Chinese-American Genealogy

By Alice Kane

Chinatown, San Francisco, late 1800sIntroduction

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.

Chinese American Genealogy
Live broadcast: January 21, 2016
Presented by: Alice Kane
Level: Beginner - Intermediate Running Time: 55:29
Description: Chinese American family history research can be done using standard genealogical resources such as censuses, city directories, and land transactions. There are, however, other resources that can be especially helpful, such as grave markers, records produced from the Chinese Exclusion Acts, and jiapu (collected family histories). Learn what resources are available and gain a better understanding of the Chinese experience in America during the 19th and 20th centuries.

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
1875Page 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]
1882Chinese 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.
1888Scott ActProhibited all Chinese laborers (even those with certificates of residency) who were abroad at the passing of this act from returning to U.S.
1892Geary ActExtended immigration suspension of 1882 another 10 years (to 1902)
1902McCreary 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
1924Johnson-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
1943Magnuson/Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act
  • Repealed all Chinese Exclusion Acts
  • Limited entry visas for Chinese to 105 (annual)
  • Allowed Chinese to naturalize
1945War Brides ActAllowed for immigration entry of alien wives of U.S. servicemen, however still limited by the Chinese quota
1946Public Law 713Allowed entry of Chinese wives of American citizens on a non-quota basis
1947G.I. Fiancées ActAllowed entry of betrothed of ex-servicemen
1952McCarran-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
1959Chinese Confession ProgramChinese 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
1965Hart-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
1966Confession 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

Collected Family Genealogies, or Jiapu

Chin Quan Chan Family, ca. 1911

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.


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. Download an Excel list of available articles by selecting the publication title.

Chung Sai Yat Po newspaper
One of the longest published Chinese American newspapers with nearly all issues surviving, the Chung Sai Yat Po Newspaper Collection is available on microfilm at University of California, Berkeley. The Online Archive of California (OAC) offers a Finding Aid on this newspaper collection which includes a link to view select digitized issues from the early 1900s. Microfilmed issues from 1900–1905 are held at the Ethnic Studies Library, while those for 1906–1950 are held by the East Asian Library.

Articles & Blogs

“Unknown Angel” by Fern Glazer, FamilyTreeMagaine


Chinese-American Museum of Chicago,
Chinese Family History Group of Southern California,
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,


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oneday
or 弍 , 弐, 乙 twomonth
or 丙, 弎threeyear
or 伍, 戊fivevillage-hamlet
orsevenvillage of 25 families
十一 orelevendistrict
十三 . . .thirteenprefecture
二十 or 廿twentybirth
二十 or 廿twentyend
二十一 or 廿一twenty-onefamily name
二十 . . . or 廿 . . .twenty-twofather
三十 orthirtymother
orone thousandgrave

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