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  • Chinese-American Genealogy

  • Alice Kane Late 2013 200x260
    By Alice Kane

    | How-To | Immigration Records | Exclusion Acts | Genealogies | Periodicals |
    | Articles & Blogs | Organizations | Websites | Language Notes | Need Help? |

    Chinatown, San Francisco, late 1800s_LOCIntroduction

    Chinese-American family history research can be conducted using standard genealogical resources such as censuses, city directories, military service records, probates, and land transactions. Grave markers are exceptional finds because they often record the ancestral district and village from which the deceased came. It should be noted, however, that grave markers for married females traditionally record the ancestral location of her husband's family. Records produced from the Chinese Exclusion Acts (see below) can also be extremely helpful.

    A note about recording Chinese names (historically): While there are established systems of transliterating Chinese characters to English, American record keepers often did not have access to such information and many Chinese names are spelled phonetically, in many different ways. The native dialect of a given individual providing personal information will also affect the English spelling of Chinese names. In addition, traditional naming practices place the family or surname character at the beginning of a Chinese name, and Chinese males may have more than one name, for example: he may adopt a new given name to mark his marriage or other significant achievement.

    How-To and Other Guides

    Asian American Genealogical Sourcebook edited by Paula K. Byers
    NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference E184.O6 A828 1995

    China Connection: Finding Ancestral Roots for Chinese in America by Jeanie W. Chooey Low
    NEHGS, 5th Floor E184.C5 L69 1994

    Chinese American Names: Tradition and Transition by Emma Woo Louie
    NEHGS, International Collection—1st Floor CS2990.L68 1998

    In Search of Your Asian Roots: Genealogical Research on Chinese Surnames by Sheau-yueh J. Chao
    NEHGS, Research Library CS1162 .C43 2000

    At America's gates: Chinese immigration during the exclusion era, 1882–1943
    NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks E184.C5 L52 2003

    Raking the Ashes: Genealogical Strategies for pre-1906 San Francisco Research by Nancy Simons Peterson
    NEHGS, 5th and 7th Floor Reference F869.S353 P48 2006

    The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America by Mae M. Ngai

    Paper Son: One Man’s Story by Tung Pok Chin with Winifred C. Chin (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000)

    Paper Families: Identity, Immigration Administration, and Chinese Exclusion by Estelle T. Lau (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006)

    Immigration Records
    Ancestry has a growing collection of Chinese-specific databases to access passenger manifests, exclusion case files, and registers of admission for San Francisco and other entry points into the U.S. Use "Chinese" in the title field of Ancestry's Card Catalog search to quickly bring up a list of these databases.

    NARA Early Arrivals Record Search (EARS)
    This databases indexes about 90,000 case files.

    Exclusion Acts

    The Chinese Exclusion laws enacted from 1882 to their overall repeal in 1943, plus other relevant immigration legislation, created a body of federal records specific to documenting Chinese in America. Chinese exclusion case files can be found in NARA branches around the U.S., but most particularly in San Bruno, California, where records covering those entering at the port of San Francisco are held. Investigating local and state legislation for references to Chinese residents may yield record sources specific to Chinese in these jurisdictions. Below is an overview of significant legislation affecting Chinese in America from the late eighteenth to the mid twentieth centuries.

