Tracing my ancestral roots back to Xiamen and Kinmen

Over the semester break (I’m on a career break doing my masters), I ventured to my ancestral homeland in China and Taiwan. It was a journey long in the making, ever since I learned that my ancestors hailed from Xiamen and Kinmen, in China’s Fujian province. Of course, being Hokkien (smaller part, Teochew), it would make sense that my ancestors are from Fujian. But, it didn’t really dawn on me to go visit, till more recently in my adulthood when I visited my paternal grandfather’s birthplace in Borneo (Limbang, Sarawak). That was one super exciting story in itself, where I learned of so many distant familial ties in Malaysia and Brunei, and throughout the world, really – Canada, Australia, the USA. My grandfather’s brothers immigrated to the West from Borneo.

That said, the ties back to China and Taiwan are like perhaps an Irish American’s ties to Ireland, or any white American’s ties to Europe for that matter. It’s way too distant to matter. My paternal great, great grandfather left Xiamen to go to Borneo. My maternal great grandfather hailed from Kinmen and came to Singapore.

My grandmothers, on the other hand, are a bit fuzzier in lineage. It can be complicated because the wives’ lineage is not as well documented and men, back then, can take a number of wives. I know my maternal grandmother can traced her lineage to Xiamen. My paternal grandmother has been in Singapore perhaps many more generations, but I know that her ancestral homeland is in Swatou.

The important thing is this: I had to go back to Xiamen and Kinmen. And I did in November and December 2019 travelling through China to see the different cities.

My first stop was Macau through a ferry from Hong Kong airport. We didn’t exit HK airport because the city was still in the midst of protests and it wasn’t a good idea to travel around. Next, my wife and I took a ferry to Shenzhen, and then we took a high speed train to Xiamen. Our destination within Xiamen was a touristy place called Zhong Shan Road, a street known for celebrating Taiwanese culture.

On our second day, we visited the Overseas Chinese Museum, Nanputuo temple, and Xiamen University. The university, however, closed its campus to tourists. It was a disappointment because I was really excited to see the famed beauty of the campus. So be warned: If you want to visit, you need to register days in advance through Wechat.

Since we couldn’t get to explore the campus, we decided to go to SM Mall, the site where apparently my great, great grandfather’s ancestral village once stood. There was a Walmart there so we did some shopping, and ate dinner at the nearby Joopo restaurant – the best meal we had in the whole trip!

On our third day in Xiamen, we hopped on a ferry to Gulangyu, a quaint pedestrian island filled with preserved heritage buildings of an old expat community. There are still people living on Gulangyu and the community present now feels like some sort of retirement resort. It was a nice half-day adventure.

On day 4, we ventured to the Kinmen island in Taiwan, to see my maternal great grandfather’s hometown. This island is an oddity because it is literally right off Fujian province, YET it is a territory under Taiwan. Geopolitics.


Anyway, this was the real highlight of my Xiamen leg of the trip. Kinmen feels laid back, preserved and rustic, compared to the bustling metropolis that is Xiamen city. We visited the Juguang Tower, Shuitou Village and Deyue Tower pictured below.

The Jinshui Elementary School compound has been converted to a museum recognising the island’s history of emigration from the island to the rest of world, to places in Japan and Southeast Asia.

There’s so much more to see in the island, but we had merely a day. Kinmen deserves at least 2 days to see most of the sights.

On our final day in Xiamen, we attended the Sunday church service in what we understood is the first Protestant church in mainland, China – the Xiamen Xinjie Christian Church. The church is unique in that it has an ‘open house’ concept, whereby people can freely roam in and out of the church compound and the main chapel during service. While the Chinese language service is ongoing, the main doors are open and people came and left at their own time.

We also toured the Shapowei Art Zone and the Railway Culture Park. Throughout our time in Xiamen, we’d see plenty of young couples there for their pre-wedding photo shoots.

Xiamen city is like a hidden treasure of China. It’s overshadowed by Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an as a touristy place among international tourists, but local tourists flock to the place to get a taste of Taiwan. And, because it was the host city of the BRICS summit in 2017, the city was given a makeover. It still is very pristine and beautiful, and I’d highly recommend visiting the city and neighbouring Kinmen.

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