Lie's curiosity launched ancestry business

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Qingming Festival is the day Chinese people sweep the tombs of their ancestors. But many overseas Chinese have few clues as to who their ancestors even were.

Lie Huihan used to be one of them. Growing up in the Dutch countryside, Lie often wondered why he looked so different to the other children.

His family followed the Chinese traditions of eating longevity noodles during birthdays and sweeping the family tomb during Qingming Festival, but his parents and grandparents did not speak Chinese and have never been to China.

Lie grew curious about his Chinese roots and started tracing his family tree after graduating from college in 2003. He found a distant relative from his mother’s side and learned where his ancestors came from.

In 2008, he took his mother to a village near Zhangzhou, a city in southeast China’s Fujian Province.

"I had a sense of being connected when I walked around in the small village, where the ancestors of my mother lived about seven generations ago,"said 36-year-old Lie.

Lie’s great-great-great-grandfather moved from China to Indonesia in the 1840s to seek better economic opportunities, and his grandfather moved to the Netherlands, Indonesia’s former colonizer, in the 1950s.

Lie said his personal experience inspired him to start his own business to help overseas Chinese learn more about their ancestry. He said that, compared to well-established genealogy services in the West, there was an untapped opportunity to research family history for the 50 million Chinese living overseas.

His company, My China Roots, was founded in Beijing in 2012.

Lie has since helped over 30 clients find out about their past in China.

Like being a detective

He searches online and contacts local overseas Chinese affairs offices in addition to gathering historical material to locate a client’s ancestral village. Lie and his assistants generally make a trip to the village and talk to locals for more information. The time for each project ranges from several weeks to six months.

"It’s just like being a detective,"said Lie.

"It’s a combination of big historical events and a personal history,"said Lie. "Sometimes you just learn history from books, but you find it has no connection with yourself personally.”

For example, Lie said, following the First Opium War in the 1840s, five treaty ports opened along the southeastern coast of China, providing an opportunity for Chinese to do business in Southeast Asia, where many later emigrated.

"Finding your roots will make history come alive and you know which historical events impacted your ancestors’ lives,"Lie added.

He said he finds joy in helping others find fulfillment. A US client once provided him an old photograph, which was shot in front of a house when his grandfather’s family left China about 60 years ago. Lie and his assistant found the house in a village in Kaiping, Guangdong Province. The client went to the house.

"He stood in front of it holding the photograph in his hand with tears in his eyes. I was deeply moved at that moment,"said Lie’s assistant Hai Miao.

Not everybody has been so fortunate. Once Lie arrived in the suburbs of Fuzhou City in southeast China, only to find that the village he was looking for had been turned into an economic development zone full of factories.

Lie said his work is sometimes a race against time. Old houses, ancestral temples and even entire villages have disappeared in the wave of urbanization. Older generations tend to be the guardians of family and village history while younger people move to big cities.

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