“Who Do You Think You Are?”: Julie Chen Explores Roots in China

By Diane Haddad

Family Tree Magazine contributing editor Sunny Jane Morton serves as our “Who Do You Think You Are?” special correspondent this season. She’ll guest blog with highlights and research tips from each episode, including tips on where to find the genealogy records you see on-screen.

Here’s Sunny’s report on last night’s premiere:

Who Do You Think You Are?” launched its new season yesterday on TLC with a celebrity guest who’s built her own career on investigating other people’s stories: Julie Chen, TV personality and CBS producer.

The episode takes us to China for the first time in the show’s history. The story that unfolds about Chen’s grandfather Lou Gaw Tong is “riches-to-rags-to-riches.” He became an emigrant who continued to love his homeland. During World War II, he risked his life smuggling ammunition through Japanese-occupied territory to the Chinese resistance. He was a self-made businessman who started a school in his home village that still thrives today, and that Chen visited.

As Chen discovers, her grandfather’s interest in education reaches back to a generation Julie knew nothing about. I won’t give away everything she learns, for those who want to watch the episode later (on your DVR, in a rerun, or possibly online if the episode becomes available on the show’s website). But there are some tender moments as she learns about tough family history. By the end, she leaves China with, she says, “a firmer understanding of who I am today and why I am the way I am.”

Appropriately for a newswoman, Chen’s first real connection to her grandfather’s story is through his obituaries. She learns the name of his home province and village in China, more details about his business, and about his philanthropy. Hints about his “unnatural” troubled childhood intrigue her even more and drive her to search for answers about his entire life.

Newspaper obituaries are often our first window into an ancestor’s life story. It’s most common to find obituaries by the late 1800s and especially the 20th century. These often contain clues that censuses and even vital records may not tell us. You often find biographical and personal details that person was remembered for by loved ones.

FamilySearch‘s indexing partnership with digitized newspaper site GenealogyBank is making it easier to find online obituaries. The names, death date and other basic details are searchable and indexed at; the full obituary is available with a GenealogyBank subscription. You also can search sites such as subscription-based and the free Chronicling America. Some local libraries have obituary indexes you can search, and even digitized newspapers.

Learn more about newspaper research with our video class, Exploring Digital Newspapers, available in Family Tree Shop. Or grab our Online Newspapers Web Guide and start searching old newspapers right away. See what stories they lead to.

Next week on WDYTYA?: Singer Josh Groban discovers his distant grandfather was a renowned scientist who got the attention of the great Sir Isaac Newton. Tune in on TLC on Sunday, March 15, at 10pm/9pm Central.

You also can follow the show on the TLC website, on Facebook and on Twitter (@WDYTYA).

» Sunny Jane Morton