In this post I would like to take a moment to process what’s been happening and reflect on my life as a Chinese Canadian genealogist. You’ll hear the story of my first client, the reasons why I started Past-Presence.com, and see my interview in the Fairchild TV documentary “Inheritance of Immortality,” about how the Yip family home was selected to be the permanent site of the new Chinese Canadian Museum.
How was the trip to BC after 2.5 years?
In a word: intense. I had events, interviews, and meetings stacked twice and thrice daily. There were clients, family, and friends to see. There were three documentaries planned… and then one more added. That first day I got up at 3:00 A.M. for a 7:00 A.M. flight. I was terrified I’d oversleep and nervous about travelling. I used to be good at travel but after thirty months I was rusty. My NEXUS card had expired. Baggage handling and border crossings are nightmarish. Airlines and airports can’t hire fast enough.
The world has changed. I kept my N95 mask stuck to my face like it was my new pet alien face hugger. I didn’t move it for anything: not even to sip water on the plane.
On the ground at Vancouver airport, I then had to fix my face, rub out the mask marks, and rehearse my talking points for my first interview in less than two hours. We planned to shoot outside – in Vancouver, so optimistic – so it rained. I took selfies while the crew arranged another location. We were shooting at the Rennie Developments HQ, but you might know it better as the Wing Sang Building.
Those hours went by in such a blur that when it was over, I said, “Was that OK? Do you need me to re-shoot anything?”
“Inheritance of Immortality,” Fairchild TV’s documentary about the new Chinese Canadian Museum at Wing Sang, was released last month. My bit starts about 2’20” (and is in English).
I learned how hard it is to mentally and physically shift from a sequestered covid-avoiding life to a public one. I’ve been laying low since I got back, shlepping around in my bathrobe, thinking and writing. I’m thankful for everything I managed to accomplish, for the new friends met, and to have done all of it while staying covid-free.
How do you feel about being literally blood-related to the new Chinese Canadian museum?
It’s hard to find the right superlatives to adequately explain what this means to me. If you haven’t heard, the site of the new Chinese Canadian Museum will be the Wing Sang building, built in 1889 by my great-grandfather Yip Sang (葉生), developed by Bob Rennie, and purchased in February by the B.C. and Vancouver governments for $27.5M. For more, see my February post Wing Sang: a House of Memory.
Where’s my thesaurus? Is there a better term than grateful? I mean, holy cow, I’m grateful when Canada Post successfully delivers my mail. Grateful hardly scratches the surface of how I feel. I’m awed, delighted, disbelieving, flattened, incredulous, joyful, jubilant, honoured, and overwhelmed. I’m still processing what this means for me personally and professionally. It’s huge. Gigantic. Momentous.
How many people are in your family tree?
If you’re a genealogist, you’ll understand what I mean when I say, it depends. Last year I completed work on a client’s tree with just over six hundred people. Halfway through the work I realized I have a blood connection to them. Are they “family” or aren’t they? I build my own tree with no pre-judgments about how a person is related or how distant the relationship. If the documents suggest a connection, I add that person to my tree. Currently it’s over two thousand people. If I added the client’s tree, it would be 2600. You see what I’m saying here. It’s big.
And it’s deeply Canadian. I am a fourth-generation descendant through three family lines: the Chus (徐), Yips (葉), and Youngs (楊). Great-grandfather Yip Sang arrived to Canada Jul 1880, Great-grandfather Chu Chan Wah arrived 12 Apr 1884, and Great-grandfather Young Benk You arrived May 1902. My father’s mother, Chew Wai Ming (趙) arrived 12 Jul 1921; hence my lineage is 101-142 years in Canada.
Why did you start this blog?
I started Past-Presence.com in 2017 for a few reasons. I joke that I needed to talk about genealogy with someone besides my sister, who was the main audience for so many of my early discoveries about our family. The second reason was that I wanted a place for my research links because I was outgrowing my Excel spreadsheet. That’s how I got the idea for the Chinese genealogy resources page. And the third reason, opaque to me at the time, was that I wanted a place to publicly share my analysis, discoveries, and thoughts, beginning with the twenty years after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947.
I mean, who does that? Writes a six-thousand word thinkpiece about a period of time that (seemingly) nobody cared about? Me, apparently. See An Uncertain Homecoming, Part 1.
I learned to ignore the “rules” of blogging – that nobody has time to read more than five hundred words. Those six thousand words got me my first newspaper and radio interviews. And you know how you get better at media? Do more media.
Why do people read your site?
