A Powerful Experience Using Technology to Find Family Roots

Jimmy Hsiao Jimmy's Corner 1 Comment

IMG_0686For every popular internet technology in the U.S., there is a similar one in China. There is Baidu which is comparable to Google. Tao Bao is similar to eBay, and Weibo works a lot like Twitter. These technologies have fundamentally changed the way we live. Weibo’s tremendous popularity certainly has helped me in the most recent trip to China, a story I just had to share.

Shin-Ming Shyu, a Professor of Architecture at Eastern Michigan University who I have known for over 20 years, told me that he wished to find his family roots in China.  Shin-Ming was born and raised in Taiwan, but both his parents immigrated there from mainland China in 1949, during the civil war. The war divided the Chinese people for an entire generation. My father, who also left for Taiwan from China before the war, went back in 1978 to see his dying mother. That trip forced my father to be in exile for years until Taiwan and China opened direct communication.

Unfortunately, Shin-Ming’s father passed away forty years ago, before he was able to reunite with his family. Shin-Ming promised his father that he would go back to China someday to find his roots. I told Shin-Ming that I would like to try to go to Szechuan with him to give it a try. It sounded like another adventure that “Curious Jimmy” can’t pass up.

Since his parents did not have any relatives in Taiwan, the information he has is very limited. The only thing he knew was the name of the village that his father is from—that the village is called “Old Horse Village” and is located somewhere in the Szechuan province—and the names of his grandparents.

One of Logic’s past interns, Shi Chen, had just returned from the U.S. to Chengdu Szechuan to get married. She is an avid internet user, and with her help, we found that “Old Horse Village” is about three hours away from Chengdu. I also told my General Manager in Shanghai, Zack Cai, that I was going to spend a few days in Szechuan to be on this mission. The general reaction from everyone was “this could be very challenging”.

weibo-logoWhen we arrived in Chengdu, one of my business friends Mr. Liu came to pick us up from the airport. I told him the purpose of our trip. He said “you must use my car and my driver who will take you anywhere you want. My driver will help you to find this village.”

That evening, I received an email from Zack saying that he found some information that could potentially be related to Shin-Ming’s family. What he emailed to me was a document with Shin-Ming’s grandfather’s name along with the names of many of his grandfather’s nephews. I asked, “How did you find this document!?!” He said “I searched on Weibo (that Twitter-like site) and found several sites that are related to Old Horse Village, so I followed them. Then I added comments explain that I am searching for any information related to Shin-Ming’s grandparents. One of the officers at the police station in the Old Horse Village picked it up and started searching for any document that was related. After hours of research, he found this one single document.” That email from Zack really boosted our confidence.

Mr. Liu’s driver showed up the next morning at our hotel. He said that Mr. Liu told him that he is supposed to drive us anywhere we want and solve any problem that we might run into. I told him that we need to go to this Old Horse Village, which is part of a county called San Tai County.

Chinese people usually called close friends either “Little something” or “Old something”. People either stay young for years or jump to be a wise man suddenly. We called the driver “Little Young”.  I was called “Little Hsiao” for more than forty years, but now all of sudden people are calling me “Old Hsiao”. I know I am getting old.

Little Young said that he knows where the San Tai County is, but has no idea where Old Horse Village is. We arrived in San Tai County after 3 hours of driving. While we were having lunch there, we started inquiring about the location of Old Horse Village. It was obvious that it is a very remote village that not everyone knows, but in a few minutes, there were about 10 people surrounding our driver to tell him where to go. Shin-Ming and I could not understand anything they said because of the local dialect. After a while, Little Young said “I got it. Let’s go!” He said that somehow we passed the way to the village on our way to San Tai.

We started heading back and asking people for further directions along the way. We saw a man sitting on a motorcycle that told us that we should see a road soon, and to cross the river which we should be on our way. As that man said, we found a narrow road (bridge) to cross a very big river. Once we crossed the bridge, we found ourselves now really in trouble. We faced a rapid stream of water that would be very difficult to cross to get to the other side of the road. The stream of water had been formed by the continuous rain during the day. There was another car on the other side also contemplating if they should cross the stream or not. Our driver said “let’s wait to see if they are brave enough to cross or not.”

The waiting game lasted about 20 minutes when a big public bus came up behind us. The bus immediately went through the stream of water as it has probably been doing for years. We could then see how deep the water was. Then the small sedan started going across the steam. Once they were successfully on our side, our driver said “I think we are safe to go.”

