January 27, 2006
Asian families get in touch with their roots
By STEVE MOLLMAN Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNALJanuary 27, 2006
Most office workers use their precious vacation days getting away from it all. Kevin Shepherdson, a marketing manager at Sun Microsystems Inc. in Singapore, does something rather different: He sits in front of a computer, trawling online forums. He plows through government and church records. He even collates the results of DNA tests. The reason: Mr. Shepherdson is researching his family tree.
His 13-year quest has seen Mr. Shepherdson travel the length and breadth of the Malay peninsula on research trips. It's also taken him much further afield -- to England, where he charmed his way into the homes of complete strangers just because his ancestors had once lived there.
"It's a hobby, man, a passion," says Mr. Shepherdson, a Singaporean with an ethnic-Chinese mother. "It's a wonderful feeling knowing who you are."
Mr. Shepherdson is one of a growing number of people in Asia who are actively exploring their roots. In recent years, tools like online genealogy forums and DNA testing have made it far easier to rediscover family links lost through migration, war or simply the tyranny of distance. For Asia's new family researchers -- and their relatives -- the journey of discovering who they are and where they come from is often a surprisingly emotional one, leading in the end to a greater sense of belonging.
Erik Huang (above) and Tei Gordon (right) both tracked down their ancestors' burial sites thanks to amateur genealogy sleuthing.
"A lot of people feel that we don't belong to a community anymore," says Ann Wee, an anthropologist and former associate professor at the National University of Singapore. Nationality is often no more than a passport, she says, not a badge of cultural identity. "People are grasping for something that's me...and, you know, they've got their ancestors."
One explanation for the increased interest is simply that, these days, family researchers can accomplish far more, with much less effort, than in the past. With DNA testing kits being sold by U.S. companies like Relative Genetics Inc. and Genealogy by Genetics Ltd. for as little as $100, DNA-based genealogy is starting to take hold in the region. "Asia has become an emerging market for consumer-oriented DNA-testing services," says Doug Fogg, chief operating officer of Sorenson Genomics, which owns Relative Genetics. His company is expanding in Asia, where it has sold more than 1,500 testing kits in the past few years through affiliates.
The Internet also has a growing role to play. Last year, the Singapore government set up an online portal where people from around the world can trace their lineage back to the city-state. The portal, called the Singapore Family Tree (www.sft.com.sg1), provides tools that allow families to collaborate and map their histories. It now has about 4,000 registered family trees, and an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 users. Because marriages mean that individual trees usually feature several family names, there are around 40,000 names represented. The project is a way to "promote heritage awareness and rootedness...to forge stronger bonds among locals and Singaporeans living abroad," says Philip Chua, chief information and technology officer of Singapore's National Heritage Board, which started the portal. "By building an online family tree that is accessible anywhere in the world, relatives can feel a sense of belonging to the family."
In China, too, many are trying to recapture that sense of belonging. During the Cultural Revolution, family lineages were seen as vestiges of China's feudal past and Red Guards destroyed countless family records. "Many Chinese genealogies...are lost forever, and today many Chinese in China and overseas are not able to trace their family roots," says Erik Huang, a second-generation Brunei resident whose grandparents were born in China.
But as China's economic growth brings about a greater sense of national identity -- as well as the financial means for its own citizens to look into their past -- the number of books, magazines and Web sites dedicated to genealogy has risen sharply, according to Danny Chin, the Asia area manager for the Genealogical Society of Utah. "Chinese genealogy has become a major discipline in itself," he says.
Shanghai Library is working with Mr. Chin's organization to produce a world-wide catalog of Chinese genealogies by 2007. The library created the first reading room for Chinese genealogical research in 1996, and it attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year; its Chinese Genealogical Collection contains more than 110,000 genealogical books, covering 335 names from more than 20 provinces and cities.
Huang Xiaogang, chief editor of China Stemmata, a Web site based in Jinhua, Zhejiang province that provides links to individual families' Web sites, says his company is also seeing more people interested in compiling family histories. "Chinese are traditional and they love to share their genealogy among the family members," he says.