Because I’m funny! OK, more seriously, I’ll share what people have told me. Some write thanking me for helpful tips. Some write to share good and bad stories that come up for them as a result of reading my work. Some locate records by using my sources and want to share their finds with someone who appreciates and understands what they’ve found. Others are entertained and informed by history.
A few write to politely correct me on details (and thank heavens for them).
Only rarely I get a xenophobic comment. I delete those. No need to waste time or energy on hate mail.
How do you get your ideas for research?
I let my inner five year loose: why, why, why?
I have far more questions than answers. Why is my favourite word and what happened? is my favourite question. I am annoyingly, deeply, endlessly curious. If you abandon me at a party where I know nobody, you will find me at the end of the night, deep in conversation with my new best friend, listening to the story of their life.
At the same time, I want to make sense of things. I love family stories but I also want to know how much of it is true. I didn’t spend a decade working for big law firms for nothing. Can it be verified? If so, how? Where are the records? In Chinese genealogy I have a doubly-deep challenge because it’s not only about finding your relatives but also what resources can be found to find your relatives? And by resources, I’m very much including Chinese translation tools. Genealogy can be challenging in English, never mind Chinese.
Why did you go pro?
Ah, that’s a story in itself.
In Jan 2018, a person I’ll call “CG” contacted me with her family mystery. She liked my blog and wondered if I would consider taking her on as a client. She told me, “In the late 1930s, my grandfather drove off in a white car, never to be seen or heard from again.” It was irresistible.
Little did I know when I agreed to take her case that the trail would lead for the next fifteen months through Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Quebec in Canada, and Arizona, California, North Dakota, and Washington in the United States. I learned all about French-Canadian history. I built a tree with hundreds of distant relations extending back to the seventeenth century. With each hint came new jurisdictions, laws, and records. We spent hours analyzing photos. CG and I uncovered dark family secrets, unknown cousins, and finally, the missing grandfather’s final resting place in Los Angeles. CG’s DNA kits were the first I’d ever seen and a big learning curve. Later, when I took a week-long genetic genealogy course at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, I asked for CG’s permission to re-examine the kits. Thankfully for both of us, the genetic proof supported the documented evidence.
I still look back on that time – Jan 2018 through Apr 2019 – as some of the most amazing, frustrating, and rewarding months of my life. I was beyond lucky in my client, who patiently worked with me through all the dead ends and clues that petered out.
I remember finding the smoking gun: the grandfather’s death record. I was sitting at a FamilySearch computer in Saskatoon, going through California death records page by page. I was following a tiny hunch but after seven other jurisdictions, I had little faith. I was on the verge of giving up. I was haunted by his mocking face: You’ll never find me.
The record was a negative: black instead of white. I almost missed it. I read the name and thought, No way. The hairs stood up on my arms and cold shivers ran up my spine. With incredulity I read the other details: age, cause and place of death. It wasn’t until I read his mother’s misspelled maiden name that I thought, Oh my God. I think this is him.
By this time, I was in the habit of calling CG when I had discoveries and this was the biggest discovery of them all. After celebrating, we did what all good genealogists do: double-checked our work. Tested it for soundness. Did we make any spurious connections? What about DNA? Would DNA prove this record was someone else? I was nervous but genetic evidence led us to even more surprising discoveries.
Who knows, one day I might write a book about this case.
When did you decide to write a book?
It seems ridiculous when I reflect back on it, but I was initially resistant to writing a book about Chinese genealogy. I love writing my blog and I felt that people could print the pages for free so why would anyone want pay for a book? My friends Dan Gold, Carly Lane Morgan, and Linda Harms Okazaki convinced me otherwise. Since then I’ve put out two editions of Getting Started in Chinese Genealogy: a family historian’s guide even if you don’t speak or read Chinese. I’ll keep updating it as I learn.
Was the book well received?
I’m humbled by the reception Getting Started in Chinese Genealogy has had. I had some fears about the “realness” of an e-book but that hasn’t stopped archives, genealogists, historians, and libraries. I’m proud to say my work now sits on shelves at the Family History Library, Salt Lake City, UT; the Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT; and the Allen County Library, Fort Wayne, IN, in addition to being in hundreds of private collections.
More than that, I’m delighted to have helped so many in a challenging branch of genealogy.
Have you considered accreditation?
Uh, yeah. I’ve been working on a four-generation study of Canada’s oldest Chinese family – the Wons (溫) – since November 2020. Put another way, it has not been easy. It’s the first rung of several for the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists. I can’t wait to get this study and all its attachments submitted, partly to have it done and partly because I’ve promised copies to archives, libraries, and museums. As far as I can tell, it’s the first Asian study of its kind at this level in Canada and the United States and I had to develop original methodologies. With the new museum opening 1 Jul 2023 and the support that’s building, the timing for my study is so perfect you’d think I planned it this way.
