Chinese Genealogy – resources for Canada, USA

This is a page of resources about Chinese genealogy in North America. For resources in China, see the link here. Updated 9 Aug 2019.

  • Birth, Marriage and Death
  • Help on Chinese names
  • The Chinese family
  • Geography: where are they?
  • Immigration information
  • Newspapers and periodicals
  • General history
  • Prominent Chinese Canadians
  • Highly recommended

I’ll order entries by order of importance so that if you were starting from scratch, you’d start at the top and work your way down. Remember that the Chinese in Canada were not permitted to vote from 1872 to 1948, so there will be no voters lists for this period.

Also see:

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Birth, Marriage, and Death

Ancestor Search – Library and Archives Canada (LAC)

If you haven’t been on LAC lately, it’s worth another look. In 2019, LAC rolled out my three favourite words in the English language: centralized database search. Bearing in mind that the usual spelling issues still apply, you can now search all the collections at once.

Royal BC Museum Genealogy Search

One of my favourite sites for vital statistics (records of birth, marriage, and death). You’ll find that has links to this site, but if you want the actual record, you’ll have to do some digging. Here are some tips for finding that elusive record:

  • Try the full name first, then start subtracting letters. For example, if you are looking for Elizabeth Mary Jane Smithe, try the whole name, then Elizabeth Smithe, Mary Smithe, Jane Smithe, or even just Smithe. You might have to get creative with searches: try Smithe, Smith, Smit, or Smi* (Boolean search).
  • There are date limits. Make sure the records you want are within the years provided. The upside is that BC regularly and efficiently adds to its archives as soon as the restrictive period is over.

Mortuary Records of Chinese Decedents in California, July 1870-April 1933 – San Francisco Genealogy

It occurs to me that the Canada/USA border is really just a border in my head when it comes to genealogy. Our ancestors were mobile. My own great grandfather is rumoured to have worked in San Francisco in the late ~1860s before settling in BC. I also learned that the Chinese in Victoria and Vancouver intermingled with the Chinese all along the west coast of the USA, meaning I have cousins in OR, LV and CA.

Help on Chinese names

Understanding Chinese Names

A good explanation of Chinese surnames, generational names, married names, and nicknames. Ever wondered why so many Chinese women have the middle name Shi or Shee? See my post here. Chinese names rendered in English may be a wide variety of spellings, and still surprise me. For example, I only recently learned that these are the same name: Chu, Chew, Choo, and  Joe.

The Chinese Family

Chinese Family Tree, Off the Great Wall

A must see. Explains the complicated rules governing Chinese family relations, and helped me understand – finally – why my cousins and I were supposed to be using different names to address our aunts and uncles. (Who were not our aunts and uncles but rather our cousins. Sheesh. That’s not confusing at all.)

Geography – where are they?

Chinatown: Past, Present & Future – INSTRCC

A good intro video of Vancouver’s Chinatown through its buildings and history, tracing the past century of Chinese Canadian history. About 15″. Produced by the Initiative for Student Teaching and Research in Chinese Canadian studies (INSTRCC) at the University of British Columbia.

Historic Places of BC – Royal BC Museum

Interactive map of significant places in Asian Canadian culture. Very, very well done.

Prisoners of British Columbia 1884 – RootsWeb

A series of lists of prisoners in Lytton, Nanaimo, New Westminster, Victoria, and Yale. The names for non-white detainees are predictably hopelessly racist (“Ah Sam,” “Ah Yee“, or “A chinaman“) and show a disproportionate number of non-whites to whites, but there’s something about reading the lists of offences and fines that I find compelling. I may do a bit of digging into this data at some future point to see what else I can glean.

Immigration information

97 years of history in 6 minutes

If you’d like a quick primer on the immigration laws affecting the Canadian Chinese, see my post above.

The Department of Immigration and Colonization – Heritage Canada

Until 1953, the Chinese living in Canada had to apply for permission to leave the country if the wished to re-enter. This requirement applied regardless of destination. These Chinese Immigration (C.I.) 9 certificates now offer a rich resource to the genealogist. When I last checked in February, 2018, there were over 42K records available (and I went through them all twice).

Immigrants from China, 1885-1949 – Library and Archives Canada

[Updated 9 Aug 2019] A searchable database of records concerning Chinese immigration. Try starting out your search with the least amount of information, and bear in mind that there may be errors in the indexing or the spelling of names. This section is now populated with four databases, including the C.I. 9 certificates noted above:

  • General Registers of Chinese Immigration, 1885-1949
  • Port of New Westminster Register of Chinese Immigration, 1887-1908
  • Newfoundland Register of Arrivals and Outward Registrations
  • C.I.9 Certificates

Index to Chinese Immigration – Hawaii State Archives

Even today, when travelling to China, Japan, or Australia, we might touch down in Hawaii. So too with our immigrant ancestors travelling west. This index is very well organized, and is more than a basic index. Each name contains the immigration card. The downside is the clerks taking the names were none too careful nor attuned to the sounds of the Chinese language, so expect the names to be misspelled at minimum.

I also note the unusually high number of names beginning with “A.” This is disheartening because names beginning with “A” are most likely “Ah [name]” and they are nicknames. For example, Ah Cyr means lovely.

Yes, Chinese genealogy is very, very challenging.

Historical Chinese Language Materials, UBC

For those interested in high-quality, downloadable scans of the original records relating to Chinese immigration in BC. These records are in Chinese.

