Huihan Lie’s own family tree is anything but straightforward: his ancestors emigrated from Fujian Province to Indonesia (where his parents were born), though he himself was born and raised in the Netherlands. Lie returned to China in 2004. After working with the European Commission and doing some consulting work, he decided to pursue an interest in history and genealogy by helping others find their roots. He recently founded My China Roots, which specializes in Chinese ancestry. Lie visited a Grade 5 class at the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB), teaching them about those who came before them.
Celeste Palmer, 11, US/France
How do you trace someone’s ancestor?
You start by sitting down one-on-one to ask them everything that they or their family already knows. When I hear that, because I’ve studied the history of overseas Chinese migration, I can know which flow they fit into. Historically, there were a couple big waves of migration, and when a person moved to one place, a friend or family member of that person would generally move to the same place because they could support each other in the new environment. After that, you start digging and calling people in China and overseas.
Mae Li Cowell, 11, China/New Zealand
Q1: How far back can you trace someone’s ancestors? Is there a limit?
There is a limit, but those limits vary according to the people you are doing the research for. Some families have documented their families very well, up to 1,000 years ago. If you are from Europe or the US, most of the records were kept by the government or church. In China, each family had its own documentation, so each family and clan was responsible for keeping up records. In my mom’s case, it goes back 3,500 years.
Q2: What was one of the most interesting stories that you had for someone you helped?
One that I’m working on now is a woman who is American-born Chinese. Her mom, Daisy, was born in Beijing. Daisy’s parents were from Guangdong. Her grandfather was very high up in the guomindang army. He lived in Shanghai and had to flee to Hong Kong in the late 1940s. Her great-grandfather was a collaborator with the Japanese; the Japanese and the guomindang were enemies, so that conflict is interesting to me. When Daisy’s parents moved to Hong Kong in 1949, she was given up for adoption to her mother’s sister because that sister was planning to go to the US. Since that separation in 1949, Daisy never heard from her biological parents or siblings again. In all likelihood, they are still in Hong Kong.
Ana Rowley, 11, Taiwan
How long does the process usually take?
Last week, I went to Guangdong for a project that was very quick, [about]a month. There are also projects that take many, many months.
Stijn van Beek, 10, the Netherlands
How many people have you helped?
Seven [so far].
Casper Berkhout,11, the Netherlands
Has there ever been a case where you can’t find any information at all?
Because I started only eight months ago, it hasn’t been the case that I can’t find anything. There are two projects [now]I’m feeling frustrated about because there’s just not that much information that I’ve found. There is a guy who lives in Holland now whose ancestors are from China, and in the past seven generations were in Indonesia. He has very little information about where [his family]was from in China, so it’s very difficult to trace.
Margot Durfee, 10, US
Have people ever been unhappy with what you found out?
Before you go on a search, you don’t know what you’re going to find. It depends on expectations and what people have in their head. Some people expect to find things. I had one customer who says jokingly that she wants to prove that she’s related to the royal family in China. If you have these types of expectations, it’s likely you’ll be disappointed. That’s why when I start working with somebody, I tell them what is reasonable to expect.
Robbie Chen, 11, Canada
Have you ever found out something that was quite unexpected or interesting?
Every one of you will have a family history with unique stories. Some are surprising because of historical reasons. For instance in Guangdong in the 1920s and 1930s, people left because of war and social unrest. Sometimes we find out that someone was really a high general in the guomindang army or someone very powerful who had to leave. Sometimes it’s more emotional; very often families emigrate because of reasons that aren’t very nice, like poverty or family conflicts.
Rasmus Rasmussen, 11, Denmark
Q1: When you were a kid, did you want to be a genealogist?
When I was a kid, I had no idea what I wanted to be. I wanted to be royal, a knight or a cowboy, but when I reached my teens, I had no clue. I remember asking my dad and my grandfather a lot about our family history, so there was definitely, in hindsight, [an]interest. It wasn’t until three years ago that I decided I should look into it professionally.
Q2: What do you think was your most exciting trip?
For me, the most exciting trip was the one I made for myself [to find]my own family history. That’s the one that really made me think. I didn’t expect it to have a big impact, and that’s why it was surprising. I have always been interested in history and genealogy, but somehow it made me feel at ease. For some reason when I was in my ancestral village, I felt very light, like there was continuity, a certain connection between me and my ancestors. Just knowing that seven generations ago, my great-great-great-great-grandfather sat in front of the same altar looking at the same decorations on the wall gave me a peaceful feeling.
Rohan Atal, 11, India/Canada
How many languages do you speak?
My mother tongue is Dutch. I also speak English, Chinese, and some French and
Margo Li, 11, China
Was there anything unexpected that you found out about your family?
If anything was unexpected, it was the impact that it had on me. It taught me more about myself.
photos by Mitchell Pe Masilun
This article originally appeared on p36-37 of the beijingkids July 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com