My search for Yip Phui, my maternal great grandfather, brought me to Dongguan, China. When I read the email telling me that the village where Yip Phui was from was still there, and gave me a phone number to call, I know I had to make the trip. There were still so many unanswered questions.
Taking advantage of the small window of break I have between work, I flew to Guangzhou, en route to Dongguan. Flying in the shadow of the disappearance of MH370 and in a cloud of questions, I wondered what the village looked like and who the people were. Of course, I wondered if the people were going to be the gold digging “relatives” I’ve heard so much about from people who went back to China to search for their roots. To say that these thoughts didn’t enter my mind is lying.
I arrived safely and was picked up by the “relatives” from the Dongguan train station and brought to the village.
Five minutes into our conversation, I knew I had found it. They were all entranced by the piece of paper that led me to them. On it was written an address and a name I’ve been told is my great great grandfather Yip Zam. They, too, confirmed that the name was that of their great grandfather, except that they knew it as Yip Zam Fei. The discrepancy could possibly be due to the phonetics differences in writing and the village’s quaint habit of shortening their names to the first two characters. The confirmation laid in the clan and branch identification (on the second slip, on the right), two pieces of information I could not make out previously.
The added bonus was to find out the name of my great great great grandfather! There it was, written in plain sight Peng Kei. What I always thought was probably some shop name turned out to be referring to my great great great grandfather, Yip Yu Peng, aka Peng Kei.
The other mystery I’ve always been curious about is also solved – the name of the shop written on the paper – Kun Sheng Shop. Turns out it was referring to the jewellery shop of Yip Phui’s brother-in-law. Yip Phui’s younger sister had married into a rich family. Any letter sent to the village was directed to the shop in the nearby town which is then re-directed to the family in the village.
Unfortunately, the genealogy book was lost during the Cultural Revolution, and there was no other documentary evidence with which I could verify names and dates (quirks of a historian). I could only rely on the villagers’ memories.The villagers whom I spoke to and met turned out to be my grand uncles and aunties. They were the sons and daughters-in-law of Yip Phui’s brothers and sisters.
The story, I found out, was this:
Yip Phui was the oldest of nine children. Possibly born in the late 1890s, Yip Phui was a naughty and cheeky one who often engaged the wrath of his father. When was was about 19 or 20 years old, he decided to follow a few of his friends who were coming to Singapore. His family, poor farmers struggling to survive and keep the family together, reluctantly let him leave the village. He was only one of two from that village who left. This was roughly around the 1910s.
News of his whereabouts and well being were scant. Eventually, the contact was broken. The other villager who left (and later returned to live in the village in the 1960s) said he had seen Yip Phui a few times, that he was a sailor (or worked on ships) and was often away for months on end. The family tried to look for him via ads in the local newspapers in Singapore but they did not get any news. That was the last the family knew of him. Yip Phui’s brothers and sisters never saw him again after he left, but never failed to wonder what happened to their brother who left.
It was here that I could pick up the story. Yip Phui had a son, my gong gong Yip Ah Gan sometime in mid 1920s. Who his wife was, no one knew. She died while Ah Gan was still a boy, apparently sent back to China after she was voodooed. She must have gone back to her village, since no one at Dongguan knew or heard about her. Yip Phui died in 1938 and was buried at Pek San Theng. No one knew what he died of. My gong gong, then barely a teenager, was left an orphan.
What Yip Phui did when he was in Singapore remained a mystery. But where he was from and how he came to Singapore was no longer one.
The most touching aspect of my trip is not so much that I had “found my roots” or “returned home”, at least not for me. I was happy to have solved the mystery of my gong gong’s father. What touched me most was the responses of my grand uncles and aunties. For them, it was a closure to see me and hear of what I knew of Yip Phui’s life in Singapore. Sad as it was, they finally had closure, for all their lives, and all the lives of their parents, they had been wondering what had happened to Yip Phui. Yip Mei, Yip Phui’s youngest brother, was still thinking of his brother on his death bed, just a few years ago. For them, even though I do not carry the family name, I am family, and one who has returned with news.
Regrettably, my gong gong is dead, as is his uncles and aunties. What scenes would there be had this taken place at least 10 years earlier, I dare not imagine.