Tracing your roots
This grandmother of four has found newfound cousins in her journey to discover more about her ancestors.
BY: Eleanor Yap
It is important to know where you came from and I am not talking about from the womb. One woman has taken this task very seriously and has tracked her ancestors as far back as late 1891. The 60-year-old Singaporean Amy Lam, who has six siblings, has travelled to faraway lands including the US, Borneo and China, to piece together her roots.
Through this arduous task, she has learned a little bit about herself, her roots and has new appreciation for this piece of history that she will leave for her grandchildren and their own families.
What made you decide to track down your family tree and when did you get started?
When my two children used to ask questions that I could not answer; the tracking down must have subconsciously started then. But I did not consciously document anything until 2000, when I returned to Singapore to live and work.
Are your siblings pitching in?
It seems like I am the only one interested in genealogy but everyone is helpful with his or her verbal contribution. The older aunties and uncles helped to tell stories of their youth.
Initially, how did you start on it and where did your search begin? Did you know exactly how you wanted to start or were you playing it by ear and seeing where things led you?
I started by just getting all the names in my father’s generation, followed by my own generation, continuing down to my children and now my grandchildren’s generation. I discovered that I have many cousins. I played it by ear in the beginning but I had to eventually be organised to fit the branches and leafs in their correct order.
What about your mother’s generation?
Like many Chinese families, a woman marries into the man’s family, and in my mother’s case, her family was in Hong Kong. My mother died when I was 15 and therefore, the connection with my paternal side was stronger since I grew up with my three paternal grandmothers in Singapore.
Since you travel a whole lot during the year, do you find balancing the work on your family tree and your love for travelling difficult? How much time would you say you have spent on your family tree?
No problems at all. The family tree is my own choice and so are the work projects. I just find the time and balance the choices in my life. It is difficult to really pin down a time frame as whenever I was visiting Singapore when I was living overseas, I would ask questions. It was only about 10 years ago that I started to write the names down.
Doing all this would require a good sum of money. How much have you incurred in terms of accommodations, airlines, etc? Have you had to dip into your own savings?
I travel mainly on budget airlines and gracious relatives accommodate me with lodgings and food. Financially independent more or less enables me to do what I wish to do. Again, it is not possible to give any approximate cost as I sometimes combine my work projects to fit in with my family research.
Your search has taken you to faraway lands like Borneo and China. Can you share what has been your most interesting country so far and what you have discovered there about your family?
It is impossible for me to say which is the most interesting country as everywhere I go I find varieties of interests, one as interesting as the other in different ways. I discovered that I have relatives scattered all over in Australia, Borneo, Canada, China, England, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway and the US. I am sure there are more that I have not gotten the opportunity to research into yet. If I include paternal, maternal and second cousins, there must be about over 100.
How far have you traced your family tree? Do you plan to go even further?
I have traced back to my great-grandmother. I have no plans to trace further back unless the information lands on my lap, like the painted porcelain tiles of my great-grand mother. The ancestral village people returned three painted porcelain tiles to my 14th uncle who still holds the deed to the ancestral hall and house in China (seen above) and I took pictures of them. One of the tiles is a picture of my great-grandmother. It was quite an eye-opening trip, as I never knew that my grandfather commanded such respect and wealth. There is no way I can afford the time, energy or finance to go so far back.
I am sure you have found many, many interesting stories/history about your family. Anything you can share?
Interesting only if there is an interest and in my case, too complicated too long and too many stories to sum up. However, I can share that my grandfather and granduncle were generous and kind men. After making their fortune in Borneo, they sent money to their village in China to hire teachers to teach the village children. They also donated coffins to families who could not afford them.
There are probably some things you have found out that probably don’t show your family in good light. Are you planning to include those in your family tree book?
What is in the book will only be a brief history of the family business and a brief write-up about the ancestral village in China. The main purpose of this book is a directory of names with their contacts so that the family can connect with each other.
How have you been able to differentiate the gossip and assumptions, and the true facts?
More or less I have. I feel one should not write anything without researching the facts.
Finding old records, tracking people down who may have passed on or prodding people about things from a long time ago can be quite frustrating as firstly they may not remember or the records may be long gone. How do you deal with this?
You have to have tonnes of patience. My children and grandchildren keep me going when the tree is not growing in the direction that it should. Other interests include staying in touch with friends, photography and blogging (http://amylamsg.wordpress.com).
Did you manage to re-unite with any long-lost family members?
Yes and that is the best part of this research. I just discovered that I have a second cousin also named Amy Lam who also married and divorced a Norwegian! We are planning to meet up in May in Los Angeles, where she lives.
When do you plan to end or put the last chapter to bed on your family tree? Are you going to make copies for all your family members?
There will never be an end to the family tree, as hopefully someone in the next generation will be interested to keep it going now that I have done some groundwork. I have plans to make copies, hopefully before December 2012 but will do so if the family can contribute to the printing costs or pay for the book. The family tree is large enough to be considered a jungle when I complete my last chapter!
What have you learned throughout the whole process?
I learned to have patience and more patience, and to listen objectively.
Can you share what resources you took advantage of for your research?
Libraries, Internet, interviews by e-mail and in person.
Your family now has a head start on the family tree, how do others get started? What pitfalls or challenges should they be mindful of?
If there is an interest, there will always be a way. Do the research carefully and thoroughly from whatever and wherever you can find a start and then connect the dots bit by bit. This project is to show my respect to the ancestors and will also give my descendants some knowledge of their heritage.
If you could do it all over again, what if any would you do differently?
To have asked more questions of my grandparents and parents when I was younger.
** Amy Lam will be speaking at WINGS on April 28 at 2pm to 3pm on her other interesting journey – hiking the Appalachian Trail and becoming the first Singapore woman to do so. For more information on the talk, call WINGS at 6250 1012.
(PHOTOS: Courtesy of Amy Lam)