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Finding Mrs. Yip Sang: a case study of the General Register of Chinese Immigration 1885-1949 (Canada)

In this post I share with you a case study of how I found the second wife of Yip Sang’s arrival to Canada, the questions I asked, my analytical process, and a methodology. It is not easy to navigate Library and Archives Canada’s tools, nor know where else to look for clues, and by writing up this case study I hope to show you a clear process for finding your own family’s records.

The General Register of Chinese Immigration

From about 1885-1949, the Bureau of Chinese Immigration kept track of all incoming Chinese, regardless of place of birth, on a centralized set of ledgers in Ottawa. In these eighteen ledgers are recorded some 97,000 names. These ledgers were continually being updated and cross-referenced – they are not a single once-and-done document.

If your family was Chinese and in Canada during these dates, and even predating 1885, the Register is an essential genealogical tool.

Finding Mrs. Yip Sang, a case study

I found an entry for “Mrs. Yip Sang,” on the General Register for Chinese Immigration (see below for methodology). I know that my great-grandfather Yip Sang had four wives, and that three of them were in Canada. Is this one of my great-grandmothers? If so, which one?

To find out, I transcribed the file. That was when I noticed that below the entry for Mrs. Yip Sang were five other people in the party, four of whom I recognized. Here they are.

DescMrs. Yip SangMrs. Yip YowYip Kew ShueyYip Kew Mow
Serial #33.60733.60833.61133.612
Port Statement declaration #13814138151381813819
Where registeredVancouver
CI36#21733 issued
Vancouver
CI36#17164 issued 11 Mar 1921
VancouverVancouver
CI28#6969 issued 22 Nov 1915
Date of registration25 Apr 190025 Apr 190025 Apr 190025 Apr 1900
CI527540275412754427545
CI617015416802832867
refunded
8 Aug 1900
refunded 905506 8 Aug 1900
Fee$50$50$50$50
Sexfemalefemalemalemale
Age35 [b. abt. 1865]20 [b. abt. 1880]13 [b. abt. 1887]9 [b. abt. 1891]
Place of birth (City, District, Country)Ow Yook, Sinning, ChinaOw Yook, Sinning, ChinaOw Yook, Sinning, ChinaOw Yook, Sinning, China
Occupationhousewifehousewifestudentstudent
Last place of residenceOw Yook, Sinning, ChinaOw Yook, Sinning, ChinaOw Yook, Sinning, ChinaOw Yook, Sinning, China
Arrival portVancouverVancouverVancouverVancouver
Arrival shipEmpress of ChinaEmpress of ChinaEmpress of ChinaEmpress of China
Arrival dateApr 1900Apr 1900Apr 1900Apr 1900
Physical descriptionLeft upper lip. Mole right temple, blue [mark?] on right eyelid.Mole on left cheek. Small feet.Scar centre top head. Mole left chin. Two moles front neck.Mole over right ear. Pit front right ear. Pit centre forhead.
Transcript of General Register of Chinese Immigration for Mrs. Yip Sang, 25 Apr 1900, Immigrants from China, Library and Archives Canada

Here’s why I think this is my family:

  • I recognize the names “Yip Yow,” “Yip Kew Shuey,” (which is close to Yip Kew Suey), and “Yip Kew Mow”
  • The surname “Yip” is a match
  • The boys carry the same generational name as the nineteen sons of Yip Sang: “Kew,” thus “Yip Kew” is a match. For more on generational names, see my post Finding the Chinese names of my family
  • Mrs. Yip Sang first arrives in Vancouver in 1900 at the age of 35 years old – this is a match to research already done for Yip Sang’s second wife Dong Shee, who is the mother of Yip Kew Suey and Yip Kew Mow
  • “Yip Kew Shuey,” son of Yip Sang and Dong Shee, is the right gender and age, and the name is a close match to the right name: Yip Kew Suey
  • Yip Kew Mow, son of Yip Sang and Dong Shee, is the right gender and age
  • Mrs. Yip Yow is a woman born about 1800, and matches my research for Lee Shee, wife of Yip Sang’s first son Yip Kew Yow
  • It makes sense for this group to be travelling together: a mother and her sons, and the wife of her step-son

This is cluster research: researching a group of people instead of only one to amass more data. Had I stopped with the entry for Mrs. Yip Sang, I’d have a much less solid basis for accepting this record.

