This is a page of resources for Chinese genealogy in Canada, the USA, and China. Updated 30 Jul 2020.
Genealogy resources for China
If this is your first time looking for records from China, start here. Using Family Search is free, requiring only an email address. [Pro hint: Keep this information handy – if you need to sign into your account while at a Family History Centre, it’ll be good to remember what it is.]
FamilySearch is doing a MAJOR amount of investment around this collection. As of Jan 2020, there are over 13M (yes, million) images here, all of them family jiapus (Chinese family genealogies). Just the first page – a listing of names in pinyin and classical Chinese characters, is a huge resource in that it can be used as a lookup table for matching pinyin / transliterated Chinese names with their Chinese matches.
To use this collection, you MUST have an idea of the area in China from whence your ancestors originated. The collection is organized this way: NAME (pinyin & Chinese), then COUNTRY (currently only China, but could be many other countries in the future), then PROVINCE (e.g., Guangdong, Shandong, and please note also that Taiwan is listed here), then COUNTY (e.g., Panyu, Zhongshan), then the jiapu. In other words, you’ll need the Name, Country, Province and County to navigate this collection.
There is currently no search function. That might come later, if we get lucky.
A forum for people seeking specific questions about their Chinese genealogy, moderated by the very knowledgeable Phillip Tan. Try searching for your last name – chances are someone else is also looking for information on it and might just be related to you.
Similar to the Chinese Genealogy forum above, this is an older RootsWeb site begun in 1996 by Ron Young, for people seeking information on their Chinese roots, and still has questions and answers from ~1996-2011.
A 2002 paper by Li Zhonghua, Ocean University of Qingdao, China, that I reviewed while thinking about the “correct” placement of a generational name: 2nd or 3rd? Free paper, great resource.
A sister site to My China Family. Over 20K photos of China, providing a rich visual resource to what life was like 100 years ago in China.
A table with the most common Chinese names. My name, “Yip,” is the 49th most common, according to this site. To find your name, try CTL-F (PCs) or CMD-F (Mac) to quickly find it on the page. Once you’re there, you’ll see the spelling variations, historic meaning, and – here’s a nice touch – the number of strokes in the character.
From their site, “On this site you can find a growing body of information about men and women of many different nationalities, professions and ages, who lived and worked in China between the 1850s and 1940s.” A truly astonishing collection of links and information. Very well done.
A for profit site run by Chinese genealogists. Check out their Resources link for database lookups on surnames, villages, and clans.
Bare bones, but if you have some idea of where your ancestors came from, you may be able to find some village information here. If you’d like a how to video, the House of Chinn did one here.
Genealogy resources for Canada & USA
Here is what you will find in this section:
- Birth, Marriage and Death
- Help on Chinese names
- The Chinese family
- Geography: where are they?
- Immigration information
- Newspapers and periodicals
- My blogs on Chinese Canada
- General Chinese genealogy resources
- Prominent Chinese Canadians
- Facebook for genealoy
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.
Understanding Chinese Names – House of Chinn
It seems the HouseofChinn.com site is now offline, but you can still get there with the Internet Archive. Type “HouseofChinn.com” into the WayBack Machine and choose any of the site captures.
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.
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.)
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 Chinese 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.
Judging from the 200K hits, this is an immensely valuable site by Joanna Crandell and Elinor Sullivan. Joanna and Lynn have photographed the Orders in Council (OIC) approving immigration to Canada from the 1930-1950s. Of the 60K names in this database, 10K are from China, 5K from Poland, 3K from Germany, 2500 from France, 1800 from Czechoslovakia, 1500 from each of Italy and Morocco, 1400 from The Netherlands, 1300 from Hungary, and the list goes on. You can look on the site for a matching name. The fee for a copy of the file is a very reasonable $20.
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.
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
Thanks to Kathryn Lake Hogan for her talk Oh, Canadiana! on 30 Jul 2020, I have a better handle on how to navigate this site. Here is a sample keyword list to search Canadiana.
- Chinese immigration
- Chinese immigration + Vancouver
- Chinese immigration + Toronto
The microfilms beginning with “C” or “T” may have descriptions on LAC but the actual records will be here. Here are the current record titles.
- “Chinese immigration records: C.I.36 register : C-13421”
- “Chinese immigration records : C.I.9 certificates from Vancouver and Victoria” : “T” microfilms
- “Chinese immigration records: Newfoundland register of arrivals and outward registrations”
- “Chinese immigration records : Central District register of Chinese out-registrations”
- “General registers of Chinese immigration” : “C” and “T” microfilms
CI 5 / 36 / 28 certificates for Chinese from Toronto
Here is the small collection (88 images of front and back scans of certificates, plus lists) for the Chinese immigration records: C.I.36 register. For a description of each of the different types of certificates, see the Vancouver Public Library’s Guide to Chinese Immigration Certificates.
A C.I. 36 is the same as a C.I. 5 – both are effectively receipts for immigrants who paid the head tax. You’ll also see lists of names for people who applied for C.I. 28s – these are replacement CI5s / 36s.
