Roots-Finding: Locating Your Ancestral Village in Teochew (Part 2)

Finding a place is usually less of a challenge than locating the people we want to find.

Villages in Teochew are typically inhabited by one, or just a few, surname-clan(s). At the same time, they are of fairly large population size of up to several thousands. In other words, most people in a neighbourhood are related in one way or another by blood or marriage. Thus turning up at the place of your ancestry looking for “fifth uncle of the Tan family” can be a futile exercise if you do not do your homework.

To ensure the success of your root-finding mission, you need to have an idea of your family tree and structure, and gather other details, such as the year your parents/grandparents left overseas, in order to identify the correct kin, or more aptly get yourself recognised. Old family photos or letters are of course most useful. Full Chinese names of your direct relatives are another critical piece of information, as the middle characters by tradition denote the generation of a particular lineage line.  

The best spot to begin your enquiries on the ground is the clan ancestral hall (called祠堂 sêu têung in Teochew), which functions as the “memory bank” of the village. In its absence, go to the local marketplace as this is where virtually all families are represented. Because Teochew villages tend to be tight-knit communities, it could well be a matter of minutes before you find yourself drinking tea in the company of your long-lost relatives.  

Anecdotes similar to a scene in the 1989 movie Eight Taels of Gold (shot partially in Teochew), where Sammo Hung starring as a Chinese immigrant taxi driver from New York was thoroughly fleeced of his wealth by a whole village of relatives on his homecoming, has caused much anxiety over what to expect when we meet our relatives in Teochew.

If you plan to go back to your village just to take some photographs as souvenir, you might leave feeling emptier inside than before. Seeking to relate is the whole point of roots-finding. While circumstances vary for individual families, it is safe to say that on the whole economic condition in the Teochew region has improved drastically since the 1990s, and possible harassment by “poor cousins” should no longer be a major worry. By custom, Teochew people are extremely hospitable towards their guests, and their obligation towards kin and kith is even more complete. So chances are, you will be made to receive even more than what you have in mind to give.

What should we say, and how should we behave, when meeting dozens of relatives for the first time? These are serious questions for overseas-born Teochews to consider, especially if we are brought up in highly Westernised environments.  One misstep may just ruin the first impression we give.

For starters, being able to handle at least simple exchanges in Teochew language helps to break the ice, for few people in Teochew are comfortable with Mandarin in the family setting. Speak English only when you wish to murmur to yourself. Be ready also to share plenty of family stories, but be prepared to listen to even more. Do not be overawed when more than one person tries excitedly to engage in conversation with you at the same time, for this is way people in the villages, especially the elderly, interact in everyday life. Keep smiling.

Stay reminded also, that the Teochew society is not composed of individuals, but lots of people organised within set family structures. Observance of generation status, birth order and gender are inherent in the manner in which people relate to one another. Always show respect to elders and thoughtfulness to the young. Lastly, make sure you are well-versed with the different family addresses before you meet your clan – it will come in handy!

 

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