Chinese Culture · Chinese Genealogy · Genealogy How Tos

Travels in China – the beginning


I’ve never been to Mainland China before.

Some people are surprised by that, given my interest in Chinese Canadian genealogy and family, but I think my outlook has been framed by my family’s long history in Canada. If you assume our family history starts with the migration of great-grandfather Yip Sang to North America in ~1862, you’ve got over 150 years and 4 generations’ worth of genealogy to investigate. I’ve spent many years tracing our family’s Canadian roots, and to be fair, I’ve had a distinct advantage in having so illustrious an ancestor. He’s fairly well known, Yip Sang.

But maybe we should start at the beginning.

Yip Sang is not how he’s known in China, and China is a very big place, with many surprises.

Linda travels to China to find her ancestral roots

Sze-Yup, the Four Counties of Guangdong Province, China

I travelled to southern China’s historic Four Counties, known as Sze-Yup (四邑, aka Siyup), located in China’s most populous province of Guangdong. As of 2018, over 113 M people lived in Guangdong, which is like three populations of Canada. The capital of Guangdong is Guangzhou. Historically, Guangzhou was called Canton, Kwangchow, or Kwong Chow, depending on the language and/or dialect of the immigrant speaking. 

If you are looking at historical immigration records such as ships lists or Chinese Immigration certificates, you are likely to see Canton. Throughout this blog series, I’ll be giving as many alternate English spellings as possible, because this is so helpful for genealogical searches.

The Four Counties are (clockwise):

  1. Taishan, historically called Toisan, Hoisan, or Sunning (台山)
  2. Enping, historically called Yanping (恩平)
  3. Kaiping, historically called Hoiping (開平)
  4. Xinhui, historically called Sunwei, Sunwui, or Kuixiang (新會)

Today, these Four Counties have been joined by Heshan (formerly Hokshan), to make up what is now known as Wuyi (Five Counties in Mandarin). For an excellent map, see this one at Chinese Ancestors.

According to research done by Dr. Henry Yu and Stephanie Chan, between 1885-1949, 4 of 5 Chinese migrants from China came to Canada from the area of Sze-Yup alone. There were just over 97K migrants in this time period, and 45% came from Taishan. Far from being rare, I realized that for this group, coming from Taishan was common.

The Yips originated in Taishan. Here it is in Chinese: 台山. I’ll give you a bigger copy so you can really see it.
“Taishan” in Chinese

It means Table Mountain, and the ideograph is easy to remember. The right character represents the 3 peaks of a mountain, while the left character is a table top sitting on a square with two legs.

Sam Yup or Sze Yup?

I was always confused by this. My maternal grandparents would say, You’re Sze Yup. 

And I’d ask, Are you Sze Yup too?

No, they’d respond, We’re Sam Yup.

What’s the difference? I’d wonder. Is Four Counties the same as Three Counties less One County?

Now I know. Sam Yup (三邑, The Three Counties) sounds similiar, but actually means the Three Counties of Poon Yue, Nam Hoi, and Shun Tuck. 

The Language

During my trip, I was strongly reminded that spoken Chinese is exceedingly complex. I don’t speak any Chinese, despite several classes. (This is what happens when you don’t practice.) After nearly two weeks, thanks to repeated coaching I learned the right way to say the following Cantonese phrases:

  • mm ghoi / doh jeh  thank you for services / thank you for major favours and money
  • faii dee lah – hurry up
  • Joe Sun – Good morning

In Guangdong Province, it’s common to speak three languages: i) your village tongue (not a dialect – considered a language unto its own and the preferred method of communication if you are literally amongst your own people); ii) Cantonese, the common language of Guandong Province; and iii) Mandarin, the official Chinese language and the one taught in school.

