Researching Asian Ancestry Is Becoming Easier, Thanks to Those Like Derek Dobson

July 30, 2021  - by 
Derek Dobson works to help make Asian family history work easier.

While Derek Dobson served a proselyting mission in Hong Kong from 1985 to 1986, he posed for a photo on a hillside overlooking the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. As a young man from rural Canada, this was an exciting new experience. Even with his love of the Chinese people and fluency in the language, Derek could not have guessed what powerful ties he would weave over his lifetime with people scattered throughout Asia and the Pacific.

Derek’s Early Life and Career 

Derek Dobson was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. At age 9, he and his family moved to nearby Okotoks, a small community just south of Calgary. Like many young boys his age, Derek enjoyed athletics and participated in local sports programs.

As a teenager, Derek was introduced to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through a friend who shared his enthusiasm for sports. It was during his first trip to the Cardston Temple at age 15 that Derek became fascinated with family history. Inscribed on a brass plaque in the entry were the words “Joined here by powers that past and present bind the living and the dead perfection find.” Those tender words stirred up deep feelings of love within him toward his ancestors. 

Derek Dobson first felt love for his ancestors when he read a plaque that said, "Joined here by powers that past and present bind the living and the dead perfection find."

After graduating high school, he decided to serve as a missionary for the Church and was asked to serve in Hong Kong. While there, he met his future wife, Cynthia Jean Lund, a fellow missionary also serving in Hong Kong. Soon after their missions, they chose to marry. Today the Dobsons have 7 children, including 2 who were adopted from China. 

Derek obtained his bachelor’s degree in Asian studies from Brigham Young University with a minor in Mandarin. He then proceeded to work in Hong Kong as a country manager for WordPerfect and Novell and eventually pursued an MBA in international business. 

Derek met his wife when they both served missions in Hong Kong.

Every step of his education and career seemed to propel Derek toward a combination of three great loves—technology, Asia, and family history. Derek started with FamilySearch in 2003 and has filled a series of assignments that increasingly turned his attention toward Asia and the Pacific. Derek is knowledgeable about many of this region’s countries and cultures, including Australia, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. He is fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin. 

Making Ancestral Research Easier Is the Goal 

Derek Dobson currently serves as a customer experience manager at FamilySearch with an emphasis in Asian ancestry. His team is presently working on making the website more culturally authentic and inviting for people from all over the world to use FamilySearch’s services and to feel comfortable sharing their information with FamilySearch. Derek explains, “It’s all about trust and willingness to share their data with us.” 

Derek Dobson works to make FamilySearch available worldwide—especially for asian countries. Screenshot of FamilySearch in Korean.

This is accomplished by offering different content to users based on language, country, or region. Derek states, “We try to make our website inviting based on the perceptions and practices of the people who are using it.”

“The pursuit of family history is deeply engrained in some Asian cultures,” says Derek. Historically, for instance, Chinese and Korean people have gathered and maintained family records over many generations. The Chinese collections, known as jiapu, are generally maintained by clans, which can be massive in size—millions of people. 

Record Indexing Is Vital for Making the World’s Records Accessible 

Another key factor to making ancestor research available on FamilySearch is its indexing projects. Indexing is a volunteer transcription effort that makes genealogical records freely searchable online. “The power of indexing drives part of our searching, matching, and hinting we now have on FamilySearch,” Derek explains. Through the selfless effort of countless volunteers, millions of people worldwide have found information about their ancestors. 

Derek Dobson with his FamilySearch indexing team in 2007.

Derek enjoys reflecting on the original FamilySearch indexing project, one of his earlier assignments at FamilySearch. “Being able to index records has made today’s genealogy very different,” says Derek. He loves to recall how his small development team aimed to make the genealogical and vital records stored in the FamilySearch archives near Salt Lake City, Utah, within easy reach of researchers everywhere. 

This was a worldwide effort to index the names and data from 2.4 million rolls of microfilm and make it available digitally online. Genealogical data from 110 countries and principalities was included. Some of the original indexing participants were convinced they would never participate in active genealogical research, yet they found themselves immersed in this exciting activity. 

Derek’s Visit to the Philippines—Indexing Renews Records Destroyed in a Typhoon 

Because of indexing, the number of vital records available on FamilySearch continues to increase. Yet it is the personal impact of this effort that gives Derek a sense of satisfaction.  

Derek Dobson in the Philippines with Charito C Aberia, the local registrar, Hon. Edgar C Boco, the municipal mayor of Hernani, Eastern Samar, Philippines, and Manolito Baul, Country Manager Philippines for FamilySearch.

Derek recounts a particular experience while visiting the Philippines in 2014. The country had been devastated the previous year by Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Super Typhoon Yolanda), the most severe typhoon to ever hit the Philippines. With winds sustained at more than 140 miles per hour and gusts up to 195 miles per hour, the lands were ripped to shreds and the storm waves were compared to tsunami waves. An estimated 9,000 people died, and property damage was set at nearly $3 billion. 

Three small villages on the shore of Eastern Samar, Philippines, were left in shambles. Their vital statistics archives for the local population were completely gone, literally with the wind. “We visited with a local mayor from one of the communities,” says Derek. “We told him we had put their records on microfilm 5 years earlier and had brought copies back with us. He didn’t seem impressed until I showed him a copy of his own birth certificate. Then he burst into tears. He had never seen it before.” 

The mayor’s story is one common to many people around the world who appear to go through life unaware of the written evidence of their existence. But FamilySearch is “bringing these records to life” through the efforts of those like Derek Dobson who seek to preserve vital records worldwide and make them accessible online. 

Twila Van Leer

Twila Van Leer is a volunteer features writer for FamilySearch. She is a retired Deseret News editor and staff writer.

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