China-based firm ties up with genealogy society to help Chinese Singaporeans trace roots

Mr Huihan Lie (left), founder of China-based ancestry research company My China Roots, and Mr Ng Yew Kang, president of the Genealogy Society Singapore, after inking an MOU. ST PHOTO: RYAN CHIONG

SINGAPORE – When a Chinese Singaporean in his 50s sought help to find out more about his late father, genealogist Huihan Lie and his team immediately scoured databases of Chinese ancestors and conducted field investigations in China.

They found out that the father was a seaman from Fujian who fought in World War II and that the client had a half-sister in Liverpool, England. 

Mr Lie, founder and chief executive of China-based ancestry research company My China Roots, said: “He never imagined he had a half-sister and was very emotional to meet her in England. That was one of the most memorable family reunions I have seen in my work in genealogy.”

On Saturday, the company inked a memorandum of understanding with the non-profit Genealogy Society Singapore to work together over three years to help Chinese Singaporeans trace their roots. The services include roots and genealogy research projects focusing on pre-migration family histories in China, China roots trips and the creation of publications.

Prices range between $120 for an online subscription to collect and share one’s historical records for a year, and $3,000 on average to locate one’s ancestral village and jiapu, which refers to Chinese genealogy records.

The society will market the services to potential customers here such as clan associations, private businesses, civic organisations and individuals.

Mr Ng Yew Kang, 82, its president, said: “Many Chinese Singaporeans have little knowledge of their ancestry, where they came from and how their ancestors migrated from China to Singapore. By the time they want to learn more... many elderly family members would have died, taking the memories with them.”

He added: “Knowing the past is crucial for us to understand the present. I believe that our partnership with My China Roots will enable Chinese Singaporeans to better connect with their roots, especially since many may not understand the Chinese language or speak the dialects of their ancestral homes.”

The partnership came about when both Mr Ng and Mr Lie noticed from two years ago a spike in interest among Singaporeans in discovering their Chinese ancestral roots. Last December, My Chinese Roots saw 12,000 visitors from Singapore on its online platform, double the number in the same month in 2021.

Mr Lie said My China Roots plans to establish a family history centre here to help Singaporeans conduct targeted online searches. 

His interest in helping others came from his own experience. An ethnic Chinese, the 44-year-old was born and raised in the Netherlands while his parents were born in Indonesia.

Filled with curiosity about China, he went to Beijing as a university student to study Chinese. “I started to wonder: Where in China is our family actually from and why did they leave? How is ‘my China’ different from my ancestors’ ‘China’?” he said.

“A meeting with a distant cousin in Xiamen, who knew about one of my ancestral villages, signalled the start of an immensely rewarding search for my roots, a journey that taught me about my family, our history and myself.”

His curiosity turned into a hobby and subsequently a passion. In 2012, he established the company in Hong Kong to help overseas Chinese trace their roots. It has 16 staff based in China, Europe and the United States.

To date, it has completed 800 projects, including finding one’s ancestral village and relatives in China, and conducted around 25 to 30 China roots trips to places like Guangdong, Fujian and Shandong.

Assignments to locate ancestral roots, which take about one to six months, start with a client giving information such as names of ancestors who left China and documents like photos of family and tombstones.

The genealogist speaks to local historians, clan associations and Chinese local government institutions and looks at private and public online databases to locate the ancestral village. 

Once it has been found, the genealogist will visit the village to interview village or clan leaders and elderly locals. Field research typically revolves around finding traces such as an ancestral temple or jiapu, distant family members and stories of the client’s ancestors.

One of the biggest challenges is the scattered state of historical and ancestral records, said Mr Lie.

“Many records have not been scanned. Some records are in private hands and ministries. A lot of cemeteries have a lot of valuable information but no one is taking pictures of tombstones,” he added.

While My China Roots relies heavily on records and documents to trace one’s ancestry, there are also firms like utilising both records and DNA services.

Mr Lie said he hopes the partnership will encourage Chinese Singaporeans to preserve the heritage of families and clans for future generations and gain a stronger sense of self and cultural identity.

“Learning about the environment their ancestors grew up in, our customers often come out of a research project or roots trip feeling more connected with themselves,” he added.

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