This is half of us. My brother Anthony and I are half Chinese, and the other half is a mix of Jewish Polish, Latvian and Russian. The family tree is fairly complete going back a few generations with one exception: our father’s grandfather. There are so many resources online for genealogy research, from ancestry.com to Facebook groups on Polish genealogy, Jewish genealogy, and dedicated Jewish and Polish ancestry websites. Every day, more and more gets digitized* and put online, making it easier to find information and make connections. Because I get into ancestry in fits and starts (’tis the season to do research, fa la la la la, la la la la!), I’ve benefited from the lags in between my activity, as information online becomes more abundant and easily accessible.
* Genealogical research often includes tracking our ancestors’ movements from country to country. I have also moved countries a few times, and after 16 years in the UK I usually use British spelling, so I don’t have a written “accent” here in Europe. But on this website I’ll use American spelling!
I am writing this on Christmas Day, 2015. One year ago, during the Christmas break, I wanted to spend some time digging into discovering more about Louis Postmann, my father’s grandfather who died when my grandfather was a baby, before my grandfather immigrated to America from Poland when he was two years old. We only know that he was Jewish, served in the military and I think the place they were from is called Włocławek.
On the other hand, my father’s mother’s side of the family is very well documented thanks to at least one keen genealogist in that branch.
Thanks to my German mother-in-law’s interest in the Chinese side of my family, the Louis Postmann research got derailed last Christmas – which fortuitously led to my brother and me visiting Zhongshan in October and November 2015!
In any family history, the points in common – the “golden threads” – are the ones which attract interest. In my family on both sides there are two strong threads: entrepreneurship and education. This arrives to the present day in one form with the branding and design agency which my husband and I own and run, Grain Creative, which works mostly with entrepreneurs, some of which are in the education sector.
One of the ideas stemming from this ancestry research is to write a book on my eight great-grandparents – the four Chinese ones and the four Jewish Eastern European ones. Throw in at least one step-great-grandparent and some step-grandparents and it will be a fascinating mix. The online world has been an immense help in the research and a lot of this would not have happened without these websites, Facebook and emails.
It also really helps to have a famous or accomplished ancestor! You will see a lot about Joe Shoong (周崧) on this website. He was my mother’s father’s father, born in 1879 in a village called Long Tau Wan (龙头环 or 龍頭環 in traditional characters) in Zhongshan (中山), Guangdong province. He deserves a book just on him: he started a Woolworths-type chain of shops called the National Dollar Stores, helped many people immigrate from China, founded one school in Long Tau Wan (current population 3000) and one in Locke, California (current population 80), near Sacramento.
According to Oakland Wiki, “Shoong generously donated much of his millions to various philanthropic projects, including a scholarship endowment for Chinese American students at UC Berkeley, and construction of the Chinatown community center at 9th Street and Harrison Street. The renovation of the Paramount Theatre, and financial support for the Children’s Fairyland Tree Top Teahouse and Dragon Slide were also projects to which Shoong and his son Milton donated funds. Joe also donated for the creation of a Chinese school, the Shoong Family Chinese Cultural Center which opened in 1953.”
I never met my “tai-goong” (Cantonese for great-grandfather on the mother’s side) – he died in 1961, before my parents were married. My dad says that Joe Shoong wouldn’t have allowed a non-Chinese marriage during his lifetime. In typical American melting-pot fashion, by the time my brother and I came around three generations later, there was not much left of the Chinese culture apart from many delicious banquets and a few words like “poa-poa” and “tai-poa” (grandmother and great-grandmother). Here’s a photo from one of those banquets, around 1994, showing all 5 kids in my generation.
There is an enormous amount of information about Joe Shoong online. During Christmas 2014, after finding some information about him on a Chinese genealogy website, I got in touch with one of the people posting in the discussion, Douglas Joe, a genealogist who lives in California and who turned out to be a distant relative: my fifth cousin once removed.
This was a jackpot: Doug runs an entire website dedicated to his (and thus, my) family tree and he has been an amazing resource in the Chinese research. Another relative, Richard Chow, is also active in tracing his roots and is currently writing a chapter on his memories of his family’s multi-generational involvement with the National Dollar Stores.
Doug put me in touch with Harry He, who lives in Zhongshan and works as a librarian at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC), Zhongshan Institute. Harry has a particular interest in overseas Zhongshanese people and in Zhongshanese education history, and has written an article on Joe Shoong which was published online in 2014 on tangrentown.com and in the magazine published by Zhongshan Foreign and Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau.
Harry and I were in touch by email and Facebook, and he soon sent photos of the Joe Shoong School in Long Tau Wan. Looking back through my emails now, I see that Harry had not yet visited the school when we first got in touch, so he must have been prompted to visit partly by my curiosity. It’s only about a 20-minute drive away from him…about as far as I was many times from the school in Locke which I have never seen!
Before finding out more about Joe Shoong, I pictured his village as a distant memory crushed below modern apartment blocks. I had no idea that the village was still relatively small, with 3000 inhabitants, and knew nothing about the school.
On April 27th, 2015 I received an email “good news from Harry” which announced that the Zhongshan Foreign and Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau was planning a workshop for about 20 descendants in November and that we would be invited. Indeed it was amazing news! A month later we received the official invitation and the wheels were set in motion.
After having read the Brother Orange story and its follow up, I didn’t quite know what to expect. The mention of a uniform, graduation ceremony and fully-packed program kept the bar high. Guesses among friends and family about the uniform ranged from Mao suits (also known as Zhongshan suits) to schoolboy outfits or maybe even colourful Vatican guard uniforms.
The actual trip turned out to be like winning the lottery without even buying a ticket. More coming soon!
T龙头环(龍頭環)村 Long Tau Wan Village, Zhongshan, China ~1940, 诵口碉堡 Song Watch Tower. Credit: Larry Wong, enhanced by Ray Lum.