China’s ancestry tourism uses Lee Kuan Yew’s name as tourist bait

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Photo: YouTube screengrab

Politics play a crucial role in China’s ancestral ties. A great example would be the Shinawatras, namely Thaksin and Yingluck, who are Thailand’s former prime ministers. The Shinawatra name is well-known in a village called Taxia located in Guangzhou. This is because the siblings have prominent Chinese ancestral ties and are fourth-generation Chinese immigrants, descendants from a family of Hakkas. Thaksin and Yingluck’s great-grandfather, Seng Saekhu, migrated from China in the late 1800s back when it was still known as Siam. From there he built his trading and taxation businesses and became rich.

As reported in the South China Morning Post, it was during the term of Thaksin as prime minister that he traced their ancestral roots to the village of Taxia. This was before the brother and sister went into self-imposed exile in 2006 and 2014 respectively and still had the support of the Chinese government. Thaksin was able to visit Taxia in 2005 and returned in 2014 with Yingluck.

Within the village is an ancestral shrine and, on the walls, portraits of prominent descendants are displayed. Among the portraits are pictures of Thaksin and Yingluck. You became interesting if you found out that you were a distant relative of the Shinawatras. But that boost in social status changed recently.

After the overthrowing of Thaksin back in 2006 for a corruption charge and Yingluck in 2014 for mishandling government subsidies, the reputation of the Shinawatra has made a 180-degree turn for the worse. Before their verdicts, the siblings fled the country. Thaksin and Yingluck were convicted in absentia in 2008 and 2017 respectively with the brother being sentenced to two years in jail and the sister to five years.

Visits to Taxia

On January 5, 2019, the siblings made a trip to Taxia for an ancestral visit. What previously was a joyful and well-announced event, the recent trip was more of a hushed event.

For reasons unclarified, this last visit also missed the mandatory stop to the ancestral home of the siblings’ mother which is an hour’s drive from Taxia.

While Yingluck tried to show that everything was back to normal via a short video of Chinese locals warmly greeting them as they stepped out of the car which she posted on her Instagram account, all Chinese state media coverage of the visit were deleted within 24 hours.

Lee Kuan Yew’s Homeplace Tourist Area

If Taxia has shunned the Shinawatra siblings, Tangqi village has opened its arms wide to another Southeast Asian leader, Lee Kuan Yew.

Singapore’s first prime minister, a fourth-generation Straits Chinese and known as the country’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew’s name is being used to boost tourism in the village of Tangqi which is also located in Meizhou.

With its newly built roads, artificial lake, CCTV cameras, and automatic lighting system, the village is a stark contrast from the ancestral home of the Shinawatras.

The recently built two-storey memorial hall and tourist spot honouring Lee Kuan Yew can be found in the middle of the village. Nearby, two plaques introduce the ancestral home of Lee. A 30 million-yuan (S$6.12 million) project launched by the local government 5 years ago transformed the small village with about 300 residents into a tourist site honouring Lee Kuan Yew.

Surprisingly, the Lee family has never visited the place and according to He Yaohong, a museum staff, “The place was a Chinese initiative which the Singapore government never acknowledged.” He adds, “The Lee family is already head of state of another country and would never want to be called Chinese.”

With the government having informed Singapore about the tourist spot and using Lee’s name and image, the place continues to operate for its own purposes as long as no disputes were to occur.