There's also interest from the Chinese diaspora. A spokesman for Fujian Century International Travel Service in China's Fujian province says that his company deals with hundreds of tourists from Southeast Asia on roots-searching trips each year.
For Mr. Huang, being part of this diaspora compelled him to start tracing his roots in the mid-1990s. When he was growing up, his parents explained to him how his grandparents had emigrated to Brunei from China.
"I was very interested to listen to their life stories: how they escaped poverty, left their loved ones behind in their homeland, and sought their fortune in Southeast Asia," says the 28-year-old primary school teacher.
Unfortunately, the family ties back to the homeland were mostly broken, and by the time Mr. Huang started his family tree research, inspired by the emergence of genealogy Web sites, nobody in his immediate family remembered any relatives in China.
After a few years of research, Mr. Huang got a break when an aunt told him of an uncle living in Fujian province. But from that uncle, Mr. Huang learned that the family's genealogical records had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. "I was in deep despair," he says. "After years of quest, I had ended up in a deadlock."
Fortunately, the uncle had recalled one thing: the name of a common 15th-century ancestor, Huang Tianhai. Years later, Mr. Huang chanced upon that ancestor's name in a book published by the Huang Surname Society, and from there he was able trace his roots all the way back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
In late 2003, Mr. Huang began planning a trip to his ancestral homeland of Fujian. He wrote to relatives there he'd never met and told them of his plans. "I was nervous and scared because I was all on my own, and would meet people I had never met before and go to places I had never gone," he says. "But I knew if I didn't take this trip, my family in Brunei would never know our roots, (which) would be lost forever."
Mr. Huang was also worried that his relatives might ask him for money. That didn't happen. Instead, he says, he was received warmly and treated kindly by everyone, including some relatives who were local officials. In one village, he was even greeted with drums and a red banner with his name on it by a group of more than 200 relatives -- embarrassing, he says, because he was casually dressed, even wearing flip-flops.
Today, says Mr. Huang, his life feels more complete. "Before I found my family roots I felt lonely because there was always a question of who were my ancestors."
Depth of knowledge
Books like the one Mr. Huang used to trace his ancestry back hundreds of years are a great aid to modern researchers in many parts of the region. "The depth of the genealogical records that you find in Asia is just astounding," says Scott Woodward, director of the nonprofit Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation in Utah.
Mormons, who have a religious mandate to record their ancestry, play an important role in family tree research in Asia, as in other parts of the world. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as the Mormon church is known, funds the Genealogical Society of Utah. The society promotes the sharing of genealogical information throughout Asia and hosts family history centers in Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore and other cities where the general public can access various records to research their family roots.
Billionaire inventor and philanthropist James LeVoy Sorenson's Mormon affiliation has helped fuel his establishment of a group of nonprofit and for-profit organizations designed to encourage family roots research -- including Sorenson Genomics and the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation. Mr. Sorenson sees rich potential in Asia and particularly in the overseas Chinese populations in the region.
While the vast bulk of family records around Asia have yet to be scanned into a digital, searchable format, the Thai government is considering digitizing its information. This project has its genesis in the December 2004 tsunami, when DNA testing was used to match tsunami victims with living relatives.
DNA unlocks secrets
Genealogy researchers can now share more than just information: They can also compare their DNA profiles online to see if they're related.
Creating a DNA profile is a surprisingly simple process. A saliva sample is taken from the inside of the cheek and sent to a lab, which analyzes the sample and creates an anonymous genetic profile that's entered into a database. Subscribers to this online forum can be alerted, if they choose, if a match is made with another such profile.
DNA-matching addresses a problem that particularly affects research in Asia: common last names. When a large population shares the same last name, "it's nearly impossible to untangle through conventional research alone," says Tei Gordon, a global communications adviser for NTT Communications Corp. in Tokyo, who has used DNA testing to trace his own lineage.