Taken together, what do we have?

On April 25, 1900, Mrs. Yip Sang, aka Dong Shee (鄧氏), the second wife of Yip Sang, immigrated to Canada to join her husband, arriving in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada aboard the Empress of China. Accompanying her were their two sons, Yip Kew Suey and Yip Kew Mow, and Mrs. Yip Yow. (These three, Yip Yow, Yip Suey, and Yip Mow, were the first, second, and third sons of Yip Sang.) They had been living in Ow Yook, Sinning, China. I don’t know “Ow Yook,” but “Sinning” is one of the old spelling for Taishan, Guangdong Province, China.

Despite being the family of the prominent and well-known merchant Yip Sang, everyone was required to pay a head tax. Let me repeat that: every person was assumed to be taxable until later found non-taxable. See below for more about the taxes and paperwork.

Note that both Mrs. Yip Sang (Dong Shee) and Mrs. Yip Yow are from the same place: Ow Yook, Sinning, China.

In addition, the new Mrs. Yip Yow, 20 years old, is a Lee (李) by birth. Her husband, Yip Yow, was Yip Sang’s first son by his first wife, Lee (李) Shee, who died in abt. 1885. Is it possible Yip Yow married a woman from the same area as his biological mother and his step-mother? If family relationships are hard to hold in your head, a quick PowerPoint diagram can help.

Abbreviated family tree of Yip Sang, Lee Shee, and Dong Shee, showing relationships of Yip Yow, Yip Kew Mow, and Yip Kew Suey to their mother, second mother, and father. Diagram by Linda Yip.

A dizzying array of paperwork and a lot of taxes

According to the register, each member of the party paid CAD$50 (in 2021 that’s $1617 each, $9702 total) to enter the country. Then three members of the party, Yip Ghim Poy, Yip Kew Suey, and Yip Kew Mow, were refunded.

Excerpt, head taxes assessed and refunded for Yip Ghim Poy, Yip Kew Shuey, Yip Kew Mow, 25 Apr 1900, General Register of Chinese Immigration, Immigrants from China, Library and Archives Canada

By contrast, neither Mrs. Yip Sang nor Mrs. Yip Yow was refunded. Indeed, the register shows the CI5 and CI6 certificate numbers:

  • Mrs. Yip Sang, CI5#24540, CI6#170154
  • Mrs. Yip Yow, CI5#24541, CI6#16802
Excerpt, head taxes assessed for Mrs. Yip Sang and Mrs. Yip Yow, 25 Apr 1900, General Register of Chinese Immigration, Immigrants from China, Library and Archives Canada

Over the next twenty-one years, everyone in the party was issued head tax certificates of a dizzying variety:

  • CI5s – Chinese Immigration Certificate No. 5, aka the “head tax certificate,” issued to incoming Chinese who paid a head tax; a CI5 was issued to everyone in this group
  • CI6s – Chinese Immigration Certificate No. 6, generally issued to Chinese who were in the country prior to 1885; everyone in this group got one, likely years later (see note below)
  • CI28s – Chinese Immigration Certificate No. 28, generally issued to replace CI5s; in 1915, Yip Kew Mow was issued a CI28 to replace his earlier CI5
  • CI36s – Mrs. Yip Sang and Mrs. Yip Yow were eventually issued CI36s, which were like CI5s plus a photo; note that Mrs. Yip Yow was issued her CI36 in 1921, which suggests the register was updated twenty-one years after her original entry to the country (see letter below)

At present, I don’t have copies of these certificates. To see examples, see the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act.

How long did they spend in the Chinese Detention Shed?

Longtime readers will be familiar with the idea, but for new readers, I’ll explain that all incoming Chinese, born in Canada or not, spent time in the Chinese Immigration Building while their papers were processed. It’s become a part of my research process to ascertain how much time they spent there. For more, see my post The Chinese Dention Shed.

From the register, we see the Empress of China arrived at Vancouver in “April/00.”