Our group was accompanied by several guides / translators. They, speakers of at least 4 languages (all of the above, plus English), merrily and rapidly translated everything on our behalf. I rapidly downscaled my expectations of learning Chinese from learning how to get around to learning just one pronunciation of each term. It was humbling, but there was a lot more to learn than basic Chinese.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to focus on Cantonese for the rest of this piece.

What is your name?

Yip Sang, according to Dr. Stanley

When you travel to the country of your ancestral roots, you need to know how your ancestor was called. This is no easy task in Chinese. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Yip Sang was known by the following blur of names:

  • Yip Sang (Cantonese) / Ye Sheng (Mandarin)
  • Yip Chun Tien (Cantonese) / Ye Chuntian (Mandarin)
  • AND: Yip Lin Sang (Cantonese) / Ye Linsheng (Mandarin); AND Yip Loy Yiu (Cantonese) / Ye Lairao (Mandarin) (These latter two I include for completeness – I’ve never used them and I’ve yet to see one family member use them.)

Yip Sang, according to Yip Sang

In his life in Canada, Yip Chun Tien chose to be known as Yip Sang. It wasn’t until this trip that I realized I’ve been calling him by his preferred alias rather than his proper name. Here it is (Chinese is read from right to left).

Chinese name of Yip Chun Tien
Yip Chun Tien. Taishan No. 1 Middle School, Taishan, Guangdong, China. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Literally, Yip Chun Tien’s name is Green leaf, Spring, Field. (Thanks to John J. for the translation.) 

Yip Sang, when he was at home

As well, if Yip Sang were alive today, I would not address him by name – he would be tài yé (Cantonese: my father’s father’s father). Within their families, it’s common for Canadian Chinese people not to know the Chinese given names of their grandparents or great grandparents, because they literally never would have used that form of address. Chinese people have enough trouble learning all the forms of address for their own family relationships. You think cousinship is hard? Chinese people have specific names for their family members based on:

  • mother’s side or father’s side
  • your older brother versus your younger brother
  • your older sister versus your younger sister
  • your father’s older brother
  • your father’s older sister
  • your father’s younger brother
  • your father’s younger sister
  • all of the above for your mother’s side
  • your age relative to your cousins
  • and much, much more.

For a video which manages to be both enlightening and daunting at the same time, see The complicated Chinese family tree – Cantonese version.

If I were going to do this trip again, I’d learn how to write the names of Yip Chun Tien and my own in Chinese.

Where are you actually from?

Where is that on a map? Can you give me the GPS coordinates?

Haha! This is China. Nothing comes that easy.

Goodbye Google

First off, bad news for Google-lovers. Google is banned in China (and that includes every Google product you’ve come to know and love: Maps, Translate, Docs, Chrome, and let’s not forget the Google search engine).

After many questions, translations, and corrections, here’s the English equivalent of my ancestral village address in China. There are nine layers of geographic information needed. I’ve left off the street address for privacy’s sake:

No. [xxx], [xxx] Lane, Shengtang Village, Jiangfeng Village, Duhu Town, Taishan City, Jiangmen City, Guangdong, China

Back here in Canada, I thought I’d try to see what Google would come up with, and the results are very interesting. Read: not super accurate, and the satellite images do not line up with the maps. If you try it, you’ll see streets running into rice fields and through buildings. I’m not going to  get into the specifics or history of why this is but if you’d like to know more, see Restrictions on geographic data in China.

Unreliable GPS

Secondly, China’s not like Canada. Only approved Chinese sites are allowed to provide location information. I know there are mapping apps in China because every bus- and taxi-driver has one, but they are entirely in Chinese.

On the day of my village visit, I learned from my personal researcher / guide / translator that Shentang Village, Duhu Town is not geotagged. There are hundreds of Shengtang Villages, he said, and yours is not on the map. As a result, we drove confidently to the area, and then when we were near, he hopped out of the car to run up and down laneways until he found it. 

