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In China, Searching to Fill Mysterious Gaps in the Family Tree

China’s revolution made it difficult for Chinese abroad to stay in contact with their families. Now many in the diaspora are searching for their roots.

Imogene Lim's family: Grandmother Chan with seven of her eight children in Vancouver. Lim's mother, Lillian, is next to her mother, second from right. Mary is on the far left. Lillian and Mary fled Hong Kong during World War II.
Imogene Lim's family: Grandmother Chan with seven of her eight children in Vancouver. Lim's mother, Lillian, is next to her mother, second from right. Mary is on the far left. Lillian and Mary fled Hong Kong during World War II. Imogene Lim

In southern China, not far from where the rice paddies fade into the urban sprawl of the Pearl River Delta, there is a place that used to be called the Four Counties. It’s farming country still, even in this age when everyone seems to be heading to make their fortunes in the cities. Small villages of low, tile-roofed houses speckle the landscape. People carry bamboo baskets full of root vegetables on their backs. Stray dogs trot purposefully through the village lanes, eyes alert for kitchen scraps. In the summer, the subtropical sun is like a hammer; in the winter, cold rain sweeps the fields.

It was to this place that Imogene Lim came in 2009. She had just a little bit of information to go on. But Lim, a Canadian anthropologist whose fieldwork has taken her to Tanzania to observe tribes of former hunter-gatherers, was on a voyage of discovery. And with the help of local authorities, she soon reached the object of her quest. She returned this year for a visit. In a Guangzhou hotel room this fall, having recently arrived from the Four Counties (now five, after a redrawing of borders), she took out a photocopied booklet. The cover showed a calligraphic title, proclaiming it to be a genealogy, and inside were page after page of branching diagrams. It had been given to her by a cousin in the village.

“This is my father,” she said, pointing to a name deep into the pages. Underneath it, in a language she cannot read or speak, it says, “Went to Canada, communication lost. Number of children: Unknown.”  

The Chan family genealogy--Lim's maternal relatives.
The Chan family genealogy–Lim’s maternal relatives. Imogene Lim

The United States and Canada are, famously, nations built from immigrants. Successive waves of fortune seekers, refugees, and slaves—from Italy, from West Africa, from Poland, from China, from almost any place where the prospects of life in a foreign country looked better than staying home, or from places they had no choice about leaving—brought the ancestors of almost the entire present population to the continent. As they assimilated into the existing culture, their children and children’s children often grew resolutely rooted in the new place, with little connection to the place of their elders’ birth. Lim remembers overhearing her parents and their generation of the family talking about her generation. They called them “the empty ones,” she says—the ones who looked Chinese on the outside, but not on the inside. In the case of Chinese immigrants, even if some families wanted to keep up connections, it wasn’t easy for most to visit after the revolution in 1949.

These days, however, a sizeable number of people from these immigrant nations are getting on planes to reverse the journey for at least a few days or weeks, taking trips in search of places left behind. They clamber through muddy fields to find churches, take rural buses to remote farming towns, stand outside houses they’ve never seen before but have sought out with years of painstaking research. In China, as in Ireland, Poland, and many other wellsprings of emigration, businesses have been set up to serve genealogy or diaspora tourists, offering tours and research help as people set out to find ancestral villages. But what does it mean to return to a place you’ve never been?

Four immigrants and their belongings, on a dock, looking out over the water at Ellis Island, 1912.
Four immigrants and their belongings, on a dock, looking out over the water at Ellis Island, 1912. Library of Congress/LC-USZC4-5584

The practice of genealogy—tracing one’s ancestors—has a long and strange history. These days, it’s mostly obscured by the impression that genealogy is the fusty reserve of retirees, sitting before computers and piecing together information about parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, as far back as possible. Plaintive requests for information about long-lost ancestors on genealogy forums make clear one of the many paradoxes of this process. Though an individual may be the key to an important puzzle for someone, they are inconsequential to almost everyone else on the planet.

