted son’s descendants, leaving a string of mysterious family deaths and financial ruin in its wake.

The 1940s saw the Japanese army marching into the lives of my grandparents. War and destruction followed. Lands and houses were taken away, and the Indonesian nationalist fervor that followed Japanese occupation forced many Chinese to look for a safer environment overseas. With Mainland China still in chaos and taken over by the Communists in 1949, what other place to go to than Holland?

Walking around in my ancestral villages in Fujian and Jinmen, I felt I was closing a circle of history. I walked on the same sandy paths that six generations ago my ancestors walked, I stood in front of the same ancestral altar where my ancestors stood. It gave me a feeling of being at ease, a rare experience in today’s restless world of disposable information and short attention spans. It was an intensely personal and peaceful experience that more than anything gave me a feeling of being connected: connected with my family’s history, with the world today, and most of all, connected with myself.

Do you have a similar story to tell? I’d love to read about your experiences.

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Would you also like to write a guest post that is connected to the topic of this blog? Send me an e-mail at chinaelevatorstories[at]gmail.com. I reserve the right to refuse publishing guest posts for any reason.

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8 thoughts on “Guest post: Feeling Connected – Tracing My Roots and Visiting the Villages of My Ancestors

  1. My late husband was also from Xiamen. His great-grandfather fled the poverty of his home for Manila, where he made a fortune, but his son returned. The family stayed there until 1949. My husband knew a lot about his ancestry. I wish he’d written more of it down.

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    • Very true, and that’s one of the reasons for setting up “My China Roots”. if only we could remember more, about our roots, about history in general, even about what has happened within our own lives…!

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  2. My uncle on my father’s side was working on an ancestry book but half way through he passed away and most of his notes are spread around other family members now (covering around 300 years of family history).
    I have been thinking about trying to continue his work but thus far my life has not allowed any spare time for it. The thing is, the longer you wait, the more will be lost or forgotten.

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    • If a lot of the information is scattered, maybe a first step would be to digitize and compile the records that are already there? and yes, so many family members of the older generation know so much, be careful it won’t be too late before you gather the information that is saved inside their heads… good luck, it really is worth it in the end!

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      • I really hope I will come around for it again. First step for me would be actually moving back to my home country and starting to gather all the information spread around.

        Time is ticking, there are only a few of the older generation left in my family and they won’t be getting any younger.

        Thank you for the different tips 🙂

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  3. Pingback: Guest post: Feeling Connected – Tracing My Roots and Visiting the Villages of My Ancestors (Dec 21) « CleverJots

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