How do you know this stuff? Did you learn it at school?
There are so many answers to this question, but in the beginning, I learned my stories from my family.
The family stories
If you’re lucky, someone in your family is the family historian and the teller of tales. Our grandmother held that place in our family, and she liked to invite us for Sunday dinner. Each time, we’d ask her to tell stories – perhaps the one about the pigeons kept on the deck; or the one about the baseball cards and the chewing gum; or the one about the two day housewarming party; but mostly, stories about food. Eventually, I started writing these stories down. I don’t have them all, but I have a few. The trick to collecting family stories is to write them down exactly as they’re told. It doesn’t matter if this time isn’t the same as last time. They’re all true – perhaps not factually true, but emotionally true.
Family stories helped make sense of the world, and I was a curious child.
The family photos
I am fascinated by photography. A picture is not only a visual record of time and place, but also environment, society, people, and events. I have a storehouse of tens of thousands of pictures, a good chunk of which are family photos. Most are without identification, so I have spent hundreds of hours with them, using scanners, facial recognition software, logic, and a journal to record questions and answers.
Some are a mystery I’m still trying to solve.
The family tree
It may have been the photos that started it all – the questions of who what when why and how. Every family has people they don’t talk about. I began getting interested in family trees. On the one hand, my father’s family had access to a comprehensive family tree which detailed 800+ family members. On the other hand, my mother’s family tree was undrawn and largely unknown. I started drawing family trees by hand, then using MS-Visio, Geni.com, and now Ancestry.ca. I still draw and redraw the family line hierarchy when I’m trying to visualize generations through time.
The idea behind past-presence.com
Ancestry.ca raised more questions than it answered. While it was a handy way of building trees and identifying cousins, it was less useful in supplying documents. I collect facts like Smaug hoards gems. The history of my family – and to a wider extent, the history of the Chinese in Canada – is not so easily found.
I drafted timelines in Excel. I date ordered every fact I uncovered about my family: births, moves, graduations, deaths, marriages, enlistment, demobilization. I drew relationship trees to establish the birth order of coy aunts and uncles who said, “I forget how old I am.” I drew maps of neighbourhoods, mentally walking down the street to the neighbours’ houses. I collected resources: bookmarking web pages, building Excel sheets with links, downloading PDFs, scanning documents, and photographing sites.
It all felt like a big, ungainly mess until I built this website as a personal storehouse of data. What began as a passion project has led to a radio interview, a day with JJ Lee, and an invitation to be a guest lecturer at a university.
The legal framework
Every historian needs a way to see the whole picture. I see the world from a social / psychological/ familial/ economic/ political/ legal point of view. Eventually, I began seeing a framework from the facts, like seeing a body from studying bone fragments.
Here, in one graphic, are the laws affecting voting and immigration for the Chinese in Canada. I’ll expand on this graphic in my next post here.
It’s so ironic. I would love to go back to school to study history.
In September, I did, but with a twist: I was the guest lecturer, sharing my story along with a few facts, to a class of students in Asian studies.
How do you know this stuff?
I’ve alway been a curious child. In the beginning, family stories helped make sense of the world. Now, original records and a powerful array of online resources fill out my understanding, provide a framework, and raise new questions. It’s a layer cake of stories and details that’s endlessly fascinating. How about you? What’s your family mystery? Want to find out more? PM me and I’ll help you get started.