This is a page of resources about Chinese genealogy in North America. For resources in China, see the link here. Updated 9 Mar 2020.
- 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.
Birth, Marriage, and Death
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.
One of my favourite sites for vital statistics (records of birth, marriage, and death). You’ll find that Ancestry.com 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.
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
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.
Research at the Family History Library, accessed on 11 Nov 2019 at Legacy Tree Genealogists. This is an article that discusses what’s available at the family history centre in Salt Lake City, with very helpful hints on identifying the key Chinese words that will help those of us who don’t read Chinese. Thanks to Bobby Swampcat Stelly at the Africa, Asia, & Pacific Genealogy Research Community on FB for this link.
The Chinese Family
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?
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.
Interactive map of significant places in Asian Canadian culture. Very, very well done.
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.
I review all the Chinese ancestry data on Ancestry.com and give an example of how to use the information. Don’t be put off by the American-leaning data – I give an example of a woman born in Vancouver, BC, Canada and take you through the process of finding her immigration records. If you’ve never seen a Chinese Case file, you need to read this.
If you’d like a quick primer on the immigration laws affecting the Canadian Chinese, see my post above.
Related to Immigrants from China, below, this is a project undertaken by UBC to transcribe all 97K+ entries of the Register of Chinese Immigrants to Canada. There are several resources available at this link. Be sure to see:
- The 52383-Register of Chinese immigrants to Canada 1885-1949.xlsx (under Downloads)
- The 52383-Register_of_Chinese_Immigrants_description.pdf (also under Downloads)
- Mapping the Villages & Towns Recorded in the Register of Chinese Immigration to Canada from 1885 to 1949 (under Description)
Many thanks to reader “TL” for the hint.
Once you’ve got the download, there are oh, about 100 ways to slice and dice the data. I’ll do a post on this later, after I’d had some time to play with it.
[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
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).
[Update Nov 2019] LAC has updated their search engines with the vastly more powerful Collections Search. I’m still in favour of going through archives page by page due to misspellings, incorrect transliterations, and details you can’t catch with searches, but I’m delighted and astounded by what’s now possible. Thanks, LAC!
There are 25 reels comprising tens of thousands of documents on people the Canadian government considered suspicious by reason of race: Chinese, Japanese, Germans, etc. This period began in the midst of WWI and lasted until 1985. I found the collection by searching for the name of my grandfather’s company “Wing Wah Company” and found a hit on Library and Archives Canada. Note the files are not with LAC but they may be here with Héritage. Now I’m working on figuring out how to use the reference information on LAC to navigate the files. Stay tuned.
From the site:
The Canadian Office of the Custodian of Enemy Property existed between 1916 and 1985. It derived its authority from the War Measures Act of 1914 and the Trading with the Enemy regulations. It dealt with the property of Canada’s enemies in both World Wars as well as with the seized property of Japanese Canadians. Generally, during the two World Wars, the office’s functions included the seizure and liquidation of enemy property. Between 1919 and 1939, it served the function of administering war claims and reparations. After the Second World War, the Custodian had the responsibility for resolving Canadian war claims.
This collection consists of textual records.
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. Also see below for the collection at Family Search.
Related to the above, I found this one. I’ve been looking for an original immigration record for my great-grandfather, who is said to have immigrated first to San Francisco in 1864. It’s challenging to find records for Chinese around that time period. This is a collection of 3039 index cards of Chinese departures from Hawaii. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that most of the cards do not give the ages of the passengers, and many of the records do not have the full formal names. My advice is to collect any record that may be your ancestor, and keep your list of name variations handy. Unfortunately, there are no Chinese characters on these cards.
For those interested in high-quality, downloadable scans of the original records relating to Chinese immigration in BC. These records are in Chinese.
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.
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.
If your Canadian Chinese ancestor crossed the border from Vancouver, BC into the United States for even a weekend between 1882-1943, there are records for you here.
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.
For years, genealogist Trish Hackett Nicola has been analyzing and writing about the Chinese Case files held at the Seattle Archives. Now her blog is a deeply rich genealogy source in itself. If your ancestor is profiled in her series, you’ve hit the jackpot. Note: Check this blog even if your ancestors were Canadian and never lived in the USA. If they crossed the Canada/USA border, there is very likely a file available for them.
In this post, I take you through the process of finding a Chinese Case file index from the Chinese Family History Group (below), requesting a file from the Seattle Archives, and describe what sort of information you may find in a Case File by using the example of Aileen Cumyow, actress, born Vancouver BC on 1 May 1901 and travelling through the USA 1925, 1928, and 1930.
A MUST HAVE. Download their excellent and extensive index.
Mass Capture – Chinese head tax and the making of non-citizens, York Centre for Asian Research, York University
This is a beautiful site – the efforts of a team of researchers dedicated to one class of Chinese Immigration Certificates: “C.I.9s.” When the Chinese in Canada left the country, they were required to apply for these certificates in order to be readmitted on their return. The C.I.9s are highly detailed, containing information on date of departure, date of return, method of travel, age, address, occupation, witnesses, and photographs. If you’ve never before seen a C.I.9, this is a great place to begin.
Newspapers and periodicals
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
A labour of love of a whole host of CCNC volunteers, with some good links.
Setting aside the US-specific documents, Alice Kane details good research techniques applicable to Canadian research.
The Chinese Family History Group of CA is a very active and knowledgeable group. 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. One of the most helpful links I’ve found on the page is a transcribed index of Chinese who have Case Files.
If your ancestor crossed the border from Canada into the United States even once during the Chinese Exclusion Act period (1882-1943), chances are good to great there is a detailed case file available for you.
A growing collection of epherma from Chinatown, NY. Browsable and searchable in English. I tried it with a few Chinese characters and wasn’t successful but it may be that the words I searched are not in the database too. There are three archives here – try the finding aids first before dipping a toe into the collection.
Written by genealogist Trish Hackett Nicola, CG, this is a blog series profiling prominent and not-so prominent members of the Chinese community who were involved in or attended the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Expo. I was surprised and pleased to see my great grandfather Yip Sang on this page. Trish also writes the Chinese Exclusion Case files blog – see above.
Prominent Chinese Canadians
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.
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.
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.