When genealogists find a connection to a historical figure of some kind, of course, that all changes. Then the family tree is seen from the other way around—as the descendants of someone consequential, we are consequential too, or at least have an interesting piece of trivia for cocktail party conversation. In an essay for Harper’s Magazine, Jack Hitt recounts the childhood moment when a relative helped him fill in a diagram with himself at the center and successive generations of ancestors radiating outwards, then shared a revelation. “This line, she said, pointing to one of the ancient British earls we could claim, leads in a direct line all the way to Charlemagne,” he writes. “Mary’s tone was solemn, nearly religious: You are the direct descendant of King Charlemagne. The room felt still as the rest of the universe slowly turned on its gyre about me, just as it did on the paper.”  

This is how genealogy has usually worked in the past, says Eviatar Zerubavel, a sociologist at Rutgers and author of the book Ancestors and Relatives. “Traditionally, it’s been something that was done for people with power,” he says, people who had reasons beyond the strictly intellectual for tracing their roots. Ivan the Terrible of Russia, for instance, had an imperial genealogy that traced his line all the way back to Noah. (Noah, it turns out, crops up regularly in royal genealogies.) Through the centuries, genealogists have sought to link rulers to some distant eminence or to the original inhabitants of their land. “It’s establishing legitimacy,” Zerubavel says, “and establishing identity.”

A 19th century family tree, with spaces for "loved ones" and "departed ones".
A 19th century family tree, with spaces for “loved ones” and “departed ones”. Library of Congress/LC-DIG-pga-03181

Even without direct proof of a famous forebear, there is a widespread feeling that blood matters—that understanding who your biological relatives are helps you understand yourself. Adoptees who have rich and full lives with their adopted families sometimes still go in search of birth families. People look at photographs of great-grandparents and wonder whether their own laugh or their temper or their love of music might have been passed down from them. The farther back an ancestor is, the more important knowing about them seems to be, Zerubavel writes, and perhaps the more important they are to one’s pedigree.

You share about the same amount of DNA with strangers as you do with many of your distant ancestors, however. Each generation, children get half of their genes from each parent, which comes out to a quarter from each grandparent, and so on. You only have to go five generations back before you stop sharing DNA with some of your forebears. Additionally, geneticists have calculated that anyone who was alive several thousand years ago is either the ancestor of everyone now alive, or of no one. It’s an odd fact to get one’s mind around, but it’s real: Even people born only a few hundred or a thousand years back have staggering numbers of descendants. Everyone now alive who has any European ancestry is descended from Charlemagne, in fact. This is another fascinating paradox of genealogy. Far from being a tidy tree, ancestry is a web that spreads wide long before we are able to draw the boundary lines of family and not-family.

But that hasn’t really stopped us from thirsting after connecting ourselves biologically to the past. “We reify nature and biology,” observes Zerubavel, “so that blood, the genes, become much more important, much more significant, than other ways of tying people to one another.”

Immigration certificate from 1912 of Chin Kam, half-sister to Lillian. The certificate number is important for providing additional details found in the General Register of Chinese Immigration. The family used both the spellings Chin and Chan as its surname; in Cantonese, it would be pronounced Chun.
Immigration certificate from 1912 of Chin Kam, half-sister to Lillian. The certificate number is important for providing additional details found in the General Register of Chinese Immigration. The family used both the spellings Chin and Chan as its surname; in Cantonese, it would be pronounced Chun. Courtesy of Stanley Wong

Those other ways of tying people together—the forms of attachment beyond those of blood—include the language of the country where one was raised, and its culture and common history. Scholars who study diaspora tourism have found that some of these tourists can have very strong attachments to these things in their home countries, even as they seek to understand their roots in other countries.

When Imogene Lim speaks, it’s with an accent that would make any North American traveler homesick. She is a compact woman with cropped greying hair and the intent eyes of someone who observes for a living. On this day in mid-October, she is wearing Keen hiking sandals, a salmon top, and a sensible skirt, the kind of outfit that would be at home on any university campus in Canada or the United States. She walks with a confident, no-nonsense stride. And she looks slightly outlandish in Guangzhou, a city of 13 million people, formerly known as Canton.