Excerpt of Arrival in Canada, 25 Apr 1900, General Register of Chinese Immigration, Immigrants from China, Library and Archives Canada

From the above transcript, we know the group was registered by authorities on 25 Apr 1900. When did the steamer arrive? The register had no more clues. I turned to newspapers for the answer. Ship arrivals and departures were newsworthy – port city newspapers will have rich details about sailings, ports of call, well-to-do and famous passengers, storms, and arrivals. In addition, Library and Archives Canada’s ship passenger lists for the west coast – Vancouver and Victoria – only begin in 1905. This is 1900.

From The Province, I learned the Empress of China departed Hong Kong on April 4, 1900.

The Empress of China departs Hong Kong, 4 Apr 1900, The Province

And again from The Province, I learned she arrived on April 25, 1900, a voyage of exactly three weeks.

The Empress of China arrives at Vancouver, 25 Apr 1900, The Province

Since The Empress of China arrived in Vancouver on April 25 and the party was registered on April 25, they were subjected to less than a day in the shed.

The head tax refund

Above, we see the head tax was refunded for two sons of Yip Sang: Yip Kew Suey, and Yip Kew Mow.

In the search results for “Yip Sang” at the archives, in addition to the Register for Mrs. Yip Sang and company, there was an intriguing result for a refund for a “capitation tax” in the same time period. What is a capitation tax?

An assessment levied by the government upon a person at a fixed rate regardless of income or worth. Since it is a tax upon the individual, and not upon merchandise, a capitation tax is frequently labeled a head tax. A poll tax is a capitation tax.

Definition of capitation tax – The Free Dictionary
Refund for head taxes paid to Yip Sang and Yip Quong, 4 Jul 1900, Order-in-Council, Library and Archives Canada

Unfortunately, this file is not available online, but is this the refund? Note the date: 4 Jul 1900. From the above we know the head taxes were refunded on 8 Aug 1900. I wonder: did the Chinese Immigration Branch do this on their own, or more likely, was it Yip Sang who undertook to apply for the refund? Four head taxes at $50 each is worth about $6468 today – definitely worth the effort and inevitable paperwork.

How this was done: methodology

I used a combination of two techniques: Library and Archives Canada’s Collection Search, and the database lookup at Immigrants from China 1885-1949.

I typed in the keywords “Yip Sang” into the Collection Search.

Collection Search, Library and Archives Canada

I got thirty-two pages of results, but that’s OK. I’m curious. Some are census records, some are C.I.9s (re-entry permits), and one was intriguing: an image and hit for a “Mrs. Yip Sang.”

Result #8 for search term “Yip Sang” at Collection Search, Library and Archives Canada

Unfortunately, Collection Search isn’t working as well as it should: clicking the image should take you to the file but it doesn’t. But that’s OK – I know another way to get this file. Going to Immigrants from China, I enter the keywords “Yip Sang,” looking for the “1900-04-25” date of registration showing from the Collection Search result.

Immigrants from China database search, Library and Archives Canada

Bingo. Not only do I find Mrs. Yip Sang, but Item #9113 looks like it might be Yip Sang’s third wife Wong Shee (黄氏), Item #104849 looks like it’s Yip Sang’s daughter Susan Yip Sang, and Item #117474 Yip Sang himself. To keep this study focused, I won’t follow those clues, but rather record the finds for later research (I use Asana to manage research projects).

Results of search for “Yip Sang,” Immigrants from China database search, Library and Archives Canada

Clicking on the link under Item Number 43640, we see the entry at LAC.

There are two ways to see the file: by clicking on the image or by clicking the item under “Link(s) to pdf file(s).” Click the PDF file to see the highest resolution image available. You will see a full page of details. I recommend downloading a copy for your files, along with the link.

Mrs. Yip Sang, Immigrants from China database search, Library and Archives Canada

Finally, I compared the results and information to my collection of resources and data held in Evernote and MacFamily Tree (not shown). For more on how I use Evernote, see What’s Evernote for Genealogy. I discovered that in addition to other documents, I had a wonderful photo of Dong Shee. I mean, look at her: everything from her jewelled, embroidered silk turban to her embroidered Chinese silk jacket says this is a proud and fashionable woman.

Past-Presence.com
Dong Shee, Mrs. Yip Sang, date unknown. © Dick and Yvette Family Archives. All rights reserved.

Summary: what did I learn?

