Growing the Tree of Life

29 May 2017

While many of us have heard tales of our ancestors around the dinner table, these Malaysians are going the extra mile to trace their family histories.

Malaysians have particularly rich and complicated roots. Our diaspora origins are apparent at all times, but not always fully understood. While we hear fragmented tales of grandparents and even great-grandparents, how many facts can we really piece together?

Researching a family tree is a frustrating task. It means tracing the lives of people who lived in a different time and place; people who crossed seas and braved separations and scattered across new lands. But that hasn’t stopped these Malaysians from trying.

From ships to a Siamese connection
“I was curious,” says Sabine Ferrão. “I really wanted to find out where I came from.”

A former advertising executive, Sabine was working in Singapore when she came across her family name in the records of a Eurasian club. With her curiosity piqued, she spoke to her aunt about the story and learned that her ancestors had been among the first Portuguese people to settle in Malaya.

Sabine Ferrão with her nephew Marcus.

“I was realising my father’s side were explorers, adventurers, so I was just trying to find out who I am,” she says.

As of today, Sabine has traced her father’s family back to Dom Francisco Ferrão, a nobleman and sea captain who arrived in Penang at the turn of the 19th century. Dom Francisco became a shipping tycoon in Penang and later married a Siamese lady, rumoured to be a princess.

Left to right: Sabine's grandparents Molly and Charles with children Angeline, Jeffry and Christopher. Christopher is Sabine’s father.

“I started remembering stories my grandparents used to tell us,” says Sabine “Those days, everything was hearsay. It makes the stories interesting, but I do need some evidence and that’s a challenge.”

Combing through the Singapore archives, Sabine managed to find out more about Thomas Ferrão – son of Dom Francisco – who was a member of the Penang jury court and an associate of Sir Stamford Raffles. To this day, the Assumption Church of 1861 on Lebuh Farquhar still stands, one of several churches that he helped to build.

A long line of teachers
For entrepreneur Azlan Aziz, tracing his family tree was a way to continue his late father’s work. Colonel (R) Hj A. Aziz Hj Saif had been diligently documenting the family history for years, a project also shared by Azlan’s Uncle, Hj Mohd Don Hj Shafiee.

As a child, Azlan remembers his father carrying around a green folder when going to visit relatives in Batu Pahat.

Azlan Aziz with his mother, Hajah Maziah bte Hj Naim, wife of the late Colonel (R) Hj A. Aziz Hj Saif.

“He would talk to his relations, then jot down notes. When he got home, he would ask me to make a cup of Nescafé, then he'd sit at the dining table and create neat family trees in pencil,” says Azlan.

Azlan’s father, then 2nd Lt A. Aziz Hj Saif, in 1960 (5th from left), with fellow members of the Malayan Special Forces.

Azlan wanted to continue the work after his father passed away, but he used more modern methods. He digitised the notes into a PowerPoint file and also created a family tree on the website Tribal Pages. This helped him to connect to relatives in Kendal, Indonesia, which was the hometown of his ancestor, Kiyai Kendil Wusi Mertowidjoyo.

Kiyai was an Islamic teacher who lived in the 17th century. According to local mythology, he was also a hero: he saved the town from starvation with a magic cooking pot, which managed to produce enough rice for the townspeople and army. For this feat, he was rewarded with the title of Mayor.

“Many of his descendants in Kendal became iconic Islamic teachers. Even to this day, Kiyai's legacy as educator is still very much alive as there are many members of my family who became teachers, headmasters, as well as lecturers,” says Azlan.

Songs through the centuries
When Sharmalan Thevar started tracing his family tree, he could only interview one surviving grandparent. However, as part of the Klang Valley Mukkulathor Association (KVMA), Sharmalan has learned more about his roots. The KVMA is a registered society for the Mukkulathor community from Tamil Nadu.

Sharmalan Thevar.

“Mukkulathor simply means ‘People of The Three Clans’,” says Sharmalan, a senior executive in an IT company. “It is a confederation of three ancient feudal clans/tribes known as the Kallar, Maravar and Agamudayar.” Sharmalan’s father is a Maravar while his mother is a Kallar. “My maternal grandfather Swaminathan Kandapillai left India when he was just 16. He came here empty handed, worked his way up in life. He eventually became an MBBJ councillor in Malaysia.”

In Malaysia, there are about 60 surnames of Mukkulathor families. “Some of these surnames have inscription records going back to 600 years,” says Sharmalan. When tracing his family, he found that some of his ancestors followed a matrilineal system.

Sharmlan's maternal grandfather Swaminathan Kandapillai. Top right: Sharmalan's paternal aunt Pichaiammal Thevar who lives in Ramanathapuram India. Bottom right: Sharmalan's maternal great grandmother Mariayi Chittachiyar.

“The stories get passed down the generations. In Tamil Nadu, stories are preserved in the form of folk ballads. So the song is their story. But of course, every story has to be validated with historical proof.”

Sharmalan built his family tree on the website “I think every society should keep a record about its origins,” he says. “It is like storytelling and something for the future generation to cherish. If we don't appreciate our own roots, we will end up becoming people with no identity.”

A grandfather’s road
Isaac Tan learned about his Baba Nyonya identity as a child, when he realised that his family was different from those of his friends.  

“We would speak a Malay dialect at home and our food differed from the Chinese food that I ate outside,” says Isaac, a lawyer and restaurateur who lives in Melaka.

Isaac Tan with his family tree at his restaurant, Straits Affair.

In Isaac’s restaurant Straits Affair, the family tree is displayed on the wall. Many of the names are familiar: his ancestors include Sir Tun Tan Cheng Lock, founder of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA); Goh Keng Swee, former deputy Prime Minister of Singapore; Tan Keong Keng, who helped to set up a pioneering girl’s school in Melaka; and Tan Choon Bock, who founded the Straits Steamship Ltd.

“On my paternal side alone, there are at least four Justices of the Peace [a civilian judge of the colonial era]. This encouraged me to pursue law when I was younger and to contribute to society,” says Isaac. “I feel that their sacrifices and contributions will inspire future generations to contribute and make an impact in our country in their own way.” 

Tan Choon Bock formed the historic Straits Steamship Ltd, with his relatives. It was one of the first local companies to use steamships for trade.

Yet Isaac is also aware of the missing histories that have not been written down. His father’s side, with its various pioneers of politics and trade, can be traced back to a Chinese merchant who arrived from Fujian in 1771. However, his mother’s side has less documentation. Isaac has only been able to trace four generations on his mother’s side so far.

Isaac Tan's maternal great grandmother.

“On my maternal side, I had to rely solely on oral tradition,” says Isaac. His maternal great grandmother was a Nyonya woman who married a fisherman and lived a simple life as a foster carer to unwanted children.

“During her funeral, many people turned up to honour her. They brought their children and in some cases, grandchildren, which was a lasting legacy of her love and commitment,” says Isaac.

No family tree is ever truly finished: even the names that we know are inscribed with details lost to time. But in the gaps, there are questions that we can try to answer, or at least imagine.

Each family tree also tells a larger story: a story of migration, survival and adaptation that goes back centuries and spans continents. It’s a story that has been told many times over and will continue to be told. Despite our differences, it’s a story that many of us share.  

By Ling Low
Photos by Wong Yok Teng
Family photos courtesy of the interviewees.

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