Last question: what are your thoughts for the future of Chinese genealogy?
There has never been a better time to get into Chinese genealogy. More and better records are being digitized, found, and released as privacy laws and resources permit. I’m excited to see what the future holds and I can’t wait to teach more people how to find their own families. The fact that I, a non-Chinese speaker, can do what I do is testament to titanic changes in genealogy. As well, the story of Chinese settlement in Canada has all the hallmarks of a great novel: enormous sacrifices against overwhelming odds, generations of time, and oceans of distance. All it needs now is us to find and interpret the hidden stories and tell them to our kids.
If you’re wondering what you can do to help nudge this along, please consider donating to your favourite archive. The first line item to be cut in a government budget is arts & culture. Everything we love best in genealogy – digital records and finding aids – is expensive to build, maintain and support. If you can’t afford the dollars, then please consider writing to your MLA to tell them how important archives, libraries, and museums are to you.
Many people have asked me to teach Chinese genealogy. Last year we almost got a Canadian institute-level course up and running… but not quite. So stay tuned because on 1 Jul 2022, a year before the new Chinese Canadian museum opens (and many more exciting genealogy events happen), I am going to beta-test my new video series. For real.
Amazing things only happen with the help of amazing people. Hang on here because this list is going to be long.
Ada Luk, thank you for inviting me to do the Fairchild documentary. Jack G., thank you for the fabulous projects we are working on and for connecting me to so many incredibly talented people such as Sunny Wong, Ben L., David H. and Karen D; Nouver and Donna. Sarah Ling and Larry Chin, thank you for asking me to interview for the Chinese Canadian Museum. Catherine Clement, thank you for asking me to interview for the Paper Trail exhibition. Yip family: thank you for seeing me at short notice and for giving me the floor to share my work and passion with you. Heritage of Cantonese Migration Tour friends: thank you for doing the same. Elaine, Rol, and Selena, thank you for endless hospitality and last-minute favours. Ma: thank you for the necklace – I love it.
To my nieces Ella A. and Ella R. When I think of family legacy, I think of you both. Love, Auntie Linda.
And to my readers: I literally could not do this without you. A thousand thanks to you.
“Chinese Genealogy Resources,” 2022, [website], a collection of useful links and resources for Chinese genealogy in China, Canada, and the United States, Past-Presence.com.
“Chinese Genealogy Quick Reference Glossary,” 2022, [website], a collection of useful terms in Chinese, Pinyin, and Jyutping to help all of us who have trouble typing Chinese on a computer, Past-Presence.com.
“Inheritance of Immortality [translated from the Chinese 永生的傳承],” 30 May 2022, , a twenty-seven minute documentary by anchor Ada Luk, interviewing Premier John Horgan, the Hon. George Chow, Grace Wong, Bob Rennie, and me, Fairchild Television (accessed 9 Jun 2022).
“Welcome to the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy,” 2022, [website], Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, (accessed 9 Jun 2022). Introduction to Genetic Genealogy, coordinated by Paul Woodbury, is the course I took and it is being offered virtually January 23-27, 2023. This is a week-long intermediate course with top-notch instruction. Students should have access to several DNA kits to study.
Linda Yip, “An uncertain homecoming, Part I: WWII, the Chinese, and the fight for civil rights 1939-1967, ” 3 May 2017, [blog], the first of a three-part series exploring civil rights, racism, and the Chinese fight for everything pre-and-post the Second World War in Canada, Past-Presence.com.
Linda Yip, “An uncertain homecoming, Part II: Fight the enemy overseas, then fight the government at home – 1945-47,” 31 May 2017, [blog], part two of the three part series examines the two years immediately following the Second World War before the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Past-Presence.com.
Linda Yip, “An uncertain homecoming, Part III: Equal rights for all,” 14 Jun 2017, [blog], part three of three, this piece begins to examine the slow acquisition of civil rights by looking at the actual laws enacted by Orders-in-Council, Past-Presence.com.
Linda Yip, “Getting started in Chinese genealogy: a guide even if you don’t speak or read Chinese,” second edition, 2022, [e-book], Past-Presence.com.
Linda Yip, “Wing Sang: a House of Memory,” 13 Feb 2022, [blog], the history of the Wing Sang building including a timeline and its selection as the new Chinese Canadian Museum, opening 1 Jul 2023, Past-Presence.com.