By using the two database search engines at Library and Archives Canada, I was able to build a fairly tight case for the arrival of Dong Shee, Yip Sang’s second wife, her two children, and the wife of Yip Sang’s first son, to Canada.

In addition, I was fascinated to see the enormity of paperwork in following the movements of this small group of people. As noted, the Register showed evidence of data from 1900-1921. I learned there was a tax-and-refund process, which means that I cannot rule out entries on the Register for people who should not be paying taxes. I was able to answer an older question of whose refunds were being considered by the July 1900 Order-in-Council, having seen that record some time ago. Also, I have some insight into how many immigration officers would be employed by the Chinese Immigration Building in Vancouver in 1900. Here’s the calculation: if 600 Chinese arrivals were processed in one day, assuming they were done very quickly at 0.25 hrs per person, and a workday was seven hours, that is at least 20-25 agents. This is a big operation.

I was delighted to learn the origins of Dong Shee and Mrs. Yip Yow aka Lee Shee. As all genealogists know, tracing the history and movements of women in our family trees is much more difficult than the men.

And I was gratified to see this record – the register and all the information for four people – fit neatly within the framework of the tree I am amassing for the Yip family: everything from years of birth to information collected on C.I.9 re-entry certificates. I already have in my files a 1917 C.I.9 for Yip Kew Mow, and the data on this register matched his information seventeen years later.

A part of every genealogist’s toolkit should be re-reviewing all the records already found to see what new conclusions may be drawn.

Next week

This week we explored the General Register of Chinese Immigration documents at Library and Archives Canada. If this interested you and you’d like to go further, see the next post How to find your ancestral locations in China: geography basics, maps, and the UBC Register of Chinese immigration, where I talk about what I consider the companion work to the Register: the Register of Chinese Immigrants to Canada by Drs. Ward and Yu at the University of British Columbia.

Postscript and thanks

This post was inspired by a conversation about head tax and reentry certificates, and navigating the collections at Héritage Canadiana and Library and Archives Canada in my Facebook group Genealogy for Asian Canadians. Huge thanks to AT and GM for their excellent questions.

And as ever, undying thanks and gratitude for my family, past and present, who survived the system and gave me the inestimable gift of Canadian citizenship: 謝謝, 謝謝, 謝謝 (thank you, thank you, thank you).

[Updated Aug 1, 2021] Thank you to my readers: Teresa, Robert, CL, and THN. For Teresa and Robert, thank you for taking the time to comment here on the blog. My responses are here for all to read. For CL, huge thanks for sharing your family research with me about the Lee family. And for THN, thank you for catching my typo for incoming Mrs. Yip Yow. Yes, you are right, she was 20 years old in 1900, not 100! The typo is corrected now.

References

“1923 Chinese Exclusion Act – Exhibition and Archive – A Project to Commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Canada’s 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act,” Museum and archives, accessed July 27, 2021, https://1923-chinese-exclusion.ca/.

“Brief local news,” The Province, 4 Apr 1900, p. 10, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Newspapers.com.

Canada, Government of Canada, Orders-in-Council, OIC No. 1900-1700, 4 Jul 1900, textual records, Item ID No. 166775, index online, Library and Archives Canada, http://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.redirect?app=ordincou&id=166775&lang=eng.

Canada, Immigrants from China, 1885-1949, Port of Vancouver, Register of Chinese Immigration 1887-1908, immigration manifest, Empress of china, arriving Vancouver, Canada on 25 Apr 1900, lines 7-12, Mrs. Yip Sang, Volume 701, Microfilm Reel No. C9513, Reference No. RG 76 D2a, index and image, Library and Archives Canada, bac-lac.gc.ca at https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/immigration/immigration-records/immigrants-china-1885-1949/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=43640&

“Capitation Tax,” dictionary, TheFreeDictionary.com, accessed July 28, 2021, https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Capitation+Tax.

“Chinese Immigration Certificates,” library, Vancouver Public Library, accessed April 25, 2021, https://www.vpl.ca/guide/chinese-canadian-genealogy/chinese-immigration-certificates.

“From the Far East,” The Province, 25 Apr 1900, p. 9, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Newspapers.com.

“General Register of Chinese Immigration,” library, Vancouver Public Library, accessed July 28, 2021, https://www.vpl.ca/guide/chinese-canadian-genealogy/general-register-chinese-immigration.