Practically no one else is wearing anything like this. Fashions for someone of her age around here run to flowing linen shifts and ladylike sandals. No one walks quite like her either. And yet, before you hear her talk, or see her walk, or took in her clothes, you could mistake her face for that of someone around here.

Lim’s maternal grandparents left this area for Canada in the early 1900s, before returning, for legal reasons, when their eldest children were in high school. Her Canadian-born mother was stranded in the ancestral village during the Japanese occupation of China, and walked 800 miles to Kunming, where American forces were based, with her sister, to get a job as a secretary. She eventually managed to get back to North America, and Lim’s parents married in Vancouver after World War II. Her father, who was from the same part of China, began to work for what became the family business: a restaurant called WK Gardens, a mainstay of the local Chinatown.

Growing up, Lim was a typical Canadian kid, and she didn’t think too much about where her grandparents had come from. As a graduate student and volunteer, she helped excavate and study the rock paintings of the Sandawe in Tanzania. “The Sandawe people know which clan they belong to, as well as their ancestral land,” she says. “When someone sneezes, you are to call out your ancestral land.” But after her parents passed, she realized that time was running out. If she wanted to know about where her own people came from, she needed to act before the last of that generation was gone. And she found herself wanting to see certain places. “My mother almost died in the village,” she says. “I wanted to see that house.”

Immigrants seated on long benches in the Main Hall of Ellis Island, c. 1902.
Immigrants seated on long benches in the Main Hall of Ellis Island, c. 1902. New York Public Library/Public Domain

The 1977 broadcasting of the miniseries Roots is thought to have helped spark such an urge in many Americans. Based on Alex Haley’s multi-generational saga of an African-American family, the story follows the one of the first members of the family to arrive on the continent, an enslaved Mandika man, and then successive generations up to the modern descendants who, drawing on oral history, travel to the Gambia to learn about who their ancestor was.

That year both Newsweek and Time ran trend stories about the rapid growth of American genealogy, emphasizing that while the practice had been mainly a reserve of elites in years past—like Cousin Mary, establishing connections to past greatness—it was now something for everyone, whether their ancestors had been nobility or slaves or Italian laborers. “Newsweek also remarked that genealogy had become fully commercialized, with airlines advertising “ancestor hunting” trips and “local entrepreneurs … cashing in as well,”” writes Francois Weil in his book Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in North America. Weil notes that in fact there had been growing interest in genealogy for some time, but Roots was a public, decisive moment.

“I remember the whole nation was talking about it. It was riveting,” says Ellen Puff, a teacher and author who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and watched the miniseries as a child. When Puff took up genealogy in her mid-30s, tracing her family back to Ireland, she grew interested in not just the parish books and records she needed for her research, but in the landscapes around them. “It started from an analytical, curiosity perspective—where are they from?” she says. “As I got deeper into the research, I don’t know if you’d say this is romantic or not, but I wanted to see what they saw. I wanted to see their horizons. And the mountains don’t move. The rivers rarely move.” She has made three trips to Ireland since 2007.

Ireland is a particular hotspot for diaspora tourists. More than 34 million Americans list their heritage as Irish or partially Irish in the census, and Ireland’s Tourism Board has a marketing plan specifically for such folks. (Nearly 1.4 million North Americans visited the Republic of Ireland in 2016, making up the fastest-growing major segment of foreign tourists.) But China has its own flow, especially to the part of Guangdong Province where Lim’s ancestral villages are. This area, as it happens, was the major source of 19th-century Chinese immigrants to North America.

A late 19th century stereograph of Hong Kong harbor.
A late 19th century stereograph of Hong Kong harbor. Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-120601

At the end of second Opium War in 1860, one of the Chinese government’s concessions to the British was to permit citizens to leave the country to work, although emigration had been happening illegally for some time. In China’s Four Counties, tribal warfare and banditry provided incentives for departure, and thousands of people made their way out through the ports of Macau and Hong Kong, notes Selia Tan, a historian at Wuyi University in the city of Jiangmen. These were the Chinese who dug for gold in California and built railroads in Canada and the U.S. In fact, historian Mae Ngai estimates that 90 percent of the Chinese in California in the 19th century were from this small corner of China.

