Discovering my past

An old photo of my distant relatives in China (relatives of my paternal grandfather). Does anybody know what the script says?


My mind tends to be active at night – so yesterday while feeling a tad restless, I looked back at my Genographic Project results. It’s a something that I gave myself for my 40th birthday, so I could learn more about my ancestry and where I came from. Whilst the results provide an interesting big picture of how my supposed ancestors migrated from Africa over to Asia, I still don’t know the details of the more recent lineage. Who were my grandfather’s relatives? Do I have distant relatives all around the world that I don’t know of?

I started browsing about my Chinese surname, “Chen / Tan” and discovered that the clan started in the ancient times in China, when a nobleman called Gui Man was posted with his wife, Tai Ji to a placed called Chen in Henan Province. Gui Man is a descendant of one of the much revered Five Sage Emperors in ancient china – Emperor Shun. When the vassal kingdom was defeated, he adopted the name of the place as his surname as a remembrance. He was also known as Chen Hugong – my n-th forefather. I guess now I can boast to be a descendant of an Emperor! More of the story can be found here in the House of Chinn website. My discovery led to finding a Chinese Genealogy website and a thread dedicated to my surname – I found out that there are a lot of people out there who have been researching their Tan lineage to the ancient times and that it is an ongoing discussion to find out long lost relatives and to fill in the missing blanks in their extended family tree as well.

Why am I so interested in lineage, you ask?

If other people find it boring or just cumbersome to trace back family lineage, I find it invigorating and interesting. I have always felt a sense of disconnection ever since I was in Indonesia. As a full-blooded Chinese who was made to feel like a foreigner in my own country, I really don’t have a solid concept of home. As a feeble act of rebellion, I used to argue with my Dad a lot about my heritage. I used to deliberately support Indonesian athletes on TV when they competed against the Chinese, much to my Dad’s frustration and annoyance. He would dramatically say things like, “If you slit your wrist, your blood would be Chinese! Not Indonesian!” in his moment of utter frustration (this would be my aim, so I would stop after he said this!). Despite this dramatic and almost fanatic loyalty towards China, Dad was as Indonesian as Indonesian could be. He would prefer the local food over Chinese food and he could speak with the most polite form of Sundanese (the local language in West Java Province) that perhaps even true Sundanese locals don’t master.

I carried through this sense of disconnection over to Australia. As much as I can think like an Australian, I still look Asian and my behaviours and dietary preferences are still very much Asian. As I know I have a disconnected history, I immerse myself in knowing more about other people’s history. I joined Cemetery Walks here in Adelaide to know more about the people who used to live in this city and would follow any posts or items about Adelaide’s past. I love TV programs like Who Do You Think You Are? or Who’s Been Sleeping in My House?

It was then almost like an ‘Eureka!’ moment when I posted my story in the forum and got a reply from a potential distant relative soon after – and although this may be a red herring but it’s a great start. He is a 63 year old gentleman who lives in Malaysia, who has a lot of similarities in his family history to mine. We are of course related as we share the same surname, but to what degree, well, that is still to be discovered.  He acknowledged the difficulty ahead of me as I don’t read nor write Chinese script and that I have to rely on second-hand information that may be hard to unearth. There’s nobody from my father’s generation who’s still alive and Mum’s memory is fading as well. I wish I had started my research early when Dad was still around — I asked Dad questions about his family but by then he already had a stroke so he had lost some of his memory. At least I am forever grateful that I have documented as much as I could for my Family History page. Mum’s getting on with age as well and time may be running out quickly as well so I will have to start digging faster and more efficiently.

I plan to head back to Indonesia at the end of the year and skim through old photos and letters and hopefully I will also visit my grandfather’s tombstone to take a picture of the Chinese script there.

This will be my project – and my gift to the next generations in my family.


Published by fuzz

I've finally relented to the lures of blogging - and for those who care, well, I'm a self-confessed geek who's a wanderer at heart, who thinks and analyses too much, and who's trying hard to hold on to his 7-year old inner persona.

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