After spending 3 weeks traveling in China, it struck me that despite my Chinese heritage (i.e. the “Wong” in Sutherland-Wong), I don’t know much about who my Chinese ancestors were or why they left China. Today, all of my known extended family live outside of China in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore. While recently reconnecting with my Wong relatives in Singapore and Malaysia, I did a bit of investigation into my family history to find out more on this topic. What I learned was that a combination of major historical events along with adherence to a particular set of values have ultimately defined the path of the Wong family over the last 100 years.
From China to Malaysia
In Christine’s post on the history of China, she wrote about a particularly dark period in China’s history during the first half of the 20th century as China underwent a revolution from imperialism to a republic. It was a turbulent period as the Kuomintang and Communist Party (CCP) vied for leadership of China, until Mao and the CCP emerged victorious in 1949 (and even then, China would endure many difficult years ahead). During these years there was a mass exodus of Chinese away from China. Among them were the parents of my grandmother and grandfather (father’s side) who moved from China to Malaysia in search of a better life. It’s fascinating to think it was this period of turmoil in China that triggered a series of events that would one day lead to me being born in Australia.
My Grandmother and her parents (the Lee’s)
My grandmother is my sole living grandparent, at 91 years of age. Despite her body now being quite frail, her mind is sharp and her appetite surprisingly large for a woman who weighs less than 40kg and eats with false teeth. I try to visit my grandmother in Malaysia every few years. While she has grown frailer with each time I’ve seen her, it feels little else changes between visits. The smell of her place is always the same; a mix of incense from the Buddhist shrine at the front of her house along with the smell of cooked rice from her kitchen. And each time the smell immediately brings me back to memories of previous visits. The same photos on the walls; a couple of old family portraits along with the university graduation pictures of all of her children and grandchildren. The only updates happen when new graduation photos are added. The choice of photos offer an insight how highly my grandmother values education and family. Our relationship is good but admittedly not that deep. Language is a big barrier between us really getting to know each other; I regrettably don’t speak any Cantonese and her English is limited. However, I know she appreciates my visits and having family around.
Coming to the story of my grandmother’s family, her maiden family name is Lee (which is why my middle name is Lee). When her father, great grandfather Lee, arrived in Malaysia, he started out as a so-called “coolie” (effectively a servant labourer for the British colonists). One of the big industries in Malaysia at the time was tin. Malaysia is rich in tin resources, a valuable commodity to package tea that was being traded through Malaysia’s ports. From what my grandmother tells me, her father made a very positive impression on an English tin merchant. In her words “when the Englishman would leave his valuables out, my father would come and clean the room but not take any of the valuables. That was a sign for the Englishman that he could trust my father.” This trust seems to have led the English merchant to put great grandfather Lee in charge of a number of tin mines, ultimately making him a very rich and powerful man.
As my grandmother tells me this story, it is clear that she also intends to instil in me the importance of honesty and hard work – and her belief that they inevitably lead to good things. As for great grandfather Lee, what does a rich and powerful man do in Malaysia in the early 1900’s? Well, from what I understand, one way a man expressed his power and wealth in those days was by the size of his family. In the case of great grandfather Lee, he ended up with 4 wives and around 18 children. My grandmother was the daughter of his 3rd wife (who interestingly was the sister of the 2nd wife who had passed away during child birth). Today, she is the oldest surviving member of her family.
My Grandfather and his parents (the Wong’s)
My grandfather’s side is the originator of the Wong family name. I only have a vague recollection of my grandfather from when I was around 3 years old. He unfortunately passed away not long after that. I remember him being a big man (but I guess everyone looks big when you’re 3). Looking back at old photos, he does strike me as a big and imposing man. Most of my knowledge about my grandfather comes from the stories that my dad has told me. One of my favourite ones is that my grandfather would bring home 2 whole fishes to be cooked for dinner. One fish was for him. The other was for the rest of the family to share. So as you can see, my grandfather was quite the patriarch.
As for my grandfather’s parents, they also migrated from China to Malaysia in the early 1900’s. My great grandfather had 5 sons and a daughter. After his first wife passed away he married a second time. From what I hear, the daughter from the first marriage was shunned by his second wife and so not a lot is known as to what happened to her. My great grandfather was said to be a shrewd business man and merchant. He invested in real estate, rubber estates and tin mines. Similar to my grandmother’s family, my grandfather’s parents highly valued hard work to the point where they didn’t make much time to spend with their children or grandchildren. They ultimately believed that the rewards earned from hard work (i.e providing a large inheritance) would make up for the lack of participation in day-to-day life. When my great grandfather passed away in his eighties, my grandfather took over from him and ran the family business.
My Grandparents and their family
My grandparents came together as an arranged marriage. Although I didn’t delve into details with grandmother on how the marriage worked, it seemed to have worked well enough for it to survive until my grandfather’s death. They raised a family of two sons and two daughters in the small town of Kampar, Malaysia. They had a modest life. Not necessarily poor but also not rich. Given this, it says a lot that my grandparents invested in sending my father, the eldest child, to Australia when he was 17 for his final years of high school and then university. No doubt that would have been an expensive thing to do for a modest Malaysian family. They clearly valued education and believed in investing in their children. Despite intentions for my dad to return, he never did and settled in Australia. My dad tells me that Australia offered him a quality of life and freedom he couldn’t get back in Malaysia. I think this is both a reflection of the differences in lifestyles between Australia and Malaysia, and a reflection of my father’s desire to define his own path without the constraints of a strong patriarchal figure. Similarly, his brother, James, was given the opportunity to study medicine in Australia and afterwards settled in Singapore with his family. While my uncle was studying, his older sister, Aunty Dorene, helped support him by sending him money from what she earned as a nurse. This again illustrates how highly valued supporting family is in my family. I’m also reminded of this each time I visit my Uncle James in Singapore. My uncle and his wife, Aunty Theresa, are always incredibly generous to me and find a way to celebrate my visit. One of the highlights of our recent stay in Singapore was attending a big family dinner with the relatives of my uncle, the relatives of his wife and some close family friends.
As for my two aunties, Aunty Dorene and Aunty Lilian, they both have remained in Malaysia. Admittedly, it sounds like the opportunities that were given to the brothers (my father and uncle) were not necessarily also made available to the daughters. I think this was a matter of practicality that my grandparents couldn’t afford 4 overseas educations but also probably due to old cultural sexism between the importance of male vs. female education. Today my aunties, along with my grandmother, live in the town of Ipoh, not far from the smaller town of Kampar where they grew up. Aunty Dorene lives with my grandmother and cares for her. Aunty Lilian lives with her husband, Uncle Steven, and their son, Joe. Each works as cook. Funnily enough, my cousin works at an Australian restaurant in Ipoh (?!). My aunty and uncle run a hawker food stand making delicious dumplings and noodles (wonton mee).
So there you have it, the story of the “Wong” side of my family: troubles in China led to a migration to Malaysia in search of opportunity; the value of honesty and hard work led to opportunity being realised; and the value of investing in education and supporting family led my father to Australia where he would one day meet my mum and I would one day be born. No doubt, when we get back to Australia in November I’ll be quizzing my mum to find out more on the “Sutherland” story. Stay tuned.