Then, as now, the Four Counties are agricultural land, anchored with a handful of cities and thousands of villages. But factories making everything from bidets to motorcycle parts have sprung up as well in recent decades. In one town, a long, dusty main street is lined as far the eye can see with stalls selling faucets of every shape and description (in a serendipitous coincidence, the town is called Shuikou, or Water Mouth). Additionally, rising above the traditional village houses today are more than 2,000 baroque watchtowers, many of which were built in the late 19th century and early 20th century with money sent home by those working abroad. A number of these towers, which were often both mansions and fortresses to protect against kidnappings of the wealthy returnees, stand empty.   

Because while some Chinese migrants came back for good—in fact, Tan’s own great-great-grandfather was a returnee from California, where he’d been a cook in a construction camp—many didn’t. When those people’s descendants abroad grow interested in genealogy, the Four Counties is where they trace their roots. It can difficult for roots tourists to arrange the visits themselves, though: Many of them do not speak Cantonese, the most widely spoken local language, or Mandarin. And while some of their families might have maintained contact with folks back home before China’s Communist Revolution, the 20th century’s tumultuous events cut off visits and communication.

Tan has performed extensive fieldwork in North America, visiting local Chinese historical societies and associations, and she acts as a point person for those who’d like to visit their ancestral homeland. They may come with the slightest of leads, as when Newfoundlander David Fong arrived with two empty envelopes bearing return addresses in a town in the Four Counties, from the effects of his deceased father. Detective work led him to a tower house where the inhabitants, long-lost cousins, turned out to have photos of him sent by his father when he was a child. Not everyone is so lucky in their search. But the influx since China’s opening up in 1978 of visiting emigrants and their descendants has shaped the area.

“Kaiping had one of the earliest 5-star hotels in China in the countryside,” Tan says of a city in Guangdong Province. With families scattered and lost in the upheaval of the preceding years, these visitors needed a place to stay, and they could afford the price tag.

Watchtowers in Zili Village, near Kaiping, Guangdong Province, China.
Watchtowers in Zili Village, near Kaiping, Guangdong Province, China. Payton Chung/CC BY 2.0

China doesn’t collect statistics on diaspora tourists, says Li Tingting, a scholar of tourism management who has studied the phenomenon. But in a study on the Jiangmen Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, which often aids returnees in finding family, she reported that diaspora tourism was a major interest. In most parts of the country, the OCAO doesn’t focus particularly on visitors, instead ministering to the more mundane administrative needs of Chinese citizens living abroad or returning home to stay. In the Four Counties, where so many Chinese overseas have roots, it’s a different story. The OCAOs there host festivals and events to draw visits from Chinese who live abroad or people with Chinese ancestry.

The area has long benefitted financially from its diaspora: In 2007, an LA Times reporter visited a place called Los Angeles Village, named for the destination of so many of its inhabitants. There, remittances sent home had supported people for decades, but the money was slowing to a trickle, inhabitants said, as the older generation of folks living abroad died, and younger people did not seem so inclined to continue the gifts. Still, diaspora tourists continue to be sources of investments, donations, and valuable relationships for the area.

Those younger generations may have a different perspective on what it means to go to China than their elders. Huihan Lie, born in the Netherlands to Indonesian-Chinese parents, came to China some years ago, and grew curious about his own heritage. After realizing that there were few resources in English for potential seekers, he founded a boutique genealogy research firm called My China Roots. Lie and his staff now scour local records and hunt down villages on behalf of their clients abroad, even taking them on trips if desired.

While genealogy has the reputation in North America of being primarily a retirement hobby—and genealogy tourism to destinations in Europe, perhaps even more so—Lie says that his clients span a wide range of ages, and many are younger. They’re often in their 20s or 30s, beginning to process what it means to have Chinese heritage.

“A very important element is searching for a cultural identity, because very often it’s been lacking while growing up,” he says. “There’s something there…but you don’t know how to identify with it, or what role it should play in your life. You only know that it’s part of your life.”

