Short documentary on Touchstone family history wins national award

26 Apr 2024

A short documentary by Suzhou Broadcasting System about the family history of Dr Ellen Touchstone, Associate Dean for Responsible and Sustainable Business Education at International Business School Suzhou (IBSS), won the Top Ten Works award at the 29th Chinese Documentary Academic Festival in December.

'My Homeward Journey'

A century of connections

The documentary, “My Homeward Journey,” features Dr Touchstone exploring the past of her grandparents, Cary Touchstone and Mabel Ellen Thomas, who came from the US to China a century ago and lived in Suzhou for five years.

In February 1917, Thomas came to Suzhou where sheworked as the Head Nurse at Soochow University’s First Affiliated Hospital. In December of the same year, Touchstone arrived in Suzhou and worked as the Bursar and English Secretary to the President of Soochow University. Two years later, they were married by the US Consul General in Shanghai.

Mabel Ellen Thomas with staff at hospital in Soochow

Photo 1 Man on right: Cary Touchstone with his baby daughter, Mary Alice Touchstone at Soochow University with his colleague, Dwight Lamar Sheretz and his child, other 3 photos Cary Touchstone and Mary Alice Touchstone

“My grandparents probably took a train for over five or six days to cross the US  and then got on a boat for three weeks to come to a place that they knew nothing about,” Dr Touchstone says.

“Realising they managed that successfully a hundred years ago really boosted my courage and reassured me that I could do it too, especially nowadays when it’s so much easier.”

Following their path, Dr Touchstone arrived in Suzhou in 2012 and embarked on her own journey.

Dr Ellen Touchstone in Xietang Lao Jie, Suzhou in April 2022

At IBSS, she works to help future generations embrace responsible business practices and create a more sustainable future. She also actively engages with the local community, devoting her time to volunteer work and animal welfare.

In February 2022, she volunteered at a Covid testing site in Suzhou Industrial Park, explaining the procedures in English, German, and French to international residents.

“It was a very rewarding experience. It also made me think about the continuity of my family’s legacy. My grandmother was a head nurse. Serving as a volunteer during a health crisis would be something that she would have done during her time,” she says.

Exploring roots, inspiring change

Dr Touchstone says the inspiration to make a documentary about her grandparents struck her upon her first arrival in Suzhou.

“Once I saw the Old Town area of Suzhou in person and found pictures of my grandparents when they were younger, I could imagine a documentary in my mind. I also thought that a documentary could help share their story with more people.”

Her dream became a reality when the Suzhou Broadcasting System reached out to her, and she began collaborating with director Yao Zhou. Despite obstacles caused by the pandemic, the documentary was released on 25 December 2022.

Over the course of filming, Dr Touchstone visited the Columbia University Archives in the US and read through five years of diaries belonging to her grandfather’s friend and colleague, Joseph Whiteside.

Dr Ellen Touchstone doing archival research at Burke Library in July 2022

1917 diary of Joseph Whiteside

“He recorded so much information about my grandparents that provided many details about them, including their personalities, the date when they announced their engagement, and even where they went on their honeymoon,” she says.

The documentary is a milestone, not the end, in Dr Touchstone’s journey. She remains eager to uncover more facets of her grandparents’ story.

For example, she learned that her grandparents hired a nanny for their children when they were in Suzhou and discovered photos of her in her aunt’s baby book.

“I’m really curious about who she was and whether she has descendants here in Suzhou, just like me. Uncovering more about her would feel like finding another family member, which would be incredible,” she says.

Photo 1 Left to right: unknown child, Mary Alice Touchstone, Joseph Cary Touchstone, Suzhou amah who took care of the Touchstone children, Photo 2 Left to right:  unknown amah, Joseph Cary Touchstone, unknown child, Mary Alice Touchstone

Dr Touchstone hopes viewers take away from her experience the importance of engaging with older generations and their stories.

“Every family has a unique history,” she says. “Young people often have a lot of other things on their minds, but they really need to make the effort to gather and remember their families’ stories.”

This award follows the film’s selection as an Outstanding Domestic Documentary by the National Radio and Television Administration of China earlier in 2023, Best Documentary at XJTLU’s third MEGA festival, and other awards.


By Katharina Zhu
Edited by Xinmin Han
Photos courtesy of Dr Ellen Touchstone

26 Apr 2024


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