Sunday, March 15, 2015

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Julie Chen

The new season of Who Do You Think You Are? has just started, and I already feel behind.  Although I am a linguist, I do not know any Asian languages.  I had to rewatch this episode several times to try to ensure I had the Chinese names correct.  (I'm sure I'll still get something wrong!)

The teasers had said we would go to rural China and learn about danger, courage, and a reversal of fortune.  Julie Chen was chosen as the celebrity to lead off the new season.  She is known as a television host, producer, reporter, and news anchor.  I recognize her as being one of the hosts of The Talk (even though I've never watched it), but apparently she is better known for Big Brother.  She is married to Les Moonves, the president of CBS, and has a five-year-old son, Charlie.

Chen's parents are Yen Chun Chen (father) and Yuan Ling Liao (mother).  Her father was born in Beijing and came to the United States as a graduate student.  Her mother came officially for graduate studies but really was following her father, as the two had fallen in love as teenagers.  Chen was born in Bayside, Queens, where her family had a "very modest" household.  Her first language was Mandarin, which made me think of my grandmother, whose first language was Yiddish; her parents were also immigrants, and she didn't learn English until she started going to school.  Chen's family was the only Chinese one in the "melting pot" of a community.

Chen grew up knowing her father's parents, who lived with her family throughout the years, so is more interested in learning about her mother's side.  She knows very little about her maternal grandfather, who died before she was born.  His name was Lou Gaw Tong, and he had a rags-to-riches story.  He started off as a stock boy with no formal education and went on to own his own grocery stores, and then invested in a shipping company.  He indulged in anything and everything.  He had many wives, and many children.  She doesn't feel any emotional attachment to him because she never knew him.

When Charlie was born, Chen's interest in her Chinese heritage was revived.  It seems that at least part of the reason she wants to learn more about her grandfather is to be able to share that information with her son.

Straits Times,
February 12, 1960, page 4
Chen has reached out to her mother and sister, Vicky, for whatever information they might know.  Vicky sends her a message through (I think that ranks as one of the earliest appearances, doesn't it?) and directs her to look at the Lou family tree she has created.  (I wonder if Mom and Vicky were really the ones who set it up.)  It shows Lou Gaw Tong died February 10, 1960 in Singapore but doesn't have a birth date.  He is shown with six wives (Chen's grandmother, Lwee Tan, was apparently the first wife), one of whom doesn't even have a name listed.  (The Wikipedia page about Chen, by the way, says Lou had nine wives!)  Vicky has also attached a document, which turns out to be a short obituary for Lou from the Straits Times, dated February 12, 1960.  The obit mentions the Chip Hwa Shipping and Trading Co. and says that Lou had been ill for some time.  He left a widow (only one?  what happened to the other wives?), four sons, six daughters, and several grandchildren.  It also says he was 68 when he died, so we can approximate a birth year of 1892, even if Vicky didn't put that on the tree.

You see this coming, right?  Since Singapore is the only place mentioned in the obituary, that's where we're going—or as Chen says, "Singapore, here I come!"  She has a lot of questions about Lou's life, like when he was born (so apparently she can't subtract either).  Since he died in Singapore, she "hopes" there's something there.

Our next scenes are of Chen riding in a car through the streets of Singapore.  She goes to the National Library Building, Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, where she meets Jason Lim, a "historian" at the University of Wollongong.  Lim is actually a Ph.D., listed as a senior lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry.  The library is known for its large newspaper collection, which makes it a logical place to look for more newspaper coverage about Lou's death.  Chen asks Lim about the paucity of information in the Straits Times obituary, and he points out that the Times is the English-language newspaper.  To find more information about a Chinese person, they'll need to look at a Chinese-language paper (I make a similar point when I teach about using newspapers for genealogy research).  Lim has Chen look up a newspaper in the library catalog, for some reason choosing the same date as the Times obituary, February 12, 1960 (gee, maybe he found something already).  Lim says the name of the paper, but I could not understand it.