And if you’re thinking, Why didn’t you just enable GPS location services on your iPad / cell phone / other GPS-enabled gadget, well, I did. My GPS-enabled Nikon recorded no GPS information. The GPS results on my iPad were mixed: accurate, semi-accurate, and nonexistent. For the ancestral area of Shengtang Village, Duhu Town, as I was warned, there was no information available at all.

Back to basics

Given all the above, I did manage to triangulate information from my photos, memories and the above information to be able to put a pointer in the general area of the home village. It’s very close to the southern coast of China (~8 kms) and the Huangmao River, perhaps 60 kms west of Macao (in a straight line).

map of Yip home vilalge
My best guess at pinpointing the Yip home village on a Google map in Sze Yup, China.

How did I find the village? I didn’t. Other people did it for me. (Much more on that later.)

The travel

I flew Vancouver to Guangzhou direct, a not-uncomfortable 13-hour flight on a new Boeing 787, with China Southern Airlines. China Southern is based in Guangzhou, a modern airport with all the amenities.

Photo of plane
Boeing 787, China Southern Airlines, Vancouver International Airport, Oct 2019. © 2019. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

From there it was a 2.5 hour drive to our hotel in Kaiping, Jiangmen. (Yes, I know Google says it’s 1.75 hrs. It’s not.)

Guangzhou to Kaiping
Map detailing route from Guangzhou to Kaiping. Exact directions are likely to be different from the route actually taken. Google Maps.

Next week

There is so much more to share: the food, the travels, the tour, the genealogy resources. Here is the link to the next piece on Dr. Selia Tan.

Photo of Linda Yip, Kaiping, China

Linda at the Yee Ancestral Hall, Kaiping, JIangmen, Guangdong, China. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved.


Yu, Henry and Chan, Stephanie. (2016). The Cantonese Pacific: Migration Networks and Mobility across Space and Time. Vancouver: UBC Press.


I’ve updated my Resources for Chinese Genealogy. In particular, please see the Register of Chinese Immigration to Canada 1885-1949. This was a project spanning 2005-2008, overseen by Professors Peter Ward and Henry Yu, and provides a transcribed, downloadable, free Excel spreadsheet of all 97K+ migrants from China during the period.

10 thoughts on “Travels in China – the beginning

  1. Wow – such a cool trip. And I thought Polish was difficult with all its declensions…I love learning about different languages. Looking forward to your next installment 🙂

  2. It really was – very cool, and very go-go-go-go-go. I think we were on the go from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm every day, and sometimes later into the night. In order to capture my thoughts, I got up every day about 5:00 am to write. This turned out to be easy – thanks to jet lag it was hard to stay asleep. I regret I didn’t start pulling out my notebook during the day to take notes – we had incredible lectures on the bus, enroute to seeing/doing our next adventure. More to come! Thanks for your note – I do so much appreciate all comments and feedback.

  3. Hi Linda – great post! I’m researching my gt uncle who was a missionary in China and I’m learning so much from your information. Sounds like a fantastic trip.
    Btw I attended a talk at RootsTechLondon by Clothilde of My China Roots –
    Appreciate aĺl of your info- great stuff!

    1. Hi Penny – I would so have loved to come to RootsTech London. Sounds like a blast. I’m afraid I spent all my pennies on China this year – it was the not-to-be-missed event in my calendar.

      I don’t know Clothilde, but I do like and recommend MCR as a great on-the-ground research firm.

      And huge thanks to you for your feedback – it’s wonderful to be read.


  4. Hi Linda,

    I am trying to piece together the ancestral homelands of all the different branches of my Chinese ancestors, and this article was very helpful. I’ve copied the information about the Yip ancestral village address for my Yip branch. I didn’t know there are so many layers to the village location. Unfortunately some of the family members have passed on many years ago and I may not be able to find out where they lived beyond their home of “Canton”, as that was all that was recorded on some documents. But, there is so much more information available now through online means now, and I keep finding out things I thought I would never know 🙂

    Hope to see you at the reunion this summer,


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