It was still kind of scary when we were travelling across. I was thinking, “If somehow the engine shuts off, we are doomed,” but we safely got over to the other side where we found that the road was not paved, and filled with huge potholes all the way. It took us about two hours to drive five miles, passing through small villages, farmlands, and herds of cows.  When we finally arrived at Lao Ma (Old Horse) Village we were thrilled.

The first thing we did was find the police station. The police station had four or five people. I told the policeman about our purpose, and he responded that he already knew that we were coming, but he could not find any of the family information from the computer besides the piece of paper that we saw from Zack. He explained that any information dated after 1980 is only partially correct. He could not find Shin-Ming’s grandfather’s name or any of the people on that document so he was stuck. I then asked him how many people live in the village.

He said 10,000.

I said that we are in trouble.

IMG_0676How could we find Shin-Ming’s family members when there are so many people in the village? I asked them, “Can you find any elderly people in the village that have the same last name?” The police said, “Give us some time; we will start calling people in town to find some answers.” So we hung out in the courtyard for a while. Shin-Ming said that it was not very hopeful. He seemed quite depressed. He asked me to take a photo of him in front of the police station so that he can at least tell his siblings that he tried.

IMG_0683A few minutes later, someone ran into courtyard yelling, “I found your family!” ( he spoke in the local dialect so we had to find the driver to translate the shouting for us). The police came out and said that they found a man who knows the Shin-Ming’s family. We were very skeptical, but we just had to believe: it was the only source of hope at that point.

We (Me, Shin-Ming, our driver, and the policeman) followed that man to a tea house nearby. Along the way, more and more people joined us. By the time we got the tea house, there were quite a few people that were all saying something, and we could only pick up bits and pieces. The driver translated for us and said that they found an elderly man whose father has the same name as Shin-Ming’s grandfather.

After about 20 minutes, an old man around 80 years old came to the tea house. He said “Shyu Shi-Pin” is my father. Shyu Shi-Xin” is my uncle who is Shin-Ming’s grandfather.” Shin-Ming said that he needs to verify that this is his relative, so he started asking the old man a few questions through our driver. The old man said that one of his cousins was drafted away by nationalist troop and was “kidnapped” to Taiwan. That cousin of his was an excellent student. Shin-Ming said that it must be his father, but the name does not match.

Though the name wasn’t an exact match, there bore a strong resemblance. I told Shin-Ming that it should be his father because many people changed their names when they went to Taiwan to avoid political prosecution. My father did the same. And I told Shin-Ming that this old man has his family look.

A few minutes later, another old man appeared. Everyone was again speaking with a lot of excitement. Shin-Ming and I could not understand anything, but I could see that Shin-Ming was so shocked. He explained that this old man looks just like his father. He said to me “there is no doubt about it. This has to be my uncle”.

The old man said that his oldest brother was “kidnapped” to Taiwan, and that he is the youngest of six siblings. Everyone else has already passed away, and he is the only one that is still living. He did not know what happened to his brother after his brother was taken to Taiwan. They were afraid to even talk about his brother because of political reasons.

In old Chinese tradition, every generation has a given initial that are the same. A family tree can be developed in accordance with the middle initial. Shin-Ming started asking about the names of each of his siblings. They all had the same middle initial. He said that his oldest brother’s first name is “gold”, his second brother’s name is “silver”, etc. Shin-Ming said that his father’s first name is “triple gold” with a different initial.

At this point, another guy showed up. He said to Shin-Ming, “I am your cousin.” It turned out that he and Shin-Ming have the same middle initial. At this point, Shin-Ming said to me “there is no doubt that these people are my family”. He was really shaking, and asked for paper to draw up a family tree.

Shin-Ming is one the best artists and calligraphers that I know. I could see his excitement while he was drawing his family tree. I told Shin-Ming that this is time to bring out his red envelopes (money to give to the relatives, especially the elderly). They all started hugging when he gave the elderly the red envelopes.

Our four-hour return trip to Chengdu was less eventful. Shin-Ming said that without me coming along, he probably would have given up a lot sooner. Without the driver from my friend, no rental car would dare to cross the rapid stream. Without Zack’s Weibo to the police station, we would not know where to start. Shin-Ming said that he is so sorry that I probably missed a lot of work in the past few days.

I said, “You have been waiting forty years for this day. I am sure that I can pick up my work tomorrow.”

I learned a valuable lesson of the power of internet and the tool like Weibo. I was just thrilled. The real power is to combine the Guanxi (relationship) of doing business and the modern tools such as Weibo.

Comments 1

  1. I am speechless with tears after reading about this adventure! The depth of connecting and reuniting with family and roots is beyond what words can describe. What a powerful story. . .Thank you, Diana

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *