Genealogist and blogger Linda Yip explains how understanding culture is paramount to genealogical research as well as to writing compelling family stories.
In genealogy, documents can provide the factual framework, but cultural context provides the colour and life. In this piece, I’m going to explore how Chinese culture informs special events.
As I do, you’ll also understand how understanding culture can help with storytelling.
There is a scene in Crazy, Rich Asians where Rachel Chu faces down her boyfriend’s intimidating mother, Eleanor Young, over a game of mah jong. Director Jon Chu left it up to the audience to interpret this scene without explanations, and unless you are Chinese and grew up playing the game, you are left with the impression that something important just happened but you’re not sure what.
(I’m fourth generation Chinese, I don’t play mah jong, and I had to google it when I got home. If you enjoyed the movie, it’s worth reading about the symbolism.)
So much of genealogy is like this – uncovering what happened but not knowing why it happened. Here are three questions I ask myself:
- What do I think happened and why?
- What cultural and societal norms would this person have known?
- What was this person’s context, i.e., background, politics, geography, marital status, health, community, and belief systems?
Understanding Culture Through Family Photos
Six years ago, I undertook a project digitizing all of my grandparents’ photos. Without words, they tell a rich story, a visual keepsake of all the events my grandparents most wanted to remember.
In the collection are photos of their housewarming. There are nearly three rolls’ worth – 94 pictures in all – taken in the days when both film and print processing were costly.
Why so many pictures?
My grandparents, Harold and Leila Chu, were both second-generation Chinese, and they struggled hard to dig roots in Canada. They survived hostility, racism, poverty and tragedy.
Their first home together was a room shared with the in-laws above the store on Main Street in Chinatown. When they moved to their dream home many decades later – a brand new house in a good neighborhood, built to their own specifications, with two kitchens and plenty of room for entertaining – they held a huge housewarming party.
In Chinese culture, family is the absolute centre of a person’s life, a home is where it happens, and food serves as a proxy for a whole host of inexpressible emotions, among them pride, joy, celebration, happiness, and love.
Here is my famously camera-shy grandmother proudly waving goodbye from the doorstep of her new home.
Understanding Culture Through a Housewarming Celebration
At the housewarming party held on Saturday night, November 15, 1986, the dining room table was heavy with platters of food, all of it made by my grandmother, who had been cleaning, shopping, chopping and cooking for weeks in advance.
She made sticky rice with lap cheong, poached chicken, BBQ spare ribs, pineapple and deep-fried pork, beef chow mein, and much more besides. The variety of meat dishes signified prosperity and good health. Nearly all of the photos are of friends and family eating and drinking–sharing in the celebration of prosperity.
Throwing open the doors and inviting dozens of people to dinner was my grandparents’ way of saying both we cherish you as one of us and we celebrate our huge good fortune in our new home.
Guests were welcome to wander everywhere and could be found sipping their drinks on the front steps in the foyer, eating from a TV tray table in the downstairs rec room, or gossiping in the kitchen while their kids played hide and seek in the bedroom closets. After dinner, the big dining room table was cleared for desserts, including a creamy, flaky Diplomat cake from Notte’s Bon Ton Bakery.
The party was a big success, lasting well into the evening, with some guests needing a gentle nudge to awaken after having nodded off. The next day, after all the congratulatory calls, my grandparents began planning another party. Two weeks later, on Saturday, November 29, they held housewarming party #2 for dozens more guests.
Today, people remember those two parties as legendary.
Why the Cultural Context Mattered
Looking back, I realize that there’s one more important element to add to this story: an understanding of the story against the backdrop of a understanding of Chinese culture.
Why do we Chinese have celebrations for hundreds of guests? It’s to welcome as many as possible to come in, sit down, and sik faan (literally, eat rice, but means share food with us), and to be treated as a member of the family – the absolute centre of Chinese life.
Linda Yip is an admin consultant, writer, photographer, storyteller, and genealogist. She loves collecting all manner of photos and records, and is building her own personal library of materials (estimated to be 38K pieces and counting). Linda’s genealogy passion is the history of the Chinese in Canada, 1880-1967, with a special focus on the members of Force 136 – the ultra-secret Chinese Canadian spies of WWII. She’s a member of the Saskatchewan and British Columbia genealogy societies and the GeneabloggersTribe. You can find her blog at Past-Presence.com.