Bamboo Shoots – Chinese Canadian legacies in BC

In 2014, the BC government apologized for its treatment of the Canadian Chinese. As a part of that apology, the BC minister for multiculturalism led this initiative to provide educational materials for the BC school curricula for grades 5 and 10. The materials include datelines and profiles of Chinese families. Worth a view.

Chinese passengers bound for the USA from China: Vancouver, British Columbia, Manifests of Chinese Arrivals, 1906-1912, 1929-1941, Ancestry

GREAT database. If only it was for Chinese passengers arriving at Vancouver and staying in Canada. Sigh.

Chinese Heritage – National Archives of the United States of America

Your ancestor may have done a lot of travel before settling in Canada. The story in my family is that Yip Sang first went to California before BC. Worth a look.

Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files – National Archives of Seattle, WA

I haven’t had a thorough look but this site appears to be a How To for navigating the American Chinese Exclusion Act’s impact on the Chinese in both the USA and Canada. From the site, which sounds very promising:

If your Chinese ancestor’s initial trip to the United States was through the Port of Seattle, his file is probably at the National Archives facility in Seattle. He may have ended up living in another part of the U.S. but his file would remain in Seattle.  The Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect from 1882 to 1943 so thousands and thousands of case files were created during this time period.

Newspapers and periodicals

Simon Fraser University Digitized Newspaper Collection

Check out the English language Chinatown News for lighthearted reporting of the comings and goings of the Canadian Chinese. While focused on the news of Vancouver’s Chinatown, Chinatown News included other Chinatowns in Calgary, Toronto, and San Francisco.My grandparents had a subscription to the News, which was easily recognizable by its single-colour covers in green, orange, red, blue, etc. I found news on weddings, parties, births, celebrations, and other social events – a total goldmine for the genealogist. Currently available as of January 2018 are the years 1953-1966. (If you read Chinese, you’ll also be able to see The Chinese Times, the Chinese Express, and several other periodicals.)

The British Colonist 1858-1970 – University of Victoria

A tremendous free resource of the history of BC with an excellent search engine. Don’t be put off by the Victoria emphasis – the British Colonist reported on the news of the day.

General history

Asian-Canadian History, Vancouver Public Library

A great source of information on Chinese Canadian history, including the library’s Chinese Canadian Genealogy section. If the search functions fail you, a call to the librarian might do the trick.

The (Wallace B. Chung and Madeline H.) Chung Collection, UBC

In 1999, Drs. Wallace and Madeline Chung bequeathed their vast collection of CPR and Chinese Canadian memorabilia to the University of British Columbia. Today, the Chung Collection is a rare find of digitized artifacts, an excellent search engine, and a rich trove of artifacts that are free for public viewing. The site hosts thousands of digitized records, but there is much more available for the serious researcher.

Here are the hours if you’re in Vancouver and have time to spend. Book ahead to access the collection.

Chinese Genealogy – House of Chinn

When I step off the metaphorical shores of North America and start digging around in China, I get lost just about immediately. This is a good, comprehensive site if you’d like some deeper explanations for genealogical elements. For example, I learned why all the female members of my family were named Shi. 

Chinese Canadian Women, 1923-1967

From the site: “Explore over 1,000 digitized items documenting Chinese Canadian women’s history between 1923 and 1967, including oral history interviews, historical photographs, memorabilia, documents and artwork.”

Chinese Canadian National Council “Our Stories”

A labour of love of a whole host of CCNC volunteers, with some good links.

Chinese American Genealogy – Alice Kane, American Ancestors

Setting aside the US-specific documents, Alice Kane details good research techniques applicable to Canadian research.

Chinese Genealogy Resources – Chinese Family History Group of California

Before you get after me for what looks like an American site, check out the lists of resources here. We might be Canadian Chinese or American Chinese, but we’re all working with common issues such as translating Chinese into English, and trying to trace ancestors before they arrived in Gold Mountain.

Prominent Chinese Canadians

Noteworthy Historical (Asian) figures – Canadian Heritage

A quick who’s who of Asian-Canadians, from Shaun Majumder (This hour has 22 minutes) to Douglas Jung (Canada’s first Chinese Canadian MP). (In other words, it’s Asian, not only Chinese.) In my opinion, this is a good start, but it’s a little on the thin side, and I think they cheated by lumping all the Chinese Canadian veterans into one bio.

Ballad of Old Yip Sang – James Flath, YouTube

A project of James Flath, a student at the Department of History, Western University, ON, in Feb 2018, this is a ballad celebrating the life of a Canadian who helped found Canada. The unique part – at least to me – is that this is the first ballad-style tribute I have ever heard about a Chinese person. Right now, I’m trying to think of all the cheesy camp songs, Westerns, movies, and music I’ve heard, and there is not a single one about an Asian of any stripe: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian. The fact that it is about Yip Sang is humbling.

Highly recommended


Did you know that Facebook is the ideal platform for genealogy? I’m a member of a few genealogy groups that pique my interest. Check out this incredible list of Canadian Facebook groups courtesy of Gail Dever and Genealogy a la carte.

I highly recommend you try joining  a few groups that interest you, and ask a question. Or just follow the conversations as they evolve as others ask and answer questions. It’s like a realtime classroom. If you’ve already got a Facebook account, here’s the link to the Africa, Asia, Pacific Genealogy group, and here’s the link to my own group Genealogy for Asian Canadians, where we try to answer research questions on the fly.