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Startup helps ethnic Chinese connect with ancestors

My China Roots taps clan records to satisfy thirst for knowledge of past

My China Roots will offer free basic searches and creation of family trees but let subscribers save historical documents and get notified when others enter the same ancestor, plus offer premium custom packages like travel, in-depth research and translation. (Source photos by Reuters and screenshot from My China Roots' website) 

JAKARTA -- For most of his life Raymond Douglas Chong knew nothing about his Chinese family tree going back more than 150 generations and 4,000 years.

Chong, an American in his 60s, was focused on looking "outward on pursuing the American dream" rather than dwelling on his roots in China. His father, who migrated from China's Guangdong Province in 1932 and went to the U.S., kept the family background a secret.

But Chong gradually yearned to know more -- and contacted My China Roots, a China-focused ancestry research company established in 2012. MCR produced for Chong a personalized website that told the stories of his clan, including notable scholars and officials throughout China's dynastic period. It also collected oral stories from residents at his father's village to understand what life was like there.

My China Roots, based in China and Singapore, is part of a growing global industry that is helping people to know more about their past. The U.S. investment firm Blackstone acquired Ancestry, a leading company in online family history services with more than 3 million paying subscribers, last year for $4.7 billion.

MCR, at the smaller end of the scale, grew its expertise through a niche in highly personalized research in China, where patchy record-keeping makes the search for family traces a tougher proposition than in the West.

The genealogy market in the West "has completely ignored Asia in terms of the data they've assembled," said Huihan Lie, the company's founder. "We are filling that gap."

The company has helped more than 250 clients -- relying on their family records and other documents -- with field research projects and village visits in China. More than two-thirds of customers were from North America, while most of the remainder were Southeast Asians and Australians.

Lie, 42, is the Dutch-born child of ethnic Chinese parents who migrated from Indonesia to the Netherlands in 1949. He has lived in China since 2004, having gone to the Chinese capital of Beijing to study Mandarin, driven by curiosity to find out more about his roots.

Lie remembers a time when he was able to stand in front of the same altar in China's Fujian Province where his ancestors had prayed two centuries ago. He said he hoped to create more opportunities for the wider ethnic Chinese diaspora to trace their roots in China.

Other players in the Chinese genealogy market include 23Mofang and WeGene, but MCR offers a customized research project that makes use of a client's genealogy books as well as connections to village elders and officials in case they still keep clan records.

Now building an online platform that will allow millions of people with Chinese heritage to start their own search, MCR has partnered with book collectors and Chinese libraries, which tend to be run by provincial governments. It has also established long-term relationships with villagers in order to access and digitize genealogy books, known as zupu. The company has a growing, 20,000-strong collection of these clan records.

"The fact that we already have the largest collection of clan history books specifically targeting overseas Chinese across the world [gives us] traction, so over 20,000 users already come to our site on a monthly basis," Lie said.

Lie said My China Roots is raising an angel funding round of $1 million, of which it has received 75% so far from investors that include the renowned Silicon Valley tech startup accelerator program and the venture capital fund 500 Startups, as well as several angel investors in Singapore and Hong Kong.

The company is allocating 40% of the funding to acquire and digitize new cemetery records and zupu from southern China and make them searchable. Some of the remaining funds would be used for a web-based database of some 200 million Chinese names to allow users to search records and build their family trees.

While basic searches and the building of family trees will be free, My China Roots’ subscriber service will allow users to save and curate historical documents and get notified when other users enter the same ancestor or upload relevant data, and offer them a chance to connect. Premium custom packages like travel, in-depth research and translation can be added.

"I want to build something scalable so that if people don't have the time or the money to really pay for our premium services, they can still have access to a database and they can just start their own journey online," Lie said.

Lie said information related to Chinese genealogy remains "a lot more scattered" in China. The company does not charge a fixed project fee and prefers to charge a success fee given that some research may not yield the desired results.

"In the West, you have a lot of centralized institutions like libraries or churches or government institutions that hold the records," Lie said. "Whereas in China, you typically need to go to the village first, the ancestral place, because the information has always been maintained by the clan, by families, by private individuals."

The company also sets a base fee ranging from $800 to $1,000 to cover travel costs for one of its researchers to visit a village.

It also arranges travel for clients interested in going to ancestral villages or meeting clan associations.

Tech entrepreneur Brian A. Wong, who has invested in My China Roots, saw a positive trend for the firm, as more people now are looking for "historical context and cultural meaning in their lives to tie themselves back to their roots."

Intangible culture is becoming "more and more valuable in today's world" for ethnic Chinese and other communities, Wong said.

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