Lim's family: Howard Yueh, U.S. Army Corps, her Aunt Mary's husband-to-be.  Howard with Mary (left) and Lillian (right) in Kunming, China, 1945.
Lim’s family: Howard Yueh, U.S. Army Corps, her Aunt Mary’s husband-to-be. Howard with Mary (left) and Lillian (right) in Kunming, China, 1945. Imogene Lim

This feeling of being between two worlds often persists even after arriving in one’s ancestral homeland. When Imogene Lim got to China the first time, she already knew the name of her father’s village. With some help from the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office in Kaiping, she managed to find her mother’s, by repeating the story of the two Canadian sisters who had left for Kunming. But being in China was a challenging experience. She could not speak to people without an interpreter. She was constantly mistaken for a local, and it was a problem.

In a restaurant in Guangzhou on her trip this October, intrigued by the man scooping rice out of a steamer, she takes a few snapshots. The man begins to shout in Mandarin at her, telling her pictures are forbidden. When told she is Canadian, not Chinese, he falls silent. “It’s funny, in Canada it’s the same problem,” she says wryly, sitting down at a table.

Lim family house interior showing the two-storey structure, Lum Ok Dei village, Toishan county, which Lim visited in 2009.
Lim family house interior showing the two-storey structure, Lum Ok Dei village, Toishan county, which Lim visited in 2009. Imogene Lim

As a child, she’d worked hard to blend into her neighborhood, and it worked well. With a new wave of Chinese immigrants arriving in recent years in British Columbia, though, she has felt the gaze of other Canadians getting chillier. When people say pointedly, “Where are you from?” she replies, pointedly, “From here.”

Still, when she saw the places her parents’ families had been from, something more personal came into focus for her. Her parents were married for decades. But there was always friction between them, Lim says, and they separated when her mother was in her 70s. In the villages, she felt she understood something of that friction. Her mother’s village had a market square, and basketball courts. People had cars. It was a more prosperous-looking place. Her father’s village was smaller, poorer-looking. Her mother’s expectations might have been different from her father’s, she thinks. And she saw the house where her mother almost died. As the story went, during the Japanese occupation, she’d been so sick that she’d been put outside to die. It was after her recovery that she walked to Kunming, in search of a way out—a way back to where she was from, Canada.

Anders Hsi's grandmother's parents, c. mid-1920s.
Anders Hsi’s grandmother’s parents, c. mid-1920s. Anders Hsi

Nearly 70 years later, Kunming and Canada don’t feel as far away from each other as they once were. Even the lengthy plane flight—starting at about 15 hours with connections—is a minor inconvenience compared with how difficult the journey used to be, overland and on ship. That means that the children and grandchildren of immigrants, from China or any nation, aren’t necessarily as cut off as they once were.

This is something I have experience with. My mother and grandparents are naturalized Americans, and though I’m from California, I spent many childhood vacations away with their garrulous army of French and Swiss relatives. I have in fact been many times to the ancestral village in Switzerland (or at least, as becomes clear the more you think about genealogy, one of the many ancestral villages), where one of my many great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfathers was born in 1570. While it’s a pleasant place to walk, dominated by an enormous castle and surrounded by vineyards that a distant cousin still works, it’s not a place I need to seek out. I’ve known about it my whole life, and my parents now live a short train ride away.

For many children and grandchildren of immigrants around the world, today’s immigration—with Skype, with email, with plane tickets—is not necessarily the stark uprooting of earlier generations. One doesn’t have to leave and never go back, and if one’s descendants do, it may not be in search of lost roots.  

Hsi's grandfather and all his siblings.
Hsi’s grandfather and all his siblings. Anders Hsi

Anders Hsi, a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, didn’t grow up speaking Mandarin or Shanghainese, his grandparents’ dialect, but his favorite picture book as a child was a 30-volume adaptation of the Chinese novel Journey to the West. In kindergarten, his teacher called home after she found him drawing what she took to be Satanic creatures—his mother had to gently break it to her they were Chinese spirits, like the ones in his books. Some of Hsi’s most vivid childhood memories are of going to China with his paternal grandparents when he was about five years old, and again when he was 10, in the 1990s. He remembers riding in a van with his great-uncles on a road trip in Western China, and seeing the former family homes in the center of Shanghai, long since converted to apartments. For Hsi, his Chinese roots weren’t distant, or masked; they were just part of him, something he was proud of.

