Chinese Culture · Chinese Genealogy · Genealogy How Tos

Travels in China – the Overseas Chinese

One of the more startling revelations from the trip was learning about the Overseas Chinese – that’s us. We folk of Chinese origin, we whose ancestors migrated from Sze Yup/Wuyi, China from about 1850-1949, we who are Chinese-something, be it Chinese Canadian, Chinese Hawaiian, Chinese Malay, Chinese South African, Chinese Thai, Chinese Singaporean and about 100 more countries, we collectively are known in China as the Overseas Chinese.

For more on the history of Sze Yup, including why it went from 4 to 5, see my post Travels in China – the Beginning.

The Overseas Chinese are us

We are a subject of interest and study. There are major resources dedicated to us: museum displays, a university centre of research, and ancestral halls. If you don’t think that’s remarkable, let me ask you if there is a Museum of Overseas Dutch in The Netherlands?


Overseas Chinese migration map. Kaiping UNESCO Museum, Kaiping, Jiangmen, China. Oct 2019. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved. (Click on the above photos to see larger images.)

And the biggest benefit to knowing about the Overseas Chinese, at least from my perspective? There are major sources of genealogical information available. Come with me as I tour through three sites: the Cultural Centre at Wuyi University, the Wuyi Museum of Overseas Chinese, and the Yee Ancestral Hall.

The Cultural Research Centre, Wuyi University

Wuyi (Mandarin: five counties) University is located in Jiangmen City, Guangdong Province, China. It houses the Cultural Research Centre, where students study the migration and genealogy of the overseas Chinese.
Cultural Research Centre in the Overseas Chinese Hometown in Guangdong, Wuyi University, Jiangmen City, Guangdong, China. Oct 2019. © 2019. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

In its stacks are materials any genealogist familiar with an archive will recognize: newsletters, hometown news, maps, books and historical documents. One of the photos is the Duhu Overseas News. (Duhu County is where the Taishan Yips are from.)


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Material at the Centre of Overseas Research, Wuyi University. Oct 2019. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.

When we visited, we were accompanied by students eager to help us find anything we wanted to see, and while I was hunting down historic maps of the Sze Yup area, I noticed the many crates of materials in the back, yet to be shelved. (It’s hot and airless in there. I can understand not wanting to spend your free time doing the filing.) In other words, as much as they have on the shelves, there’s a lot more coming. That bodes well for the future of Chinese genealogy.

The Jiangmen Wuyi Museum of Overseas Chinese
Jiangmen Wuyi Museum of Overseas Chinese. Oct 2019. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.

When you walk through the doors of this museum, a place devoted to people who have migrated out of China, you step on a map of the historic area of Sze Yup / Wuyi.

Map of the Four Counties (Sze Yup). Jiangmen Wuyi Museum of Overseas Chinese. Oct 2019. © Past Presence. All rights reserved.

The museum documents the Chinese migrant experience for ~100 years beginning in 1850.

Shipping Lines from China to the world

Walking around the room, I saw the following shipping lines took migrants from China to the world. Below is information transcribed from the tickets, tags and documents on display (in other words, this is not a complete list of the available routes). This display made a big impression on me: that while Chinese migrant labour was at once needed, enticed, and supplied, criticized and derided, it was also very big business for the shipping lines, the shippers, and anyone able to take advantage of the flood of men from Sze Yup / Wuyi eager to escape poverty, establish businesses, support their families, and hopefully retire back home in their own dialou (fortress mansion), built with the money from Gold Mountain.

In Vancouver, Canada, my great-grandfather Yip Sang was the CPR shipping agent. He and H.Y. Louie were labour brokers. 


