I had always been curious about my own family’s past, especially those of my grandparents. Who were their family? Were they born in Singapore? What did they do for a living? My childhood probing didn’t lead me anywhere except to noncommittal vague answers. Then, just a child, I did not probe any further. What else can you do when you hit a dead end?
Fast forward three decades and a bit. My grandparents have passed away and I’m involved in academia and public history. As part of my PhD work, I began to seriously work on my family history, especially on my maternal side. (By chance, I met someone who knew my paternal grandfather as a fellow villager in Chaoan, China, and he brought back a copy of the family genealogy that shed tones of light and answered a lot of questions. There’s still more to be asked, but it’ll do for now.) There is barely any trace of my gong gong and por por‘s past.
I only knew my gong gong‘s name (even then, it turned out to be his nickname not birth name!) and the name of his father. No one knows the name of my great grandmother or what happened to her. The family tale is that she was sent back to China (no idea when) after she suffered a gong tau (voodoo curse) and had died in China. My great grandfather died before the war and was buried in Pek San Theng. My mother remembers visiting the grave during Qing Ming in her childhood. When the cemetery was slated for urban redevelopment, my gong gong did not get around to exhuming his father’s remains – he was too poor. So it was unclaimed and my great grandfather was cremated, together with all the unclaimed remains, and scattered at sea.
My por por did not know her mother’s name; she had died when my por por was 4 years old. She only knew her father’s name and that he (and possibly her mother) were opera performers. She did not know the troupe names or any other details. She didn’t even tell us how and who she was brought up by, and what actually happened to her father. I knew though she had an elder sister, who had died before I was born.
After bombing my mother with questions, I managed to unearth a few more crumbs in addition to what I already knew. I started to work on them in ernest. Working on it for the past three years, on and off, I managed to piece together some of the crumbs. One of the biggest breakthroughs I had was finding the final resting place of my grandaunt, my por pro’s sister and visited it in person. From there I found out her date of death, and eventually the cause of her death. I also, by a stroke of luck, found out about the traffic accident that killed her husband a couple of decades later. Spookily, it took place just a couple of blocks from where we lived!
Today was another small victory of sorts: I spoke to the daughter-in-law of my great grand uncle (my gong gong‘s father’s brother) in China! Based on a piece of paper with an address in China, I managed to locate the village my gong gong’s father came from. It’s still there, and that there are still descendants there. They managed to find out some names and gave me a phone number.
I’m not exactly shaking with excitement. Unlike the first time when I finally laid eyes on my grandaunt’s urn – I actually burst into tears – I am calm. I don’t know if I am happy, but I am amazed to find links. In my line of work, I have read so much of people searching for their roots and spoke to people who “found” their ancestral links. I’ve always wondered what it felt like. Now I am in this position, I do not know what to feel.
That said, I am ecstatic that I broke through some walls. There’s still a long way to go in piecing the puzzle together. But at least, I’m getting somewhere. This is an adventure, for sure.
For now, perhaps a trip to Dongguan, China is on the cards.