Love and Death in Old Foochow OR How my DNA test made an already over-large category larger still

Students of old Hong Kong will be aware that the term ‘Eurasian’ is problematic in the extreme – it’s even been suggested that its real meaning, as applied in the pre-war period, is ‘not Chinese, not European and not Indian or any other single ethnicity’. Sometimes people are referred to as ‘Eurasian’ even without recent European ancestry, and although there were a number of Chinese-British families in Hong Kong, and that’s what most people think of when they read ‘Eurasian’, this ancestry was far from universal even amongst those who would meet the criteria in some reasonable definition of the term. (For some of the debate around ‘Eurasian’ see And if anyone is wondering why historians of old Hong Kong are so interested in ethnicity and ‘race’, it’s because in the society we study it defined your life chances to a degree that’s happily now hard to imagine (and did so even more in the complex and intensified racial politics of the Japanese occupation).

I don’t have anything to add to the terminological debate: most linguists tell us that the meaning of the word is determined by the way it’s understood at any given time, not by the existence of  a ‘correct’ definition somewhere outside contemporary usage. This raises questions (‘are all users equal?) that I’m happy to ignore. But my recent DNA test does enable me to tentatively add a new ethnic mix to the already rich texture of Hong Kong’s Eurasians.

I had my DNA analysed for a specific reason: my mother told me that her mother – who died very young – was Chinese. But in the one photo I have of her she looked rather Eurasian to my eyes at least:

Mum with her mother

I chose Living DNA as the tester most likely to yield a helpful result: to put it simply, I assumed that if I had about 25% ‘East Asian’ genes my grandmother was full-blooded Chinese, if about 12.5% she was Eurasian. Even a scientific dunce like me knows that apparently clear figures of that kind can be misleading, but I reckoned that a result in one range or another would at least give me a default theory. And if she was Eurasian, I was assuming she would have been Chinese-Portuguese, as that was most likely in Foochow (now Fuzhou).

The results came when I was busy with other projects, and what happened shows the danger of set ideas. I noted that 27.8% of my genes were described as  from Asia (East) and a further 1.8% as from Asia (Central). I also noted that the most likely origin of the East Asian part of my genotype was Yunnan Province in China’s south-west. This surprised me, as Fujian Province is a long way to the east of Yunnan.  Macau’s closer, and  Antonio might have met his bride there as his family remained in the Portuguese Colony after he left, and he returned there when his wife was pregnant with my mother, but, as far as I could make out from trade directories, Antonio was firmly based in Foochow from about 1908 until his death in 1939.  In any case, I thought that I now had my answer: my grandmother was clearly Chinese. There I left it until the imminent visit of a Eurasian friend who was also thinking of having the test made me look at the results again.

This time something from the report leapt out at me:

Your motherline is most frequent in the indigenous Lahu populations. They are distributed across Yunnan, China, Burma, Laos and Vietnam, and speak a language that is part of the Loloish group.

Although the testers quite rightly emphasised we are dealing with mere probabilities and that nothing should be seen as certainly proved, it did seem that my grandmother was indeed full-blooded, but perhaps not Chinese (in other words, of Han ethnicity) but one of China’s 55 ‘minority’ peoples. I lived in Yunnan for a year and we visited one of the ‘minority’ areas in the south, close to the Lancang Lahu Autonomous County, but the Lahu still weren’t on my radar. There are only about 600,000 native speakers of the Lahu language, mainly in Yunnan and bordering countries like Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

But, given, the uncertainty of conclusions drawn from genetic testing, was my grandmother really Lahu? I found some images of Lahu women online that make me think that’s a real possibility:

Image result for lahu peopleImage source:

The facial structure of the woman on the left of the line as you look at it certainly seems similar to me. I’m now trying to track down some documentation from Macau that might (or might not) settle the issue, but in the meantime what else do I know about my grandmother?

Just two things. Firstly, the name given for her on my parents’ marriage certificate – 1942 in occupied Hong Kong – is Maria, which is probably Europeanised rather than what she was given at birth. Secondly, she died of TB when my mother was three. 

Maria could feel the end coming, and told the servants to bring my mother to her bed. They were reluctant, as they feared she would pass on the disease that was killing her, but they had to obey, so my grandmother had her daughter with her during her last night on earth. What a powerful message for my mother, a message of the strength and selfishness of love, of its importance in life and of its intertwining with death.

My grandfather, Antonio Sage Marques d’Oliveira, was born in 1888 to a father who’d come to Macau from Portugal and a mother who was part-American and part-Portuguese. If his wife was indeed Lahu, how did they meet? I can only speculate. When Antonio was 18 or so he went to Foochow to work for tea merchants called Greig & Co (and a firm of brokers called Turner & Co): Yunnan is a tea growing part of China, and, although most of the firm’s business would have involved locally grown crops, perhaps it was the tea trade that somehow brought her to Foochow (or even perhaps Macao). However they met, and whatever her ethnicity, that Antonio truly loved Maria seems clear from the new year’s card he sent out to mark the start of 1917:

Mum with her father


Both he and my mother are clearly devastated, and he’s chosen an empty background to match his mood (compare the potted plant in the photo of my mother and Maria above).

I hope I’ll be able to find a document – a marriage certificate perhaps – that will settle the matter once and for all. But at the moment it looks as if my mother might have been Portuguese-American-Lahu, a form of Eurasian-ness that I believe to be unique even in the great Hong Kong melting pot.



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2 responses to “Love and Death in Old Foochow OR How my DNA test made an already over-large category larger still

  1. Les Bowie

    Fascinating “detective” work on your part, Brian. Your understanding of Chinese and Asian ethnicities overwhelms mine. One thing this DNA testing and tracking does is collapse the ‘primacy’ of ‘race’ and especially the moronic notion of “superior” races. The DNA tells us two things: we are indeed “one” and that ancestry is basically a matter of geography.
    Best wishes. L.P.B.

    • Thanks, Les.
      I agree entirely. I gather that most of those qualified (geneticists, anthropologists etc.) regard ‘race’ as an unhelpful (at best) category. Good thing too. And the idea of groups born superior to others is, as you suggest an abomination.

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