Culture Vulture

My surreal connection to my ancestral home

It is a human desire to return to where we came from and to know what has come before

Three weeks ago, I made a trip to Fuzhou in China with a dozen members of my extended family.

It was not a sightseeing holiday, but a pilgrimage to visit relatives and see my family's ancestral siheyuan, a traditional wood-and- stone dwelling where individual rooms are arranged around a central courtyard.

The trip was a long time coming; we had been meaning to make it since the early 2000s.

Like a salmon swimming upstream, I think all humans have an innate desire to return to where we came from and to site ourselves in the continuum of history by knowing what has come before.

But conflicting schedules and the enormous amount of planning needed meant that we had always put it off - until now.

By the time we touched down in Changle after a two-hour delay on the Changi tarmac, dusk had settled over the coastal city and the wind put a sharp nip in the air.

But the moment we came face- to-face with our relatives, the hold- up and the chill were forgotten.

The entourage that showed up at the airport were impossibly excited to receive us, taking our hands in theirs and warmly exclaiming how good it was that we had come.

It was a surreal experience. These people, who had until that moment, existed for me only in photographs and stories, were suddenly there in the flesh; though separated by generations, language and distance, the same blood that flowed through their veins pulsed in mine.

The next day, we piled into a chartered mini-bus that wound through the streets of Changle and made our way to the siheyuan.

The neighbourhood that it was nestled in looked modern but bland, with orderly, smooth-walled houses flanking wide, level alleys. Everywhere was grey concrete that looked freshly poured.

Inside our ancestral home though, was a whole different world. Several rooms of the siheyuan had been rented out to tenants, but the two-storey room my late paternal grandparents had occupied was kept padlocked shut.

Inside, motes of soft grey dust hung in the still morning air, illuminated by weak sunbeams that peeked in through the wooden lattice windows.

The two bare lightbulbs, long burnt out, dangled from the ceiling by a tangled nest of wires.

Picking slowly through the room, we unearthed objects my forebears had left behind. A dark red hand- woven winnowing pan that belonged to my great-grandmother. Trinkets that were used for the traditional zhuazhou ceremony, where a one-year-old baby selects objects that are purported to be predictors of his future career and personality.

Even though I had never stepped into the room before, I felt a strangely magnetic connection to the place.

Like a salmon swimming upstream, I think all humans have an innate desire to return to where we came from and to site ourselves in the continuum of history by knowing what has come before.

A few years ago, theatre practitioner Oliver Chong followed the same homing instinct back to a village in Taishan, Guangdong. He turned his trip into a moving one- man performance, Roots (2012).

We bumped into another Singaporean family while sightseeing during our trip - we identified our fellow countrymen the moment they opened their mouths - who were visiting their ancestral home in Anxi, Fujian province.

There are entire businesses built on tracing genealogy, such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA. These services use a DNA sample to break down a person's ethnic origins and "you can start learning more about the places where your family story began", says a blurb on the AncestryDNA webpage.

This urge to return to our source may be particularly compelling for Singaporeans, especially the many of us who are culturally adrift and loosely moored to this island only by the strength of several generations.

For the majority of us, whose parents and grandparents hail from countries across the ocean, our kin are scattered around the world, and may be culturally and linguistically distinct.

Having a family tree on which to hang our heritage could, in an impalpable sense, provide a sense of deep-rooted belonging or affiliation which is sometimes missing here.

We ended the 11-day trip with one final celebratory dinner, a four-table affair in a private room where my relatives belted out karaoke and elegantly waltzed and box-stepped to my mangled rendition of a Teresa Teng ballad.

After the final course had been served and the last dance had been danced, one of my uncles took to the microphone.

"We are very, very thankful," he told our Chinese relatives, "for everything - helping us plan the trip, the warm welcome and the amazing time we have had together. We hope to see you in Singapore soon."

Slowly, other families began to take the stage, each saying a few words to bridge the gap between the two clusters of kin on either side of the South China Sea.

Finally, my father's oldest sister began to speak. She recounted how my grandmother - her mother - would constantly send photographs back to China, to update her family on our lives.

Voice wavering, she recalled how my grandmother would be constantly worried about her family back in China and how she would have been so pleased to see us all coming together.

By the time she was done, the room was quiet. Looking around, I could see some of my relatives tearing up, overcome with emotion. I, likewise, was deeply moved.

I may not have known what I was looking for when I went to Fuzhou, but sitting there in China, among my kin, I knew that I had found it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'My surreal connection to my ancestral home'. Print Edition | Subscribe