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.