- Image 13 – List of CI5s by name; followed by images 15-~34 which are the digitized certificates
- Image 36 – List of CI28s by name; images 37-44 are the digitized certificates
- Image 45 – List of a CI30, followed by digitized images
- Image 48 – List of CI30s, followed by digitized images; images 49-58 are the digitized certificates
- Images 59–83 – appears to be a complete copy of the General Register of Chinese Immigration, a registration list of residents from Toronto who applied for CI9s between 3 Dec 1923 and 20 Feb 1950
- Images 84-86 – General Register of Chinese Immigration; “native born registration”; mostly Toronto but others as well; random dates of departure
CI9s are not only for Canadian born Chinese – they were for any Chinese who wanted to leave the country and have the right to return. There are 15 reels of ~3000 images each – a huge archive of CI9s. I find this collection does correspond with LAC’s Immigrants from China 1885-1949: CI 9 Certificates.
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. Try using the microfilm reel number on LAC for searching on Canadiana.
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 & 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.
My blogs on Chinese Canada
An uncertain homecoming (May-Jun 2017)
My three part, 6000 word essay exploring the fight for civil rights in Canada, beginning from before WWII until 1967. See part I, WWII, the Chinese, and the fight for civil rights 1939-1967. Part II continues with Fight the enemy overseas, then fight the government at home – 1945-47. Part III concludes with Equal rights for all.
The right to be a Canadian: Irving Himel, K. Dock Yip, and The Committee for the Repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act (18 Apr 2017)
I explore the story of the franchise through the eyes of Irving Himel and K. Dock Yip.
Putting the “British” in British Columbia, or I get the funny feeling you’re trying to tell me something (7 Nov 2017)
BC looks at its racist past and decides to say sorry. Vancouver does too.
Dating, circa 1885-1947 (20 Dec 2017)
I draw a funny diagram to compare what dating was life for Chinese men and women in Canada before the immigration laws eased up.
We’ll tell you where you can live – BC’s Land Titles Act (27 Jan 2018)
I explore the concept of restrictive covenants in British Columbia: laws that prevented the undesirables from buying houses in good neighbourhoods.
The history of my grandparents house (2 Feb 2018)
The story of my grandparents house is the story of the neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant, Vancouver, where Chinese folks lived, its near-death and rebirth.
The Chinese Detention Shed (19 Aug 2018)
From about 1890-1922, when Chinese landed in Vancouver, BC, they were kept in the Detention Shed until released. Even if they were coming home. A sad and dark but true piece of history.
The James Bonds of Chinatown: meet Force 136 (31 Dec 2018)
I take a decade’s worth of research to bring you the story of my uncle’s secret life as a real life James Bond – a member of the Special Operations Executive.
How to find your surname in Chinese (18 Mar 2019)
It’s a little known fact that many Chinese in Canada don’t know their Chinese name. Here’s how to find that info.
The uncle I didn’t know I had – Finding Yim (8 Sep 2019)
I look for my father’s missing brother in Vancouver, BC.
Voting. We take it for granted. We shouldn’t.
Travels in China (Nov 1-12, 2019)
I travel to China in October 2019 to look for the home of my ancestors and find so much more.
- The Beginning (1 Nov 2019)
- Introducing Dr. Selia Tan (3 Nov 2019)
- Introducing Dr. Henry Yu, UBC (4 Nov 2019)
- The Overseas Chinese (6 Nov 2019)
- The Food (8 Nov 2019)
- The Heritage of Cantonese Migration Tour (10 Nov 2019)
- The Tech (12 Nov 2019)
13 databases for Chinese ancestry on Ancestry.com (28 Feb 2020)
I explore what’s on Ancestry for Chinese ancestry.
Women’s History Month: Lily’s War (1 Mar 2020)
I look at the life of my great-aunt Lily before she was married: growing up on the Musqueam Lands and her top-secret WWII job at the Boeing Assembly Plant at Sea Island, Vancouver, BC.
Women’s history month: Aileen’s Chinese Case File (8 Mar 2020)
I show you what an American Chinese Exclusion Act Case file may contain, using the example of a Canadian woman in the 1930s.
Exploring Chinese Genealogy on Ancestry (4 May 2020)
My webinar on Facebook Live for Ancestry.ca where I explore what may be found for Chinese genealogy, focusing on immigration and travel.
The companion article to my webinar for Ancestry, where I tell the story of the documents I found.
Liz Braun of the Toronto Sun asks me about uncovering the story of aunt Lily, who worked for the Boeing plant in WWII.
Getting published in the Sing Tao Daily (24 Jun 2020)
Abby Wang of the Sing Tao Daily interviews me to ask about Yip Sang and my trip to China.
My article for Ancestry.ca which looks at the genealogical research published to date and works to i) corroborate previous findings; ii) correct and update some earlier stories; iii) support and solidify other conclusions; and then iv) provide new findings. I provide a Sources and Endnotes list of 43 sources and comments, laying a documentary bread crumb trail for anyone following behind me.
General Chinese genealogy resources
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.
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.
Facebook for genealogy
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.
Please note: when you ask Google or any translation tool that does not specify a language other than “Chinese,” you are asking for an English/Mandarin translation. When Mandarin is translated into English, it’s called pinyin. When we want Chinese characters in English for Cantonese speakers, it’s called jyutping. Don’t worry if you’re confused. I was for years. Example (horse): 馬 (Chinese) = “Mǎ” (pinyin) = “maa5” (jyutping).
This is a work in progress. Is this layout helpful or is it more confusing? Is there a link to something I should be including? Please send me a message.