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Researching Chinese Immigrant Ancestors

While researching Chinese immigrants can be a challenge, there are resources available to help. By conducting a careful research, one can find the information that can bring their family history to life.

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Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Gena Philibert-Ortega
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In some ways, genealogists with Chinese ancestors may have it a little better than the rest of us. It is well documented that the Chinese have a reverence for their ancestors. This reverence includes better documentation and knowledge of one's ancestors. Stories about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and the fires that destroyed the area's Chinatown include tales of rolling up old family pictures to be saved as families fled the area. As with any family history project, research on Chinese immigrant family members should start by interviewing older family members and a search for home sources.

The difficulty in researching any immigrant ancestor is twofold, the researcher has less access to materials in the home county, and the descendent may not speak the language. The following provides some ideas for documenting and researching Chinese immigrants to the United States.

Immigration

With the Gold Rush in California and the expansion of the railroads, Chinese immigrants began entering the United States in large numbers in the years between 1842 and 1882. Due to hostilities toward the Chinese and blame that Americans put upon the Chinese for such things as economic problems, Congress, specifically targeting the Chinese, passed an immigration law. The United States in 1882 passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which halted Chinese immigration for 10 years. Afterwards, Chinese immigration was allowed but limited. (To read the Chinese Exclusion Act text see, http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/chinex.htm).

One resource for online records having to do with the Chinese Exclusion Act can be found through the National Archives site, http://www.archives.gov/research/arc/topics/chinese-immigration.html, these records include pictures and information about Chinese immigrants from 1880-1960. Approximately 408 files have been digitized by the National Archives.

A research guide to Chinese immigration into the United States is also available online at http://www.archives.gov/locations/finding-aids/chinese-immigration.html. This National Archives publication will assist you in finding records on your Chinese immigrant ancestor and to understand about the laws that governed Chinese immigration into the United States.

Angel Island

From 1910 - 1940 San Francisco's Angel Island, also known as the Ellis Island of the West, processed Chinese immigrants trying to enter the United States. Mostly necessitated by the Chinese Exclusion Acts, initiated in 1882 and repealed in 1943, Angel Island mainly processed Chinese immigrants. While only 106 Chinese were allowed to legally immigrate to the United States each year, children of now legal United State citizens could immigrate to the United States in larger numbers. Angel Island's Immigration Station housed quarters for the care and detention of newly arrived immigrants and a boat pier. It is estimated that over 175,000 immigrants were processed through Angel Island.

Part of the social history of Angel Island is the poem that detainees carved into the walls as they awaited decisions on their fate. These poems are largely found in the men's barracks that were saved from demolition by a park ranger. For more information on this poetry that documents the experiences of detainees, see Angel Island Poetry at http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/angel/angel.htm. A book chronicling the Angel Island experience that includes the poetry is called, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel island, 1910-1940 by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, University of Washington Press, 1999.

While Ellis Island has its own website with internet search options for locating records on immigrant ancestors (www.ellisisland.org), Angel Island has not been as lucky in preserving the records of immigrants who cane through its port. The Angel Island web site recommends genealogists try the National Archives in San Bruno as a source for possible immigration records.

Today, Angel Island is a tourist site that is visited by many on tour boats that ferry visitors to Alcatrez and Angel Island. Currently the museum on Angel Island is closed but it is scheduled to reopen in 2007. For more information on the island see, http://www.angelisland.org/.

Chinatown

As Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States and settled in America's large cities, clustered communities of Chinese immigrants became known as "Chinatown." Chinatowns exist all over the United States but perhaps the most famous Chinatown is in San Francisco. As with many immigrant communities, racism existed against the Chinese. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed the entire Chinatown, city officials had plans to take over the prime real estate on which Chinatown sat and move the Chinese to a less desirable area. But with support from as far away places and such illustrious people as the Empress of China, the Chinatown area was rebuilt.

One loophole that the Chinese and, I would assume, other immigrant nationalities took advantage of after the earthquake was the ability to proclaim oneself an American. Because all of the San Francisco birth records were destroyed during the earthquake, immigrants began proclaiming that they were Americans and that their birth record had been destroyed. This loophole helped Chinese men bring the rest of their families to America.

For more information on San Francisco's Chinatown and the 1906 earthquake, check out a recent National Public Radio (NPR) story done in commemoration of the 1906 earthquake at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5337215. Author Milly Lee has a new children's book entitled, Earthquake, the story of a young Chinese American girl and her family during the 1906 earthquake, moving from Chinatown to the safety of the Golden Gate Park.

Resources

For more information on researching your Chinese ancestors try the following web sites"

Ancestors in the Americas

ChinaGenWeb

The Chinese in California

Chinese Genealogical Resources

Surname Navigator

Books that can help you on your quest include:

In Search of your Asian Roots: Genealogical Resources on Chinese Surnames by Sheau-Yueh J. Chao, Clearfield Company, 2004.

A Student's Guide to Chinese American Genealogy by Colleen Shea, Greenwood Publishing, 1996.

China Connection: Finding Ancestral roots for Chinese in America by Jeanie W. Low, JWC Low Company, 1994.

While researching Chinese immigrants can be a challenge, there are resources available to help. Too often, family history researchers want to start with family members from the "old country." As with any family history research project, the key is to start with yourself and then go backward, one generation at a time. With immigrants to the United States, exhaust all possible record sources in America before you attempt to conduct research in China. By conducting a careful research, one can find the information that can bring their family history to life.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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