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Epherma re: shipping lines taken by the Overseas Chinese. Jiagmen Wuyi University of Overseas Chinese. Jiangmen City, Oct 2019. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Shipping Lines from China to the USA

  • American Mail Line, SS President Jefferson (stops in Hong Kong and San Francisco)
  • Admiral Oriental Line (Asia via Seattle), SS President Jackson, SS President Grant
  • American President Lines, 1947, SS General Meigs (stops in Hong Kong, San Francisco)
  • China Mail Steamship Company Limited, 1916-1917, the SS China (with stops in San Francisco, Honolulu, Yokohama, Kobe, Nagasaki, Shanghai and Hong Kong)
  • Pacific Mail S.S. Co., SS President Taft (stops in Hong Kong and San Francisco)

Shipping Lines from China to Canada

  • Canadian Pacific Railway Company (1927)
  • Canadian Pacific Steamships Limited, SS Empress of Canada, SS Empress of Japan

Other Shipping Lines

  • Dollar Steamship Line and Admiral Mail Line (working in conjunction)
  • Java-China-Java Lijn N.V., 1930, 1941 (with stops in Amsterdam and Manila)
  • N.Y.K. Line (1930)

[Update 7 Nov 2019] Thank you to Gerry Y., who found a link to many more photos of this museum.

The Yee Ancestral Hall

We learned there are four powerful clans of the Overseas Chinese today: the Yees, Mahs, Lees and Wongs. To see just how powerful a clan association can be, we visited the Yee Ancestral Hall. Now, until this trip, the words clan association or ancestral hall bring to my mind once-lovely but quite old buildings that today might house groups of elderly Chinese playing mah jong, like these photos (taken from a trip to Victoria, BC in September, 2018):


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Victoria’s Chinatown. Sep 2018. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Not like these photos of the Yee Ancestral Hall.

Even if you are new to the concepts of architecture, the soaring courtyard and immense statue of the first Yee progenitor will convey some sense of the reverence the Chinese have for their ancestors.


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Yee Ancestral Hall, Kaiping, Jiangmen, China. Oct 2019. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved.

And this is not a museum – this is an extremely well-funded, living, breathing testament to the Yee clan that continues to enjoy inflows of cash. The building is undergoing both renovation and improvement. Upstairs is the genealogy floor. It’s all in Chinese, but genealogists will recognize the maps and genealogies. In the 2nd and 3rd photo you’ll see collections of Yee conferences and family members, and works published by clan members. Suffice it to say, if you are a member of the right Yee, Mah, Lee or Wong clans, you really have hit the jackpot of Chinese genealogy.
This photo and below: 2nd floor, Yee family genealogy, Yee Ancestral Hall, Kaiping, Jiangmen, China. Oct 2019. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved.


Not everyone who share the same family name is related, of course. Henry Yu, whose family character is the same as the Yee clan of Kaiping, is not a member of this clan (or so he says!).

My genealogy becomes someone’s school project

It is a genius idea.

What if you were to pair groups of Overseas Chinese with Chinese students studying the Overseas Chinese at Wuyi University? It’s a testament to the organizational skills of many groups including the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC, UBC and Wuyi University that this brilliant idea resulted in our trip. (As I write, I realize there is a lot of nitty-gritty detail I should explain, which I’ll save for a future blog post.)


Having done the fast tour of Sze Yup / Wuyi, I know I’m only skimming the surface of what’s available in China today for Overseas Chinese (OC) research. The focus on OC research is relatively new, but it’s stunning what’s been achieved so far. It’s weird to be the subject of such intense scrutiny.

As I put these posts together, I’m grateful for the huge cache of photos I took. At the time, I think I felt a bit embarrassed by the sheer number of photos, videos and sound files I collected (2500 photos, 75 videos, 13 audio files) but now I’m back and I want to illustrate the ideas I’m sharing, and I am grateful for all of them.

As one person in the group said, watching me shoot during a Cantonese opera, I feel I’m getting a better lived experience, but I think you’ll have better memories. 

Ah, I said, in that case, please take any of my pictures you’d like to have.

You may notice there are very few photos of people in these posts. This is deliberate. Most of the photos I took are of people, and those of the members of the tour either have been or will be shared with them. However, sharing vacation snaps privately and sharing photos on the internet are two very different things, and I respect that.

[Note: If you were on the tour with me and you’d like to see some of your image here, say the word.]

Up Next

I think the most accessible cultural gift China has given the world is its cuisine. Quite often people will tell me they don’t know much about China, but they love the food. In my next post I’ll talk about the food, which was delectable, delicious, divine, and taught me unexpected lessons about my own heritage. Here is the link.



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