They retrieve a reel of microfilm and sit down at a reader.  Lim scrolls forward to February 12.  Chen admits she can't read or write Chinese and asks Lim if he can read the newspaper and translate it for her.  This newspaper has a more detailed obituary for Lou:  He came from Fujian Province, Anxi County, Penglai village, was schooled in a Confucian household, and had an "improper childhood", which prompts some discussion.  Chen asks if that means Lou's education was not formal, or maybe he came from a broken home.  Lim says he doesn't know, because there's nothing else about his childhood in the obituary.  He continues reading and says that Lou went to Rangoon, Burma, but the obit doesn't say when.  After World War II he went to Singapore, where he was involved in community work and philanthropy.  He was a member of the Singapore Ankway (the Hokkien pronunciation of Anxi) Association, a group in Singapore for people originally from Anxi County (similar to a landsmanshaft).

Chen notices there are lots of holes in the story of Lou's life.  She asks Lim about more information, but he says that's all the obituary has.  They talk about the association, which still exists in Singapore, and whether it might have records about Lou, so we know the next destination.  In the outro to the segment Chen says it's going to be hard to track her grandfather back to his early years, but she's going to try (oh, please!).

At the Ankway Association, Dr. Andres Rodriguez of the University of Sydney (which happens to be a city I used to live in!) greets Chen as she walks toward the door.  (As an aside, even though this seems to be presented as happening right after the library, Chen is wearing a different dress.)  Rodriguez tells Chen that most of the records of the association have been lost, but that he had some online hits when searching for information about Lou.  He has a copy of an article from a Chinese academic journal.  After letting it sit there for a few seconds, he pulls out an English translation, and we learn the title of the article is "Anxi Overseas Chinese:  During the War of Resistance", by Chen Kezhan.  (I think the journal name is Fu Jian Dang Shi Yue Kan.)  The war began in 1937 for the Chinese.  The people of Anxi hated the enemy Japanese because of the atrocities they committed when they invaded.  In October 1938 Lou Gaw Tong was the Rangoon representative for the Southeast Asia Overseas Organization for Giving Relief to Refugees.  He would have been reponsible for relief logistics and organizing propaganda to alert people to danger, an important position.

Later during the war, the Japanese moved further into southeast Asia, which affected the Chinese people in those countries.  In the spring of 1942 the Japanese moved into Burma.  Lou took his family back to China for safety; Chen's mother remembers when they had to flee.  Rodriguez comments that they couldn't stay and that "obviously" Lou would have had a price on his head.  Rodriguez says Lou was the public face of the organization and would have been recognizable.

In 1943, Lou was still working with the resistance and went to Shaoguan, meeting a shipment of carbines and ammunition that had come from America.  He took it into Japanese occupied territory—Jianxi, Zhejiang, and Anhui—and to the Jiangsu front to give to the resistance army.  This was very risky but showed that Lou was resourceful and dedicated.  A sentence that was not completely shown said that Lou helped support funds of the resistance fighters.

Chen asks about Lou's early childhood.  Rodriguez found a book about notable overseas Chinese.  Again we see the Chinese version, and then he brings out the translation.  It says that Lou was from Anxi, Penglai town, and that at the age of 18 (roughly 1920) he went to Burma to work in a general store.  He and his younger brother donated money to the town of Penglai to build the Anshan School.  Chen is still hung up about Lou's "improper" childhood and asks if Rodriguez has any suggestions on how she can find out about it.  He says she should go to Lou's home town, so now we have "Penglai, here we come." Chen comments on the newfound respect she has for her grandfather.

In Penglai, Chen is driven to the Anshan School.  She thinks it will be run-down and is very surprised to see a large, modern, well maintained building.  She meets the vice principal, Li Ju Yuan, and an interpreter (whom she incorrectly calls a translator), Meiling Wu (a professor of Chinese language at California State University, East Bay).  At the entrance to the school is a plaque which has the names of Lou Gaw Tong and his brother, Lou Jinzi, who in 1937 gave money to have this primary school built.

The trio walk into the school courtyard, where many children are playing.  Li tells Chen that the school has 856 students.  Chen talks to the students in Mandarin and asks several how old they are.  Everyone then goes into a classroom on the second floor, where a photograph of Lou Gaw Tong is hanging on the wall.  Chen asks the students if they know who the man in the photograph is, and they all respond (almost in unison) that it is Lou Gaw Tong.  Chen tells them he was her grandfather.

