Ancestral Journey: Day Three

When I awoke on the Saturday, it was with a bit of alarm, as the weather forecast had been for rain and the streets in Huizhou were wet.  I was concerned whether we’d be able to go visit the grave of ancestor #1 — not that it would really have stopped me (or probably many in our expedition!).  We had allocated an extra day for our trip in case we needed it.

Luckily, the skies cleared and things dried out.  We met up again at the Wing Wu shop, and after a while chit-chatting, we all got in the bus and headed south, away from Wing Wu and Tam Tong.  Several of the local relatives accompanied us.  In our bus were ten people from our original party, much more than we’d expected, as our original plan had only four of us (Chee Sing, my father, me, and Kim Seng) since we had anticipated a tough slog through the brush.  Obviously the excitement of finding ancestor #1 was infectious and the anticipation was in the air.

We turned off onto street that led to a school, parking outside the school gate.  Behind the school were several hills, with power transmission lines crossing them.  It became apparent that those were the hills we were going up.  After traversing a cleared section of land with several deep ditches, we ended up at a small creek at the base of the slope.  This creek was the source of water for the locals as there was a constant influx of people filling up their plastic containers from a hose.  We followed a path that paralleled the creek upwards for a while and then took a fork to go up a series of several steep paths that had some basic steps carved into them.  These would have been fairly tricky if they had been wet; as it was, the remaining damp helped to keep the dust down.

We met a few other people descending the path and it seemed likely that there were other graves in the area.  Just before the base of a transmission tower, our guides cut left across some low, springy undergrowth to a grave site about 50m from the path.

As we looked at the decaying gravestone, there were enough of the characters discernible to confirm that this was Chung Yuk Yen’s grave.  This was our holy grail!  It seemed inconceivable that only a relatively short while ago we had not even known where Tam Tong was.  Now we had found the very first recorded ancestor in our genealogy who lived from 1551-1622.  Again, this site has good views of the surrounding valley, though luckily its location seems to be less threatened at the moment by being directly under power lines and on a steeper section of hill.

We returned back to Tam Tong, humbled and glowing with achievement.  At the Chi Tong, we lit incense and placed them at the main and side altars and outside.  That day happened to be the start of Ching Ming, the special time of the year for Chinese when ancestral graves are cleaned, couples get engaged, and the spring renewal of life is celebrated.  The timing couldn’t have been better.  

When leaving, we took a leisurely stroll through the village, meeting up with other relatives, including one that worked in Huizhou and had an email address.  While doing so, some relatives rushed up to us, saying in effect that “everybody’s waiting for you back in the town!”  One phone call later, we had arranged to meet a new relative back in Wing Wu for a late lunch.

This new relative happened to a be a Mr. Lee.  He was Nai Yen’s oldest daughter’s son.  One of Nai Yen’s youngest daughters, Meng Yue, had later left for Malaysia to get married, and the age gap between the nephew (Lee) and his aunt (Meng Yue) was only a year, so they had grown up and played together as children in Tam Tong.  He hadn’t seen her since she left in around 1940, and he brought along a 20-year old wallet-sized picture of himself for us to give to her.  She had been asked to participate in the trip, but had sadly declined.  That day was also her 90th birthday, an auspicious occasion for Chinese.

Each day in Wing Wu / Tam Tong exceeded the previous one.  We’d achieved much, much more than we had ever anticipated on the trip.  More importantly, we’d forged links with the local relatives, and reacquainted them with their ancestry, something that had long been lost in time.  Hopefully we’ve planted some seeds of interest with them and perhaps some day we’ll get a call from China with some new information.

Ancestral Journey: Day Two

The next day we decided to take the morning off to do some sightseeing of Huizhou.  We visited the scenic West Lake area, ascended the Sizhou Pagoda, and walked through the nearby market to buy mui choy, the local specialty of preserved mustard cabbage.  The wet market portion sold various live treats like turtles, frogs, geese, and rabbits.  Photographically speaking, China is pretty tough as there is a constant foggy grey haze obscuring things, no doubt caused by pollution.  Blue skies were pretty non-existent during our visit and the sun can be so obscured to only show as a dull pink disc in the sky.

