Roots Essay

Evolution and History of the Program

In Search of Roots

There is an ancient Chinese adage, yinshui siyuan (when drinking water, re- member the source). As an expression of this spirit, the Chinese people have one of the world’s oldest continuous literate genealogical traditions, the beginnings of which can be traced more than 3,500 years back, to the Shang period, when the kings frequently appealed to their ancestors for guidance in important undertakings. Over the centuries, Chinese reverence for their forebears developed into a scholarly discipline, resulting in a rich and voluminous body of genealogical literature. However, despite this tradition of scholarship, interest in family history and genealogy was not widespread in the Chinese American community until years after the end of World War II.

A major factor was that genealogical research necessarily had to take second place to the Chinese Americans’ constant struggle to survive in a hostile American environment, where they were regarded as undesirable and were oppressed by Chinese Exclusion Laws and other discriminatory legislation and practices. Another factor contributing to this development was the fact that before World War II the Chinese American population in the United States was small and overwhelmingly first- or second-generation. Many had families in China but led sojourner bachelor existences in this country. Family genealogy, if it came under consideration at all, would merely be a simple extension of the family tree in China with some addenda for American-born generations, if they existed.

Chinese Americans emerged from World War II with a somewhat improved political, social, and economic status in American society. The relaxation of immigration restrictions allowed the growth in the proportion of families in the Chinese American community. America’s postwar prosperity fostered the growth of a Chinese American middle class of professionals, technical personnel, and business people, who began to participate in mainstream society in increasing numbers and who pressed for recognition as equal partners in America’s pluralistic society. The common interests and goals of this middle class rooted in America fostered kindred feelings of community. These were often expressed by bonds of ethnic identity. Some of the manifestations of these sentiments were an increased interest in the history and culture of the common ethnic community and the deeds of their forebears.

In 1963, a group of Chinese Americans founded the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), the first community-formed group to document and disseminate information on the history of the Chinese in America. In 1965 the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco (CCF) was founded to provide a forum for Chinese and Chinese American culture. By the seventies and eighties, similar groups began to appear in other major Chinese American communities (1).

As researchers began to develop and accumulate Chinese American historical materials, especially oral interviews and biographies, it became apparent that there was much in common between historical and genealogical research. (During the late 1960s and early 1970s, CHSA made some desultory attempts at oral interviews and also collected a few genealogies, but inexperience and lack of a clear objective led the effort to falter. For the moment genealogical research remained an individual undertaking.

In Hawaii, however, there were already many Chinese families who had been several generations in the islands, and this history gave impetus to greater participation and institutionalization of Chinese American family history research. The founding of the Hawaii Chinese History Center (HCHC) in 1971 provided a contact point for those interested in the history of the Chinese in Hawaii. During the seventies the HCHC organized a number of field trips led by Irma Tam Soong, Douglas Chong, and others to local historical sites and to tape record oral interviews. In 1973, the HCHC sponsored its first major work, The Chinese in Hawaii: An Annotated Bibliography, providing a useful reference tool for researchers (2). By the mid-1970s, the HCHC had redefined its objectives to include encouraging genealogical and biographical research and the compilation of family histories (3).

The HCHC published Jean Ohai’s Chinese Genealogy and Family Book in 1975 and became the first Chinese American historical organization to sponsor a genealogy seminar, which was held at the United Chinese Society. In 1978, the HCHC became active in arranging for microfilming of Chinese clan genealogies by the Genealogical Society of Utah. The same year another genealogical seminar was announced and Dr. Timothy David Woo made avail- able his family history, To Spread the Glory: A Thousand Years of Heritage (1977), through the HCHC to further stimulate family history research (4).

In the continental United States, however, the first Chinese American family history workshop did not occur until the 1980s, although, as was the case in Hawaii, individuals had been working on their own family histories. In 1978 the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California (CHSSC), founded in 1975, cosponsored an oral history project with the Asian American Studies Center of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to capture the experiences of Chinese people in southern California, and was in the process of editing the materials into the book, Linking Our Lives (published in 1984). In 1983 the two groups cooperated again to hold a workshop, “Family History for the Chinese American:’ at UCLA. The program introduced the methodology of genealogical research and included presentations on Chinese American family trees and Chinese kinship terms, resources for family history research, oral history techniques, and highlights of Chinese American history(5). However, there were insufficient responses after the work- “shop to warrant CHSSC to embark on a family history research program.

The HCHC continued to take the lead in promoting Chinese American family history research. It sponsored more genealogical seminars. In 1985 the center, in cooperation with a number of Hawaiian Chinese groups, organized a highly successful “Researching One’s Chinese Roots” conference, which attracted 335 paid registrants (6). The conference proceedings, edited by Kum Pui and Violet Lai and published as Researching One’s Chinese Roots (Honolulu: HCHC, 1988), be- came a resource book for Chinese American family history research, especially in Hawaii. The conference was followed by a genealogy exhibit in 1986. During the late 1980′s the HCHC also co-published several family histories.

During the 1970s, relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States had begun to relax after two decades of hostile confrontation. By the late seventies the mainland Chinese government had changed to an open policy, allowing more investments from abroad and interchanges with other countries. Chinese Americans resumed communications with relatives and friends in the ancestral land. Some visited their ancestral villages in search of their roots. In 1982 the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of Guangdong Province inaugurated a summer camp program for Chinese American youth in Kaiping County in the Pearl River Delta region. In subsequent years various travel agencies and organizations in Chinese American communities recruited groups of participants. Although the programs were little more than vacation jaunts, they opened the possibility of in-depth activities in search of roots.

In 1989 Chinese Americans in San Francisco launched a family history conference, when the CHSA, CCF, and Cheng Society of America jointly sponsored the “Chinese American Family History and Genealogy symposium/Workshop (7). Benefiting from the experience of HCHC and CHSSC and receiving the generous support of these sister societies, the symposium/workshop focused on giving guidance in areas deemed unique to Chinese American family history research.

Some of the topics of the presentations covered the history of the Chinese in America, resources of the National Archives, Chinese research materials at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and the historical development of Guangdong Province and the Pearl River Delta region. Additionally, the symposium provided lectures on oral history techniques, surnames as clues to family histories, Chinese genealogies, and the construction of one’s family tree. Hand- outs included maps and essays made available through the generosity of CHSSC and HCHC. Despite the fact that the event took place only nine days after the Loma Prieta Richter scale 7.1 earthquake, which rocked the San Francisco Bay area, eighty interested people attended the event. Most of the presentations were subsequently published in the 1991 issue of the CHSA journal Chinese America: History and Perspectives.

Finally, in 1991, the CCF and Community Education Services, in conjunction with CHSA, followed up on the 1989 symposium/workshop with the inauguration of the “In Search of Roots” program.

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