The three women leave the classroom and go to an office.  Chen asks if there is any more information about her grandfather.  She learns the school plans to publish a book about the history of the school.  It includes an entry from the Anxi County Gazetteer that says that Lou returned to Rangoon in the 5th year of the Republican era (1916).  He went to sell rice, and later paid to have a new home built in his village.  In the fall of 1937 (the 26th year of the Republican era) he gave money to build the Anshan School.  He carried on his father's desire to strengthen the village through education.  (The article also had something about a Penglai clinic, but the rest of the sentence was not shown on screen.)  At the mention of Lou's father, Chen asks if his name is included.  As a very odd non sequitur, the response is that the house is still standing.  I don't know if that was due to poor editing or something else.

Chen has found more than she expected to.  She's becoming very proud of her grandfather (but what about all those wives?).  She really likes that he wanted education to empower people.

As Chen heads toward the house, she is still fretting about why her grandfather was said to have an improper childhood.  At the house she introduces herself to Ke Yuchai and says that Lou Gaw Tong was her grandfather, to which Ke responds, "I know."  (I thought it was cute.)  Ke says Lou was her uncle.  Surprisingly, Chen immediately responds that makes Ke her first cousin once removed.  (I know lots of people working on their family histories that can't figure out relationships that quickly.)  The other surprise was that the on-screen text calls Ke a "distant cousin."  Now, I don't know about you, but I certainly don't consider a first cousin once removed to be particularly distant.  Maybe Lou wasn't really Ke's uncle?  Or maybe the WDYTYA people don't know what they're talking about?  (Naw, couldn't be that . . . .)

Ke has a photograph of Lou Gaw Tong in her ancestor shrine, alongside photos of others in the Lou clan, mostly cousins and uncles.  Ke introduces Chen to her grandfather while Chen burns incense and prays at the shrine.

Lou Rulin appointment plaque
After sitting down for tea, Chen asks if Ke knows about her great-grandfather.  He was a government official, and a record on the wall has his name.  The plaque has the name Lou Rulin and is an announcement of his position.  An imperial decree for Fujian Province in 1903 named him as a school official in the Confucius Academy of Yongchun Province.  He was also an Administrator of the Imperial Examination in Dehua Datian County, which meant he gave exams to regional scholars; those who passed would be able to go to the top schools.  It was somewhat like being the head of the Department of Education.  It is apparent that education was important in the Lou family.  It also sounds as though Lou Gaw Tong had a privileged childhood, rather than anything "improper."  Chen asks for more information, but Ke doesn't know anything else.

Chen wonders where she might be able to find out more about her great-grandfather.  Wu says that there might be something at the Anxi County records office.  Wu says she will go there first, then let Chen know if she finds anything.  And Ke suggests that they can visit Lou Rulin's grave.

Chen muses about how it's looking as though her grandfather didn't have a rags-to-riches story but actually had a privileged upbringing.  His father was obviously highly educated.  Lou Gaw Tong was able to succeed in business because he knew how to use his brains.  But this is causing more confusion about the improper childhood comment from the obituary.  Chen begins to come up with scenarios:  Was Lou abandoned?  Was her great-grandfather a selfish scholar not interested in being a family man?

Chen goes to the Anxi County records office, where Wu has found some information.  Wu has a copy of the Anxi Gazetteer (maybe the same edition that supplied the information learned at the school?), which has information about historical events in the county.  There is an article on Lou Gaw Tong.  He was the second youngest of seven brothers (which I guess makes Lou Jinzi the youngest).  Lou Rulin, his father, was a Qing official who was appointed by the emperor, which means he had power and money.  Then we learn that the imperial examination was abolished, and Lou Rulin didn't seek a new appointment, but instead went home.  (Maybe he was a family man!)  The family lost its income and prestige.

Chen asks why Lou Rulin wouldn't have tried to get a new position.  Wu explains that he would not have had many options to take up a new career.  His whole life had been spent in serious study for a career as a scholar.  With the abolishment of the examination and the loss of Lou Rulin's position, the family would have declined in status.

Wu continues to read from the gazetteer.  Lou Gaw Tong lost his father when he was young.  Chen asks Wu to clarify whether that means that Lou Rulin died, as opposed to abandoning his family.  With the loss of income and the death of his father, Lou Gaw Tong went to Xiamen at the age of 13 to work as a shop laborer and was not able to go to school.  (So Lou Rulin must have died about 1904–1905, not long after he received that imperial appointment.  The examination must have been abolished pretty soon after the appointment occurred.  Did Lou Rulin die of natural causes?)  So we finally learn what the "improper" childhood was, and Lou Gaw Tong's success really was a rags-to-riches story after all.