As it happens, Hsi moved to China eight years ago, and has lived in Guangzhou for the last seven. He has married a Chinese woman and now runs an e-commerce business with a focus on baby and maternity products, among other ventures. But the fact that his grandparents are from China has had little influence on these decisions, he says. Far more influential has been his interest in international business and the Mandarin classes he took in college; learning a language spoken by a billion people seemed like the best route to an interesting, meaningful life.

Nor is the China he lives in anything like the one they left in the 1940s. It’s far more affluent, for one thing: “When they were growing up in China they saw tens of thousands of refugees flooding into Shanghai and freezing to death in the streets during the winter,” he says. The China he returned to is a place of booming commerce and new confidence.

Hsi's grandparents visiting Shanghai from Albuquerque in 2016.
Hsi’s grandparents visiting Shanghai from Albuquerque in 2016. Anders Hsi

Hsi’s father and grandfather know he cares for his heritage, he says, and they’re proud of his new life built between the two nations. “Our family has learned to straddle the fault line between the two nations’ essence, you particularly, and we feel very happy for you,” his father wrote him in an email. Both see his move as primarily motivated by natural curiosity and professional interests. “My grandpa was a genetic scientist and spent his career researching and developing peanuts,” says Hsi. “He has told me that I represent “hybrid vigor,” which he says with his Chinese accent, meaning I can take the best from both the U.S. and China.”

Hsi and his wife have a two-year-old daughter, a strong-willed girl whose first language is Mandarin. How will she feel about the United States? Will the family stay in China while she grows up? Hsi laughs. “Well, we’ve been talking about building a house in California. Or maybe Southern France.” There’s one thing he knows for sure: She will have connections to many places. 

Immigrants walking across the pier at Ellis Island, early 20th century.
Immigrants walking across the pier at Ellis Island, early 20th century. Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-95433

To yearn to seek roots, perhaps you first must lose them. As young children, we have transitional objects, like security blankets, to maintain a connection lost at birth, remarks Zerubavel, the sociologist; as adults, we have genealogies and ancestral villages, to make up for connections lost before birth. With greater connection possible in the lives of immigrants and their children, it’s possible that root-seeking will fade, or turn into something else. For the moment, however, many people are still engaged in rebuilding these ties, in whatever way they can.

The south China sun filters through the banyan leaves as Lim walks back towards her hotel. She’s going to be attending an anthropology conference for the next couple of days before heading back to British Columbia. We stop at the intersection in front of the hotel, talking about her plans. She’s excited to report the latest family genealogy developments to her sister and niece. She’s wondering how she’ll manage the next leg of her journey, which will involve taking the train to Hong Kong, where her flight is. Then she says she is looking for one more thing: She wants to buy a pomelo.

These gigantic citrus fruits, as big as a soccer ball and yellow as a harvest moon, are sold on carts and from stalls all over the city. They are one of the quintessential foods of the Mid-Autumn Festival, when people sit outside together and watch the moonrise while snacking on fruit and mooncakes. Schoolchildren even make lanterns from the hollowed-out skins, carved in a jack-o-lantern effect.

In North America pomelos aren’t so easy to get. But Lim’s parents used to find them for the Christmas holidays. She has vivid memories of eating them as a child, though they were sometimes battered and dry from their long journey. The fruit’s sweet pink segments, extracted from thick white pith, taste like home. Even as an adult, she used to go back from visits to her father’s weighed down with gifts of fruit.

I give her instructions to a fruit stall on the Pearl River. It’s in a narrow maze of alleyways, a thirty-minute walk to the north, and I’m not sure whether it will be easy to find. But undaunted, she goes off later that afternoon—one last quest for the road.