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Memento : Issue 27
Family research can have a shaky foundation, because its starting point is almost always personal memory, transformed -- like Chinese whispers -- over generations of telling and re-telling. But that is precisely what makes it so meaningful and rich. My quest started with a photograph. My father had quite a collection, stashed away in a small zip-up suitcase kept at the top of the hallway cupboard. The image that caught my eye was a portrait taken in Hong Kong of a middle-aged woman in traditional Chinese dress. I asked my father who she was, and he replied, 'That's grandma'. I forgot about it for a few years, but sorting through his photos after he died, I came across the portrait and once again it had me intrigued -- the look of steely determination in her eyes, hands that seemed too large for her slight frame. But this image of grandma didn't match up with my memories of her. I was only six years old when she died, but she'd lived with our family on various occasions for several months at a time. She looked after me while my parents went to work and my two older brothers went to school, although it felt as if I were the one looking after her -- massaging her tired legs, thumping the headaches away from her forehead, or squeezing blackheads from her nose! She was supposed to be the frail one, but she seemed to have some sort of unspoken power that bound our extended family together. When she died, it was as if we were all cut adrift. There was a clear disparity between my memories of this frail old lady, the matriarch who could wrangle the rather feisty and wilful characters who are my aunts, uncles and parents, and the image in that old photograph. By collating stories I'd been told by my father and aunt, and the help of our family historians, Stan and Dot Hoy, I came up with a broad outline of grandma's life. She was born in Darwin in 1892, the fourth child in a family of eight. Grandma's Ch i n Television presenter Annette Shun Wah is a familiar face, but perhaps less well-known is her passionate interest in family history. Annette shared the story of her quest with a rapt audience at our Family History Fair in Canberra earlier this year. For those who missed the event, here is a summary of her talk. 16 MEMENTO News from the National Archives