Finding her Chinese Family: Sannie Phaik San Lewis

May 3, 2019  - by 
Sannie Lewis travels in china to find her chinese family.

Diane Sagers and Eric Leach contributed to this article.

On January 8, 2019, Sannie Lewis, a Malaysian American from American Fork, Utah, slipped and slid as she climbed a muddy path up a tree-covered hill in rural Guangxi Province, China. At the top of the hill waited a Chinese family—her Chinese family—whom she had never met but who she had come to know and love from more than 7,000 miles away.

 “Because they were so welcoming, I felt an instant connection with them,” Sannie recalled.

After a series of introductions and stories, a distant cousin presented Sannie with a 1,000-page book—a jiapu, or a Chinese compiled genealogy. The jiapu covered 77 generations of her family reaching back to her first known ancestor, Lu Tong, who was born in northern China during the fourth century B.C.

“As I held the jiapu in my hands, I felt as if I was holding the key that would open the gates between the past and the present.”

This family reunion with distant relations she had never met would have seemed unlikely just a year earlier.

The Beginning

Sannie was born in Malaysia to parents of Chinese ancestry and grew up attending English schools. Although she speaks Cantonese, she can read and write very little Chinese.

Sannie’s journey to find her family began when she visited Malaysia in September 2017 to settle her mother’s finances because her mother’s dementia had reached an advanced stage. Among her mother’s papers, Sannie discovered a photocopy of a Chinese book wrapped in paper and secured with twine. As she looked at the faded, nearly illegible characters, she thought, “What am I going to do with this? I can’t even read Chinese.” She almost threw the book away but felt a strong impression instead to take it home to the United States.

Help with the Language

Eric Leach is a Chinese experience manager with FamilySearch. He spent two years in Taiwan, where he learned Chinese. Later, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Chinese and a master’s degree in Chinese history. When he offered to help translate the book, Sannie knew it was the right time to start her family history work.

“I felt divinity at work when Eric asked me for the genealogy book because, just a week before, I had felt an overwhelming need to do something with it. When I gave Eric the book, I had a strange feeling that something truly remarkable was about to unfold,” Sannie said.

Eric transcribed the names, dates, and other information from this jiapu, which Sannie then entered into her tree on FamilySearch.org. Sannie had started with only a few generations, and now she suddenly had 22 generations from her maternal grandmother’s line going all the way back to the year 1251.

Sannie was hooked.

The Next Step

Sannie began contacting distant relatives. She soon found a second jiapu, this time for her maternal grandfather’s Loke (Lu) family. Since much information had been lost when the original jiapu had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the record was incomplete. The Loke family had recompiled as much as they could shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and Eric guessed that meant the family was serious about genealogy—and that the family might have produced an update since then.

At the same time, Sannie’s son, Ethan, had an opportunity to take an educational trip. To Sannie’s surprise and delight, he asked to go to China to meet Sannie’s family and discover his Chinese roots. Sannie asked Eric to serve as his mentor, and they began to plan a trip.

First, they had to find Sannie’s Loke relations in China, so Eric wrote to the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office in Guangxi Province. The head of the office was able to find members of the Loke clan in Sannie’s ancestral village, who confirmed that they had a newer, more complete version of the jiapu Sannie had found. “I could not believe it! It was completely surreal to have found a part of my family that was lost to us. It was even more amazing that there was more history to be discovered from a new and more complete jiapu.”

Trip to China

 “Before our trip, my distant cousin said he would be able to get an extra copy of the jiapu that the family had set aside for overseas Chinese relatives,” Sannie said. “When I got there, however, they had been unable to obtain another copy, so they gave me their personal copy.”

Sannie was deeply moved by her cousins’ generosity. As she tearfully thanked them, they kept repeating the words “yinggai de,” a phrase that means that is what family members do for each other. “It’s what we owe to each other, what we owe to our family, what we owe to our ancestors,” Sannie explained. 

The jiapu Sannie’s family gave her was an updated and more complete version of her maternal grandfather’s jiapu. This book contained 77 generations of her family reaching back to the fourth century B.C. Sannie supplied detailed information about the generations that had been born in Malaysia so her family could add the information to the next jiapu update, a task repeated about every 10 years.

Finding Your Chinese Roots

Tracing genealogy back into China is difficult, Sannie says. “It’s so hard for us. We are so scattered. Most of us do not have records of where we come from. We are immigrant Chinese. The Cultural Revolution destroyed some of our history. But the Loke family gave me a copy of the only book they had in their family, and I brought it back.”

Sannie continues, “We read many stories that intrigue us, but the most powerful and meaningful stories are of those who share our blood. I believe that our ancestors are waiting to be discovered and recognized. In the Chinese culture, we honor the people who came before us. There is no greater act of honor than to make their stories relevant in our lives today through genealogy work.”

FamilySearch has many resources for those seeking their Chinese heritage. Learn more about jiapu, Chinese genealogy researchChinese last names, and much more—and see how this information can help you search for your own family.

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