Embarking on a journey to discover my own ethnically diverse background.
Mixed-race people, like me, are now the largest and fastest growing ethnic minority in the UK. My own immediate family is a perfect example of the growing trend. My Mother is Chinese, born in Malaysia, and my Father was a mix between Irish and Roma travellers.
My parents didn’t go through the same challenges in marrying into a different ethnicity as many others did, including the BBC’s George Alagiah for example. In fact, for my Mother growing up as the only Chinese girl in her class, shortly after coming over from Malaysia, she luckily didn’t experience any racial discrimination. “I never thought why is he [my step-Father] white and why am I Chinese? We didn’t even think about race then,” she said.
This is quite a world apart from the England I grew up in – Folkestone, Kent in the 1990s. I had never thought of myself differently until I became of a conscious age, when people started pulling the corner of their eyes back in an attempt to imitate Chinese eyes. I got called ‘chinky’ and my Mother, Grandmother and I have all been told to ‘go back to your own country.’ Have times gotten worse?
After some time trying to reason that it is easier to live just saying I’m British, I was reminded by a lovely lady from a clinic in Folkestone today, that I should be proud of who I am. Because if I ignore it, the heritage of my parents and their parents will be lost forever.
Starting the search…
For me, the journey starts when my parents met in Pullman wine bar in Folkestone, Kent in 1987. My Mum must have been one of the few ethnic minorities that were in Folkestone at that time. Nowadays, it is far more diverse.
Admittedly, I don’t know as much about either of my ethnic backgrounds as I would like to know. All I have to remind me of it are the stories my Father told me of his Roma mother and Irish traveler Father, a few photos of my Mother’s childhood days in Malaysia, and my own face when I look in the mirror every morning, reminding me that I am different.
A huge, decrepit old Bible from the 1800s has my Mother’s step-Father’s family history written neatly in the front page. But there is nothing of this sort for my Mother or Father’s families. So it’s up to me to put the puzzle together.
The Malaysian-Chinese side
Though you wouldn’t be able to tell from her southern British accent, my Mother was born in Melaka in Malaysia. My Grandmother didn’t want my Mother or Aunt to know their Father after they divorced. His identity, along with my Mother’s long-lost brother, remain a mystery to us all. The remnants of an old photo of my Mother’s real Father, with his head cut off, lay in the cupboard.
My Grandmother later married an English man called John Hunter. He was an electrician and brought my Grandmother, mother and Aunt to England in the 1960s. Since a young age my Mother and Aunt then began to only speak English. This explains why none of us can speak Chinese very well. From what she and my Mother say, they were very happy with him. He was a real English gentleman – tall, well-dressed, and with pipe in hand.
After my Grandmother passed away, we found a pile of photographs of our Malaysian and Singaporean family members. Most of them have also passed by now too. But one photo baffled me most. A family is posing for a typical family portrait shot. Their ethnic background is hard to work out. The Father, maybe Malay, is adorned fully in Islamic dress, even topped with a fez-like hat. His wife seems Chinese, and their children seem of mixed ethnicity. But who they are is a mystery to me. Maybe my family has been practicing mixed ethnic relations for longer than I had thought.
We also found an old-fashioned, yellowing photo of my Mother’s anonymous brother, smiling at the camera with a sweet innocence. Hand-written on the back reads “Your son, Ah Hong…Birthday: 9th September 1959.” But everything else about this man is a blur to her. The stamp from the printing company tells us it was printed in Malaysia.
In another photo, the Chinese calendar on the wall says ‘1980’. A red and gold ancestral worship shrine is in the background. The people in the photo seem to be my Uncle (my Mother’s second cousin), his Mother and some nameless family members crowding around my Great-Grandfather for his birthday. He is a spit and image of my Grandmother. Every year, the Chinese side of my family, who now live in Singapore, still visit his shrine in Malaysia.
The more I look at that photo, the more a young man wearing Ray-ban sunglasses begins to look like a man I met in Singapore 3 years ago. He said we were related in some distant way, but I didn’t think to ask anything further.
The Irish and Traveller side
My Grandfather from my Father’s side, who I never knew, was originally from Kilkenny in the Republic of Ireland. He was an Irish traveller, not that many people in the family know that. That is, the family who still speak to us. My Father’s Mother was also Irish, but was half Irish and half Roma traveller. This explains the wanderlust I must have inherited.
Although he was born in Essex, my Father was still never content with being called English. He had a typical Irish pride. How we came to have the name ‘Castle’ as Irish descendents still puzzles me though. Years back, I stared for hours at a map of Ireland that marked every area by the name of the descendents of each village or town. But ‘Castle’ was nowhere to be seen.
Unfortunately, when my Father sadly passed away, all the memories of his childhood and background went along with him. Of course I remember many of the things he told me about. But sadly, memory fades. And the generations of my Father’s family who came after him seem to know nothing about their real heritage. It’s not exactly viewed as something to shout about these days.
Just the beginning
The gaps in my knowledge are troubling me. After all, if I don’t make an effort to search for the answers to my questions, who will teach my future children how interesting their ancestry is.
I owe this to my parents and my Aunt and Uncle alike, who set a beautiful example through their love, that it doesn’t matter where you are from or what you look like.
This is just the beginning of my search.