In this post I’m delighted to be sharing a story from my friend Carol F. Lee.
Carol was looking for her grandfather – Quan Gow – in the 1931 census. As the title suggests, she was unsuccessful in her search, but her thought process is both instructive and thorough. If you’ve been searching for your family in a census and can’t find them, here are possible reasons why.
Over to you, Carol.
My Chinese family in Vancouver was overlooked by the 1931 Census of Canada – Carol F. Lee
The 1931 Census of Canada has now been released to the public and is indexed on Ancestry.com.
I was excited that I would be able to learn whatever information the census would reveal about my Quan grandfather’s family in Vancouver and my Lee grandfather’s family near Montreal. Although I quickly found my Lee grandfather’s family, including my father and uncles, in Chateauguay Basin, Quebec, the family of my maternal grandfather Quan Gow at 147 West Seventh (which at the time included his wife, six children, and a servant girl) was completely omitted from the 1931 census.
A name search of the 1931 census on Ancestry.com produced no results for my grandfather Quan’s family and an astonishingly small number of Quans in the entire city of Vancouver.
Strategy no. 2: searching city directories
I then tried a different search strategy. The Vancouver city directories had a street listing section, which listed the names of the householders at each address. I found the block of West Seventh between Manitoba and Columbia, where the Quan family lived at 147.
City directories for “Orientals”…
They were the only Chinese family on the block. The city directory listing for 147 was “Orientals,” though every other listing on that block was a person’s name (which shows what the directory publishers thought of Chinese people).
… and city directories for Caucasians
I then searched the 1931 census for the Caucasian names. The families of George Cosh at 144 West 7th and Robert Heywood at 148 West 7th were included, but there was no listing for 147 West 7th. Most (though not all) of the other addresses on the block were enumerated. I checked every page of the census listings for the entire subdistrict, in case the census-taker went back to the house and listed the residents out of sequence. She did fill in a few other houses in that block of West 7th, but there was no sign of 147.
Comparing the 1921 and 1931 censuses
Ten years earlier, in the 1921 Census of Canada, my grandfather Quan Gow and three other male Quans were listed as residents at 278 East Pender, the address of Kwong Hing Teng, the family-owned grocery store in Chinatown (although they didn’t live there).
So I looked in the 1931 census for 874 Robson, where my grandfather’s produce store was located. However, there was no listing for 874 Robson Street, a store in a commercial building across the street from the courthouse.
Immigrant populations undercounted in censuses
It’s generally understood that the census in Canada and the U.S. undercounted people in immigrant communities. The undercount is sometimes attributed to a high rate of transiency, as well as to language barriers. In the case of 147 West Seventh, my grandfather’s family had lived there continuously since 1920. However, there would have been language barriers. During the day, the children would have been at school except the 3 year old and the newborn baby, and my Quan grandmother didn’t speak English.
Were language barriers a factor?
Interestingly, language barriers didn’t prevent the enumerator in Chateauguay, Quebec, from producing an accurate listing of my father’s family. Perhaps it helped that my Lee grandfather operated a laundry, where the family also lived. Even though the children would have been at school, my grandfather might have been on the premises. Since he had to deal with laundry customers and he had been in Canada since 1893, he would have been better able to communicate in English than my Quan grandmother, who had arrived in Vancouver in 1920 and who rarely left the family home.
Was Quan Gow out of the country in 1931?
My grandfather was present in Vancouver in 1931. He didn’t go back to China for a visit between 1913 and 1935.
It’s frustrating that the 1931 census skipped over my Chinese family, and I’m sure many other families, depriving future generations of the ability to learn more about the Chinese community.
Afterword, by Linda Yip
The essay is as written by Carol, with formatting, headlines, and maps supplied by me.
Censuses are considered some of the foundational record collections in genealogy.
However, as comprehensive as they are, they are not a full picture of who was in the country. Gaps include the people of all underrepresented populations. Carol’s email to me was timely: this week I was also unsuccessful in finding a family in the 1921 Canada census for Calgary. I’m nothing if not determined. It took me five hours to review twelve subdistricts and 780 pages, one page at a time. I concluded my family, the Lee Farks of the Ontario Café at 814a Centre Street, Calgary, were missed in the 1921 census. I believe the enumerator failed to realize that the Ontario Cafe was a live/work space, and that since many historic Chinese families lived in the same space they worked, the risk of their being missed in censuses for this reason alone is potentially significant.
Thanks this week to Carol F. Lee for her guest post, and to Catherine Clement for suggesting it be published.