Library and Archives Canada, “Collection Search,” Museum and archives, Library and Archives Canada, January 26, 2017, https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/collectionsearch/Pages/collectionsearch.aspx.

Library and Archives Canada, “Search: Immigrants from China,” Museum and archives, Library and Archives Canada, May 23, 2013, https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/immigration/immigration-records/immigrants-china-1885-1949/Pages/search.aspx.

Excerpt, Letter from the Controller of Chinese Immigration re: Replacement of C.I.5 certificates with C.I.36 certificates, 29 Jan 1913, Chung Collection, UBC

Yip Sang, Correspondence 1915-1939, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, letter from Controller of Chinese Immigration Malcolm RJ Reid to Tai Hon Yat-Ho Printing Company, copied to Wing Sang & Co., 29 Jan 1913, pg 117 of 141, images online, Drs. Wallace and Madeline Chung Collection, University of British Columbia Library at https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/chung/chungtext/items/1.0225548. This letter, one of hundreds of pieces of correspondence at the Chung Collection, are worth reviewing for their granular and verbatim view of the administration of the Chinese Immigration Branch and its blistering array of certificates. In this letter, the Branch officials are alerting Chinese agents and media of the change from C.I.5 head tax certificates (without photos) to the new, improved C.I.36 certificates (with photos) as even the Branch officials must have clued in that their descriptive capabilities were lacking. See the table above for the descriptions of each of Mrs. Yip Sang and the three others for examples.

7 thoughts on “Finding Mrs. Yip Sang: a case study of the General Register of Chinese Immigration 1885-1949 (Canada)

  1. Wonderful post! I love reading your methodology. At least with LAC, while getting to the documents isn’t always easy, at least when you find them, the records are laid out nicely, with full details for citation and the option to download.

    Also, been meaning to mention, I read The Diary of Dukesang Wong a few weeks ago (the library where I work has a copy) and found it fascinating, though some of the details were difficult to read. I put one of my Staff Pick stickers on it and it’s already gone out again. Will likely buy a copy of it for my own BC History collection – as an Easterner, I don’t know as much as I should about the Chinese experience and reading this important book has really opened my eyes.

    1. Hi Teresa, I’m so glad you liked it! Personally, I’m in the space where not only do I want to know the discovery part of the process, the “what,” I also want to know the “how.” (I’m a terrible person to take to a magic show.)

      I’m delighted you enjoyed “The Diary,” and it’s lovely of you to put it in a place where it’ll be noticed. I am a big library fan, and I know exactly what you’re saying with the Staff Picks section. Our libraries have just reopened for browsing, and last week I picked up an armload of books I’d never think to search, from manga to “I’m not your princess,” a book by female Indigenous authors.

      Today is Friday of the August long weekend, and I have new books. Such bliss.

  2. I agree – for me the methodology is most important at the stage I am now – I love seeing how other genealogists work.

    We so Staff Picks a little differently – they’re shelved with the other books, but have stickers on the spine and front, alerting patrons that Staff have chosen them. Our display space is limited …. Currently, the Diary is still New, so it’s really easy to see that sticker!

    My mum had told me that SPL had reopened for browsing – so happy you found some treasures for the long weekend!

  3. Hi Linda, as always, your posts are very informative. I am sure that you are aware that, for those who are comfortable with spreadsheets, an Excel version of the register is available for download (https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/facultyresearchandpublications/52383/items/1.0075988). What I like about the spreadsheet is that the UBC participants spent time figuring out what the village names were and recorded them in Chinese. Mrs. Yip Sang is on row 33613 of the spreadsheet. She is recorded as being from Ow Yook which the transcribers interpreted as 都斛 or Duhu. This is the ancestral village (town) that you had previously determined as the place your ancestors were from. So another confirmation.

    1. Hi Robert, you are a prince. Thanks for doing that for me.

      It did cross my mind to take the next step of looking up the village of origin on the spreadsheet (which is, as you thought, one of my goto tools) but then I thought the post was quite long enough. I am inspired to write a follow up post, though, because I think readers would appreciate knowing how to navigate the spreadsheet, and also because there are several oddities with mapping that are unique to Chinese genealogy.

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