When we returned to our relatives’ shop in Wing Wu, we were greeted by a new relative, Kon Choong.  He remembered Chung Nai Yen, Chung Jen Miau’s (my great-great-grandfather) eldest son who had remained in the village when the rest of his family left for Malaysia.  He also appeared to be related to Liew Min, whose father was Jen Yen, the elder brother of Jen Miau.  We had found a link!

The relatives also indicated they knew about some local family grave, so we agreed to visit it.  Through various twists in the translation, we had thought this belonged to Nai Yen, though as it turned out, his remains are interred elsewhere.  With the locals as guides, we took the bus to visit the grave site, which was in a recently-cleared area on a hill, a few paces from the road.  Obviously this site could be threatened in the future; a pig farm was being built only several hundred meters down the road.  When we checked our GPS coordinates later, we were able to locate the hill as being across the river from Tam Tong, about a kilometer away as the crow flies.

Chinese graves are often mass family graves with a one or more headstones engraved with the list of those buried there.  Typically, these stones will list a generation number, along with the generation name, and below this a line containing the given names, starting from the centreline outward (obviously to allow room for adding names).  There is sometimes a second stone on the other side, listing only the surnames of the wives.  Additional generations are added to the bottom of the stone — a very efficient method that allows the recording of many individuals, albeit without date information.  We had no idea how the individual graves were laid out at the site.

As we examined the gravestone, we were delighted to discover the Jen generation name and Chung Jen Miau (1858-1896) on it.  Above his name was listed the Woon generation and Chung Woon Fah (1826-1886), his father!  We were extremely excited at this point — not only had we found my great-great-grandfather, but my great-great-great-grandfather, an unexpected bonus.

Now, we had previously ignored the central stone, thinking it simply listed the fact that it was a Chung burial site.  But upon further inspection, we saw it mention something along the lines of the grave of the great patriarch of the family, Chung Yeuk Lee (1782-1877), Woon Fah’s father, and his wife.  We had nearly overlooked the fact that Yeuk Lee would have likely been the first one in the grave site and all his relatives would have been buried with him.  This was a triple bonus!  Three generations (7, 8, and 9) of direct ancestors in one grave site was hitting the proverbial jackpot. 

The grave also contained names from generation 10 and 11, but since my great-grandfather Jen Miau had already left China by that time, these relatives are less directly related to me.

Obviously designed with good feng shui in mind, the grave site overlooks the rolling hills of this area of China.  Five generations of Chungs, dating back to the 1700s, would have walked on this very ground to bury their deceased, an incredible thought.  They would likely have crossed the river from Tam Tong and ascended these hills.  This was not a formal graveyard and we surmised that in olden times, families would simply have sought out suitable sites based upon good feng shui and that land ownership was not so much of an issue.  We all made the traditional three bows of respect to the grave site before leaving.


The day was not complete yet.  After returning back to the road, we turned off at a Chinese temple on the way back and ascended a small hill.  At the top of the hill were some pottery urns, about 60cm high.  We were told that these urns contained the bones of the deceased that, for whatever reasons, had been removed from their graves and placed in these urns.  It is possible as well that some of these remains were from graves that had to be removed when the land was cleared and used for other purposes — the price of progress I suppose.  The Hakka people also follow this practice as they brought their ancestors’ bones with them during their migrations.

More importantly, we were also told that one of the urns contained the remains of the generation #2 ancestor, Chung Cheong Yung, a very exciting prospect.  Jen Miau’s eldest son, Nai Yen, would have been interred there as well.  We were not able to verify either fact personally as it would have involved opening the urn to read a memorial tablet inside the lid, and that was only possible the following day as part of the Ching Ming celebrations.  However, we wouldn’t have reason to doubt the local relatives as they would be fully knowledgeable about their early ancestors such as #1 and #2.