Before, Chen had thought of her grandfather as just a businessman and a rich playboy.  Now she has more respect for him and what he accomplished.  (But what about all those wives?!)

The closing segment is a visit to Lou Rulin's grave.  Chen meets up with Ke, and several more-distant relatives are there also.  Another person in attendance is Huihan Lie, an expert in Chinese genealogy, who functions as the interpreter.  The group sets off on a hike up a hill or mountain.  After a steady climb, they arrive at a tombstone sitting by itself.  Lie translates the Chinese characters on the stone:  "Our esteemed father from the Qing dynasty, scholar official, Cloudy Mountain."  He says that Cloudy Mountain is Lou Rulin's name on the tombstone and explains that it is an unofficial honorific name, intended to indicate that Lou Rulin was well educated and had elevated knowledge.

Chen asks whether this is a special place to be buried.  Lie says that it would have been specially chosen, as the height and location both indicate the status of the individual.  Ke and the other relatives have brought offerings for Lou Rulin.  There are papers and money, to give him wealth in the afterlife.  The papers have symbols for happiness, respect, and good wishes.  After spreading them around in front of the gravestone, the money is burnt to send to Lou Rulin.  While the money is burning, Ke introduces Chen to Lou Rulin.

Chen feels the privilege of being on the mountain.  She knows it's a special moment and looks forward to taking her memories back to her family.  She has decided that she has an amazing family history.  She thinks of herself as a spiritual person and feels that her ancestors protect her and look over her.

In the final segment, Chen talks about how fulfilled she feels now that she knows her family members had a bigger role in history than she had given them credit for.  She feels more connected to her Chinese heritage.  This is evidenced particularly by her next comment:  that people are destined for who they become, predetermined by their ancestors.  She has a better understanding now of who she is and why she is that way, and even understands her parents better.  Over time she plans to incorporate her heritage and culture into her daily life with her son, for both of them.

I understand why they focused on the stories of Lou Gaw Tong and Lou Rulin, because they were very interesting.  But for all the interest Chen showed in her grandfather's wives at the beginning, I was a little surprised that nothing else was mentioned about them for the rest of the episode.  On the other hand, I know Chinese culture is very patriarchal, and it's possible that the researchers weren't able to find much information about those other wives.  But I was really hoping they would give "Unknown" a name.

Now that the new season has started, more Ancestry ads are being shown than normal.  The one that currently annoys me has a woman talking about how she didn't think she'd find much past her grandparents.  She had a twitching leaf that pointed her to a document about her grandfather and then talked about how the next spastic leaf led her to "another member's tree", which had her great-grandparents, and their parents.  (This is a long version of the ad.)  That one bothers me because she blindly accepts that the information in this other person's tree must be accurate and doesn't even comment about any documentation that the tree has.  Yes, I know, that is how most people use Ancestry.  But it doesn't mean I have to like it.  Oh yeah—and she says she finds her grandfather's World War I draft registration, but what you see on screen is a World War II registration for the Old Man's draft.  Pretty sloppy, Ancestry.

Honey Boo-Boo isn't on TLC anymore, so I thought I would be safe from commercials for frightening shows.  Wrong!  Long Island Medium looks like a classic con woman, and she sounds like a harridan.  Why do people watch these programs?


  1. There's a Jewish angle: Les Moonves is Jewish, according to Wikipedia. In fact, he is a great nephew of David Ben-Gurion (same source).

    1. I did notice Moonves is Jewish when I looked him up, but I missed that he is related to David Ben-Gurion. Thanks for pointing it out!

  2. When Ke says Lou was her uncle, it doesn't necessary mean technical uncle. Often in Asia, a child of poor parents is sent to live with another family member who is better off or childless. So she may have been some sort of cousin.

    1. That's kind of what I was referring to when I mentioned that maybe Lou wasn't really Ke's uncle, but you have explained it better. Since WDYTYA listed Ke as a distant cousin, it would have been good to include that information for viewers.


All comments on this blog will be previewed by the author to prevent spammers and unkind visitors to the site. The blog is open to everyone, particularly those interested in family history and genealogy.