Tracing the Family Tree to China

Annette and Peter Watson – tracing the family tree in China

For seasoned Tamworth travellers Annette and Peter Watson, their trip to China earlier this year was a fulfilling journey of discovery into Annette’s family tree.The longtime Friendship Force members left Tamworth with the intention of spending four days in Shanghai before joining the Friendship Force global exchange, Discover China in Beijing. Annette’s grandmother was married in Shanghai and lived there, so they had four days to find the house she had lived in and a little more about the family history.

Fortunately for the Watsons, Annette’s long-time travel agent, Barry Gorringe at Travel Diversity had arranged for a meet-and-greet with a wonderful tour guide Amy, who had a newly-acquired degree in tourism. As luck would have it, Amy just happened to have some days off when the Watsons arrived and, fascinated by Annette’s story, Amy offered to help them in her own time. All they really had to go on were some old photos Annette had on her iPad and a postcard. It wasn’t much, but their young friend was excited at the prospect of delving into the past, and proved a great asset in the search.

“My grandfather was a ship’s captain and my grandmother’s parents were also involved with shipping and engineering,” Annette said.

“We knew they lived close to where the harbour was, as my grandfather had given my grandmother a writing desk and inside it was a postcard he’d written from Hong Kong, addressed to the house where she was living. We had very little to go on, but a couple of things had stayed in the family – that postcard, a wedding photo of them outside their house and a bowl.”

Annette’s grandparents were married in 1904 – more than 100 years previously.

Her grandmother’s sister Isabel had married a millionaire, Eric Moller, who had built a magnificent home in Shanghai before the war.The house was taken over by the Japanese in 1936 but luckily, it had not been demolished and had become a hotel. Amy decided their first step should be to go to the hotel.

“She spent the previous night on the internet and had done quite a bit of research, so she took us to Moller Villa, a very exclusive, private hotel,” Annette said. “I had pictures of my great-aunt Isabel and the children playing in the garden, so when we arrived at the front gate, we found a big plaque put there by the Chinese government to acknowledge it was built by Eric Moller in 1936.”

The hotel was not open to western tourists, so Amy went inside and asked if the Watsons could perhaps walk in the garden as they were relatives of the hotel’s original owners. Surprisingly, they were invited in to the reception area and were given a tour of the place. A second hotel, a replica of the original building, had been built out the back and when they went into the reception area it was filled with pictures of the Moller family.

“I knew Aunt Isabel very well. She used to come out and stay with my aunts and she last visited me in Tamworth. Even at the age of 93, she was still a great traveller,” Annette said. “We went down to the Bund and saw where my grandfather’s steamships had been anchored. The docks that had been built by him had been demolished and replaced by giant skyscrapers. “The racetrack where my grandmother’s horse had won the trophy is now the ring road around the national museum.

“Amy then took us to stand on the exact place where my grandmother had stood in front of her home on her wedding day. I adored my grandmother, who died when I was about nine. Our daughter Anna wore her wedding dress in 1990.  All of the old history had now gone but we were so pleased to find the hotel and discover all those beautiful photos of my great-aunt and family.

“Amy really looked after us. She took us to Mao’s Museum and then put us on the bullet train to Beijing and although she didn’t want anything for helping us, we persuaded her to take some money in the end. “When we arrived back in Shanghai this time with a group of 23 Friendship Force friends, we invited Amy to be our dinner guest, something that had never happened to her before. Amy helped the rest of the group order dinner and arranged tickets for them to see the acrobats.”

Annette said China was wonderful. Even though the exchange was not organised through Travel Diversity, the itinerary was similar to some tours Travel Diversity offers and included the usual highlights of the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Terracotta Warriors, the pandas and cruising on the Yangtzee River.

They were able to enjoy a four-day cultural exchange in Nanjing, spending one night with a Chinese family.

“The Chinese don’t do a lot of inviting people into their homes as it’s not the Chinese way of life,” Annette said. “They’re more into family groups and don’t have the personal interaction like we have. The building we stayed in was a new apartment in a huge high-rise and they didn’t know their neighbours. There are communal areas but these are not used so they have virtually no interaction with their neighbours. It’s only immediate family – aunts, uncles and grandparents that visit the home. They do go to public parks at weekends or in the early morning to exercise, but often as a family group. They had an 18-year-old girl in the home who was about to go and study in the United States. Unemployment is an enormous problem in China and only 30 per cent of graduates end up finding work, which is why the wealthy all leave and go to America or Australia to get degrees that qualify them to work abroad.

“We found the Chinese to be beautiful people, with spotless, very high-quality hotels. We would have no hesitation in going back to China. They have beautiful roads and infrastructure and it’s cheap to travel there. You can go from one side of Shanghai to the other in a bus or tube for $1. Some of the group got on the underground and did an underground tour of the city.

Annette and Peter were away nearly a month and found the guides were wonderful and their trip, overall, was quite seamless. It was very, very westernised,” Annette said. Everyone dressed in western clothes. The Chinese love everything western. For those living in the cities the standard of living has risen rapidly over the last 20 years and most young people are very well educated and a lot speak fluent English. All our tour guides had degrees in tourism but few had the funds to travel outside China. Foreigners are still rare and at Sun Yat Sen’s tomb in Nanjing, strangers asked to have their photo taken with us.

“They’re all practising English, so you’ll find there will always be English speakers around so there’s no language barrier. I’m glad I went.”

Flying back into Sydney, Annette and Peter couldn’t help but think how tiny the place was, compared to the 23 million in Shanghai alone and 33 million in Chongquing. Piecing together some more of the family tree made the trip more than worthwhile. “We returned from China with much more appreciation of the challenges facing modern China,” Annette said. “Their cities are enormous, with new, wide roads and infrastructure but, in many ways, cold and impersonal. In most places the air pollution was bad but we are told it is improving. They still burn their rubbish and the stubble in the ricefields. Shanghai, with its 23 million people, looked stunning all lit up as we drove to our hotel, but the next morning we saw a different city from our hotel window shrouded in thick, polluted air.

“The people themselves were warm and friendly and talked openly about their government, seemingly without restriction, but social media is banned and all service clubs such as Rotary, Lions and Scouts are forbidden. There was no sign of groups of young people socialising the way they do in Australia or the USA and we were told it was uncommon to have anyone but your immediate family visit the home.”

Annette said she can’t wait to go back again – next time with her daughter Anna and her daughter – for another family adventure.

Heng Shan Moller Villa Hotel

Heng Shan Moller Villa Hotel



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