Today exceeded all our expectations of the entire visit.  We had found generations 2, 7, 8, 9 in a single day.  We wanted to find #1.  Would we?

We returned back to Tam Tong and had dinner with the local relatives.  Discussions some time during the day revealed that the local relatives did indeed know where ancestor #1, Chung Yuk Yen (1551-1622) was buried.  They had made several attempts to find the grave in the past and were successful sometime in the 80’s.  Kim Seng had also heard of this site on his previous visit when the Wing Wu relatives pointed to some large hills to the south and mentioned some vague stories about ancestors being buried there.  They’d warned us that this was a strenuous climb, and that they wouldn’t want to attempt it if it were raining.

Ancestral Journey: Day One

We met up in the morning with the rest of my relatives from Malaysia and Hong Kong: several uncles, an aunt, two granduncles, and a grand-aunt.  After a reunion dim sum breakfast, the fourteen of us headed for Huizhou on a chartered tour bus, crossing the Hong Kong SAR / China border.

Upon our arrival at Huizhou in the afternoon, we checked into our hotel and headed south for the ancestral village in a chartered mini bus.  We arrived first in Wing Wu, the town closest to Tam Tong, and asked for directions from the first local resident we met, which served to be futile.  With the help of Chee Sing’s GPS-enabled phone with road maps and Kim Seng’s recollection of the route, we at last found Tam Tong.

To enter Tam Tong, you leave the main road and drive on a single-lane paved road on top of a bund wall or dyke.  This dyke exists to keep out the river, which was reputed to regularly flood the village.  Back in the older days, this dyke did not exist and various relatives indicated with their hands to their chest how high the river flooded.  The houses had dark stains on their walls up to about the 1m level, probably the visual remnants of the flooding. 

We overshot the ancestral home, and in the process of trying to find a good spot to turn the bus around, we pulled off the road into the Chi Tong, or family ancestral hall or temple.  This building served as a place for recordkeeping, and a gathering point for the Chung family for important events of worship.  To walk up to this structure and see the Chung Chinese symbol on the front (rightmost character over the doorway) of it was simply amazing.  This was our ancestral hall!

The hall consisted of a three rooms, separated by two courtyards, and an altar in the very rear room.  The courtyard next to the rear altar room also had small side annexes with smaller altars and padlocked doors to other areas, likely just storage.  Colourful decorative murals were placed high up on the walls, ostensibly depicting various poems or legends.  The roof was constructed with timber framing, exposed on the inside, and tiles.

The interior was pretty sparse, consisting really of floors and walls, except for the altar in the rear.  Some marble plaques recording donations, and some carved wooden details are really the only decorative touches on the walls aside from the murals.

The building was obviously still used as it had been maintained.  No doubt there were other Chungs around!  Our visit had also attracted the attention of several locals, including a lady with her grandson, still sporting the traditional Chinese baby haircut.

When we finished our visit, we walked back to the ancestral home, only about 100m away.  The home that Kim Seng visited is actually within a cluster of several other houses.  As we would discover later, these houses were also occupied by other close relatives, so it is extremely likely that if my great-great-grandfather would have lived in one of those houses we saw.  The home sported a new white plaster finish, much to Kim Seng’s disappointment, as his great-grandfather had written a poem above the doorway many years ago expressing his feeling about leaving China.

The house, and several others in the cluster, are occupied mostly by Chungs, as it turns out.  Some of the houses are used for storage, and some appear to be abandoned.  The evidence certainly suggests that a large number of Chungs lived in the village.  By local accounts, there were around 700 in the neighbourhood.  When, or how, this number was calculated is a mystery.  A very large number have apparently moved away from the area over time, just as my ancestors did, leaving a reduced, but still appreciable number.

When we left the ancestral home, we decided to drive to the nearest school just outside Tam Tong in hopes of finding the retired school master.  We lucked out again as he happened to be standing outside the school gates.  We were invited into the school staff room to talk further by the current school master, who was one of the retired school master’s students.