    1868 Burlingame-Seward Treaty
    • Recognized China’s right of eminent domain over its territory
    • China could appoint consuls to U.S. ports
    • U.S. citizens in China and Chinese subjects in the U.S. could worship whatever faith they chose
    • Certain privileges were granted to citizens of either country residing in the other, but not naturalization
    1875 Page Act
    • Prohibited entry of "undesirable" persons, namely: persons considered convicts in their native countries, any Asian individual arriving as a contract laborer, and any Asian woman who would engage in prostitution
    • Imposed fine of up to $2,000 and jail time (1 yr. max.) for importing persons from any Asian country "without the free and voluntary consent, for the purpose of holding them to a term of service" [in an effort to strengthen ban on "coolie" laborers]
    1882 Chinese Exclusion Act
    • Suspended immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years and prohibited naturalization of Chinese
    • Allowed all Chinese within U.S. as of 17 Nov 1880 to stay, to travel abroad, and to return, but a Certificate for Reentry was required
    • Extended exempt status to teachers, students, merchants, and travelers who presented a certificate from Chinese government proving qualifications to enter the U.S.
    1888 Scott Act Prohibited all Chinese laborers (even those with certificates of residency) who were abroad at the passing of this act from returning to U.S.
    1892 Geary Act. Extended immigration suspension of 1882 another 10 years (to 1902)
    1902 McCreary Act (Extension of Geary Act)
    • Immigration suspension of 1882 extended indefinitely
    • Required all Chinese to register and carry a certificate (verified by witnesses) proving their right to be in the U.S.; failure to have proper documents resulted in imprisonment or deportation
    1924 Johnson-Reed/National Origins/Asian Exclusion Act
    • Limited total immigration to 150,000 with proportions by country based on 1920 census numbers
    • Established preferences under quota system for relatives of U.S. residents: unmarried children under age 21, their parents, spouses aged 21+; immigrants aged 21+ skilled in agriculture, their wives, and dependent children under age 16
    • Established non-quota status for wives and unmarried children under age 18 of U.S. citizens; natives of Western Hemisphere countries, with their families; non-immigrants and certain others
    • Defined "non-immigrants" as temporary visitors
    • Created consular control system whereby valid immigration visa issued by American consular officer had to be presented prior to U.S. entry
    • Imposed fines for transportation companies landing aliens in violation of established immigration laws
    • Prohibited aliens ineligible to naturalize (Chinese and Japanese) to enter the U.S. as an immigrant
    1943 Magnuson/Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act
    • Repealed all Chinese Exclusion Acts
    • Limited entry visas for Chinese to 105 (annual)
    • Allowed Chinese to naturalize
    1945 War Brides Act Allowed for immigration entry of alien wives of U.S. servicemen, however still limited by the Chinese quota
    1946 Public Law 713 Allowed entry of Chinese wives of American citizens on a non-quota basis
    1947 G.I. Fiancées Act Allowed entry of betrothed of ex-servicemen
    1952 McCarran-Walter/Immigration and Nationality Act
    • Abolished racial restrictions of earlier immigration statutes, but retained quota system by nationality and region
    • Defined 3 types of immigrants: immigrants with special skills or relatives of U.S. citizens exempt from quotas and who were admitted without restrictions; average immigrants whose numbers were not supposed to exceed 270,000 per year; refugees
    • Allowed government to deport immigrants or naturalized citizens engaged in subversive activities and to bar suspected subversives from entering the country
    • Defined U.S. nationality to include Guam (Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands already included) and granted citizenship upon birth in these territories on or after 24 Dec. 1952
    • Lifted non-quota status of foreign-born minor children of U.S. citizens
    1959 Chinese Confession Program Chinese who committed fraud to enter the U.S. on or before 11 Sept. 1957 could confess and adjust their status:
    • Those entering before 1 July 1924 received immediate naturalization
    • Those entering before 28 June 1940 obtained permanent residency and could apply for naturalization after 5 years
    • Those entering between WWII and 28 Oct. 1948 obtained residency if they'd lived in the U.S. for 10 years continuously
    1965 Hart-Cellar/Immigration and Nationality Act
    • Abolished 1924 National Origins act formula
    • Established preference system focused on immigrants' skills and family relationships with citizens or U.S. residents
    • Set annual number of issued visas at 170,000 with a per-country-of-origin quota NOT to include: immediate relatives of U.S. citizens; "special immigrants," i.e. those born in "independent" nations in Western Hemisphere, former citizens, ministers, or employees of U.S. gov't abroad
    1966 Confession Program Ends
    • Hart-Cellar Act revised quotas and preference parameters, thus obviating special treatment offered by the confession program
    • Results of program: 13,895 confessions exposed 22,083 persons, which closed 11,294 immigration slots
    Chin Quan Chan Family, ca. 1911_NARA

    Collected Family Genealogies, or Jiapu

    Collection of Genealogies, 1239–2011, FamilySearch
    This collection is not searchable by individual name. Images of titles held by the University of Hong Kong and other repositories are organized first by the family surname, then by the region/country described in the jiapu.

    All Chinese Surname Index for Jiapu Collection,
    Search results will give details about the publication and the specific record will provide a catalog number in the Shanghai Library collections.
    Note: Your computer must have East Asian fonts installed to see the Chinese characters displayed in the search results.


    Chinese America: History and Perspectives
    A publication of the Chinese Historical Society of America, its articles provide insight into historic, social, and cultural development of Chinese American communities nationally. An articles list is available at their website.

    Chung Sai Yat Po Newspaper Collections on microfilm at University of California, Berkeley
    Finding Aid. Issues from 1900–1905 are held at the Ethnic Studies Library with selected issues digitized and available online. The 1906–1950 microfilmed issues are held by the East Asian Library.

    Articles & Blogs

    “Unknown Angel” by Fern Glazer, FamilyTreeMagaine


    Chinese-American Museum of Chicago,
    Chinese Historical Society of New England,
    Chinese Historical Society of America,
    Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA),
    Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience,


    Chinese Genealogy
    Part database, part blog, part message board, this website has a little bit of everything to assist people interested in researching family from the Siyi, or Four Districts area of Guangdong Province.

    National Archives / Genealogy-Ethnic Heritage, Asian
    Offers an overview of records related to Chinese Americans held in the National Archives.

    Language Notes

    Below are common Chinese characters you may encounter during your research. You will find many of these on gravestones.

    or 弌, 正 one day
    or 弍 , 弐, 乙 two month
    or 丙, 弎 three year
    or four village
    or 伍, 戊 five village-hamlet
    or six village-rural
    or seven village of 25 families
    eight municipality
    or nine city
    ten city-port
    十一 or eleven district
    十二 twelve region
    十三 . . . thirteen prefecture
    二十 or 廿 twenty birth
    二十 or 廿 twenty end
    二十一 or 廿一 twenty-one family name
    二十 . . . or 廿 . . . twenty-two father
    三十 or thirty mother
    or one thousand grave

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