The precision of DNA testing may have a deeper impact in Asia than elsewhere, because of the particularly tightly-knit nature of Asian families, and the veneration for ancestors in certain religious traditions. Mr. Gordon believes that some parts of Asia are also particularly comfortable with DNA technology. "Here in Japan, there are numerous books for sale about DNA, and I think people here are generally more exposed to the concept than in the West," he says, adding that his own Japanese relatives were surprisingly open to DNA testing.
Ironically, this technology could be particularly crucial in Japan: Some local governments are "finding it a burden to keep family histories archived for so long and are now even starting to destroy all the family records that are older than 80 years," says Mr. Gordon.
Mr. Gordon, who grew up in Oregon and is half Scottish-American and half Japanese, has had a lot of matches since submitting his DNA profile online: "It becomes quite addictive, checking the results several times a week to see if you might match someone new. It's almost like day-trading." He recently unearthed six relatives from his father's side in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. "If you grew up eating rice with your hamburger, instead of french fries," says the 35-year-old, "I think it is natural to want to know why."
Today, Mr. Gordon researches his family roots in his spare time. After tracing his Scottish lineage on his father's side, he turned his attention in recent years to his maternal side.
Three years ago, while visiting his mother's hometown of Iwakuni in western Japan's Yamaguchi prefecture, Mr. Gordon and some relatives decided to find the tiny mountain village where their ancestors once lived.
Called Maruda, the secluded village is today inhabited by only a handful of residents and is too small to be on any maps. Following various clues, Mr. Gordon is working on a theory that his ancestors were Samurai from the Heike, or Taira, clan, hiding there after their defeat in the 12th-century Heiji Rebellion.
The drive up to Maruda, says Mr. Gordon, was "kind of spooky," with unpaved roads winding beneath towering bamboo plants. "The (global positioning system) in the car," he says, "did not help us." Eventually, however, they hit pay dirt, thanks to a small, lone sign.
"Finding the actual hidden village of Maruda, where my ancestors walked possibly for 800 years -- that really gave me the real rush," he says.
They also found an overgrown cemetery nearby with a large tomb. On the inside of a door built into the tomb, they found their family name. "That's when we realized that this...was the marker of our ancestors," says Mr. Gordon. "A feeling came over me that my ancestors' spirits were happy that we found them."
Back to the past
For Kevin Shepherdson, the 37-year-old Singapore marketing manager who has spent years tracing his roots, perhaps the greatest satisfaction is how his efforts have united family members. Because of his research -- everything from asking relatives to submit to DNA tests to poring over church records -- the Shepherdsons now hold regular family reunions attended by hundreds of relatives from around the region, and they keep in touch throughout the year at a private family Web portal he set up (www.shepherdsonfamily.com2). (Last year, he also helped set up a family history exhibition in conjunction with the Singapore National Library Board; a representative from Relative Genetics spoke at the event.)
"I feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction seeing long-lost family members and distant relatives rekindling their ties," he says. "I guess this is the biggest achievement in my life."
His research has even led him back to his paternal homeland. Three years ago, on a chilly February morning, he visited the house in Ramsgate, England, where an ancestor had lived more than a century earlier. From the front porch he could see the town's small harbor, where a pair of adventurous Shepherdson brothers had set sail for Asia as captains and spawned what is today a clan of hundreds of Shepherdsons around Southeast Asia.
"Nothing can describe that fantastic feeling," he says. "It was as if I was suddenly transported back into the past -- the smell, the old houses, the panoramic view of the harbor all made it seem so real."
Some moments during his research have been eerie. On one trip to Malacca, Malaysia, Mr. Shepherdson had dinner for the first time with a group of Shepherdsons descended from his great-grandfather's brother. "I couldn't help noticing the resemblance some of them had to my other relatives," he says. "And they said the same thing about me. It was a weird feeling. We felt close yet distant."
He's also seen how his efforts have brought forth strong emotions in his relatives. For a book about the Shepherdsons he wrote (and privately published), he asked the older relatives to write down their memories of loved ones from their childhood. "Several of my relatives cried when they wrote their stories," he says. "I realized that it touched them just as much to write about the past."
--Zhou Yang contributed to this article.
Write to Steve Mollman at email@example.com