Through some feverish gesturing, pointing, writing, and excited discussion in various dialects — Hakka, Mandarin, and Cantonese, we learned some history of the region, including the headmaster’s own history.  He turned out to be a Chung as well, Chung Chee Kuan, with the same “Chee” generation name as my father.  He was more distantly related, perhaps a fifth or sixth cousin, so he wasn’t able to directly help us. 


We made plans to visit him again before we left the area.  As we prepared to leave, we decided to make a symbolic donation to the school, which the current headmaster politely refused until we insisted.  We had learned that the Tam Tong village and Chung ancestors had contributed to the rebuilding of the current school after it had been burned down by the Japanese during the Occupation.  There also used to be a school in Tam Tong itself that also was burned down in WWII and never rebuilt.  This old school had been built with funds collected from the Chung descendants in Malaya by my great-grandfather Khin Seong and named after our first generation ancestor, Chung Yuk Yen.  A picture or plaque of my great-grandfather was apparently placed in this old school, but this obviously no longer exists.

After our visit with the retired headmaster, we drove to see the local Chung relatives in Wing Wu, the ones that that knew Kim Seng and his uncle.  They ran a combination driving school booking agency and grocery shop in Wing Wu, and in the back of the shop there were the obligatory mahjong tables.  As we pulled up to the shop, we saw the white-haired man from the photos, Chung Sin Fatt.  As before, Kim Seng and my father took the lead in interviewing the relatives, trying to coax out little nuggets of information, trying to link these Chung relatives to our genealogical map and showing them the various diagrams and photos we had brought with us.

We left Wing Wu in the evening with some mixed emotions.  The local relatives had seemed a little reserved and less forthcoming with information compared to Kim Seng’s visit and we hadn’t been able to establish any sort of genealogical link.  Even Sin Fatt, who had seemed the most promising, didn’t know how he was related.  The school master hadn’t been able to provide as much genealogical data as we’d hoped, though he’d provided some interesting history of the area.  However, we were all still electrified to have visited the ancestral home and hall.  We would hopefully find more the next day.

Some Genealogical Notes:

Compared with western genealogy research that benefits from a wealth of information available in government or church birth, marriage, and death certificates, much of Chinese genealogy was written by the individual clans themselves.  The Chung family is also Hakka, a migratory people, so formal government records may also be harder to find unless the actual migration path of a family was known.  In our case, the main record was a written genealogical record on rice paper, passed down through the generations.  This priceless record was lost for a while, then rediscovered by my father.

Chinese genealogical records may come as a clan genealogical record, combining several different forks in the family (say within a village), or may only be a record of one’s direct lineage to the exclusion of those not directly related.

My family generations are numbered starting from an arbitrary starting point, before which written records do not appear to exist.  This is the root of our genealogical tree, ancestor generation number 1, Chung Yuk Yen.  This numbering convention appears to be used for grave markings as well, so the descendants were normally aware of which generation number they were.  Some Chinese families are currently at generation 130 or more.

Each generation is assigned a generation name pre-determined hundreds of years ago, usually recorded in a poem.  My generation is 13, with a generation name of “Chok”, so my full Chinese name is “Chung Chok Weng” — Chinese always put their surnames first.   My daughter’s generation 14 name is “Toong”; my father’s generation name is “Chee”.

Chinese genealogy has some advantages due to the common use of generational names and specific titles based upon the generational distance between two people as well as whether this relationship is through the mother’s side or father’s side, and where in the birth order someone is. 

These two common practices can help immensely in interviews, especially with fading memories, to determine the exact relationship someone has; in contrast with typical western practices where someone might be an aunt, Chinese terminology can help zero on in whether this aunt was on the mother’s side and where in the birth order she came in.  These can be crucial bits of information that can increase the probability of a successful match — in our case we were trying to link up these modern-day relatives to our tree by determining who they knew and what they called them by.

Ancestral Journey: Prologue

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.