SINGAPORE - In a recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, a genealogy show on the American TLC cable channel, supermodel Cindy Crawford traces her roots back to Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor.
Royalty lurks, too, in the family trees of some Singaporeans, as discovering one's ancestry becomes more common here.
Roots: Tracing Family Histories is an exhibition about such journeys, focusing on four families from different ethnic groups.
Organised by the National Library Board (NLB), the display at the National Library Gallery includes about 250 documents and objects on loan from 19 families. Artefacts include a pre-war marriage certificate, genealogy charts and family heirlooms such as cooking implements.
"Through this exhibition, we hope to inspire other Singaporeans to begin their own journeys of discovery," says Ms Tan Huism, the library board's head of exhibitions and curation.
The exhibition also indirectly reflects Singapore's social, economic and cultural history, she says. "It's about Singapore's history in less abstract terms."
She hopes that the exhibition will also let the public know that there are "rich resources" that they can use for their research into their family history.
For instance, the NLB has a digitised collection of Singapore newspapers dating from 1831, while the National Archives of Singapore contains marriage and burial records.
While she does not have exact figures, Ms Tan says that anecdotally, more people seem to be interested in their ancestral history.
Associate Professor Paulin Straughan, a sociologist from the National University of Singapore, says this could be because Singaporeans are ageing.
People aged 65 years and older accounted for 2.5per cent of the population in 1965. The group is expected to swell to 18.4 per cent by 2030.
"As people get ready to 'exit', they may wish to leave behind a legacy, so that it won't be forgotten by the next generation," adds Prof Straughan.
Another reason for the rising interest in heritage could be because Singapore is becoming more multicultural and multiracial. Last year, one in five, or 5,388 marriages, involved partners of different ethnic groups - up from one in eight, or 2,814 marriages, in 2001.
Says Prof Straughan: "There is a rise in the number of people here who are from different countries, cultures and races. In an atmosphere of diversity, as opposed to one of homogeneity, people are more likely to want to ascertain their identity and find out their roots."
Tracing family histories is an important exercise, she says. "To understand our current status and have a good sense of where we are heading, we need a good appreciation of where we came from."
How to start researching
1. Look into family records and sources
- Family documents such as birth, marriage and death certificates provide details of locations and dates. One can also trace one's ancestral village from these details.
- School certificates or report cards give details of schools attended and a person's personality.
- Family heirlooms include items of sentimental value such as wedding gowns or photos. The stories, memories and traditions linked to these items can provide insights.
- Family recipes reveal a family's eating practices and traditions.
2. Record your own oral history
- Interview older family members to find out about their past and their relationships with other family members. They may recall important events and dates of ancestors.
3. Search official records and sources
The National Library Board has numerous resources for family history research such as:
- Government directories: Find out a person's name, the government department he worked in and, in some cases, the salary he drew.
- Business directories: Find company listings if your ancestors were merchants or businessmen.
- Newspapers: Various types of genealogy data such as obituaries; passenger lists and ships registers; notices; and news articles that offer details about individuals. The library board has a free online database (newspapers.nl.sg) where users can search for articles published in Singapore and Malaya between 1831 and 2009.
- Maps and street directories: Locate your ancestors' former places of residence.
- Registry of Marriages: Provides a paid online service that allows users to search for civil marriages solemnised here from Sept 15, 1961.
- Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore: The Birth and Death Extracts Application System is a paid service that applies to births and deaths registered from 1872.
- Singapore Land Authority: The Integrated Land Information Service is a paid service that offers a range of services including information on property title and ownership, land lot particulars and encroachment boundary plans.
- Schools: Records and yearbooks offer a personal glimpse into a person's life. The library board has a collection of school magazines and yearbooks.
- Churches: Records, which comprise baptism, confirmation, marriage and death registrations, are useful in compiling a family tree.
Source: Librarians Mages Periasamy, Lee Meiyu and Lim Tin Seng at the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, National Library Board
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.