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dave obee Researching Chinese-Canadian ancestry

By Dave Obee

The year 2008 marks the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Canada's Chinese community.

The first Chinese arrived in Victoria, British Columbia in June 1858. Most obtained mining licences and headed to the Fraser River goldfields, although a few merchants, artisans and craftsmen remained in Victoria.

The wealthier arrivals started buying property within a few days of landing in Victoria. They set up shops on Cormorant Street between Douglas and Government streets, an area that has now been converted into Centennial Square.

By 1862, when Victoria was incorporated as a city, it had about 300 Chinese, making up six per cent of the population. Most of them were young males living in Chinatown. Two decades later, the 1881 national census counted 693 Chinese in Victoria, making it the largest Chinese settlement in Canada. Over the next three years, about 16,000 more Chinese arrived, the most of them looking for work on the Canadian Pacific Railway construction project.

If your ancestors came to Canada from China in the 19th century, it is likely that they were from Guangdong province, just north of Hong Kong in the Pearl River Delta.

Most of the immigrants came from two districts, distinctive because of dialect spoken, in Guangdong: Si Yi (the four counties, namely Xinhui, Taishan, Kaiping and Enping) and San Yi (the three counties, Panyu, Nanha, and Shunde). The province's capital city, Guangzhou -- also known as Canton -- was in Panyu county in the San Yi district.

China 1922

-- Part of a map of China from a 1922 John Bartholomew atlas. Guangdong is shown as Kwang-tung

As with other countries, internal boundaries in China have been changed over the years. You will need an old map to accurately determine where your ancestors were from. Also, spellings may vary, because transliteration systems have changed. More on that later.

There were, of course, Chinese arrivals from districts outside of San Yi and Si Yi, but they made up only a small minority of the total immigration.

Family history research for Chinese-Canadians follows the basic rules for genealogy anywhere in the world.

In China itself, there is a rich tradition of genealogical records, but many researchers will first need to determine where to start looking for their families in China. That work needs to be done using Canadian resources.

The best starting point is the Chinese-Canadian Genealogy section of the Vancouver Public Library's website. It has information on the major sources, samples of documents and family histories, and much more.

You will need to get a sense of geography in China, as well as the written Chinese form of your surname of interest. Be warned that there was no standardized written form of Chinese until 1919.

There are also different ways to transliterate Chinese characters into English, which further complicates things. The name Kwan, as an example, might also have become Kuan or Guan -- or Quon, Quan, and Touang. Be flexible.

The best way to begin a genealogical research project is to gather information from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends and anyone else who might be able to help.

They are likely to have information you cannot find elsewhere, or that is inaccessible to you because of Canada's privacy laws.

The most common mistake that genealogists make is to start too late. If you do nothing else at this point, interview your elderly relatives to find out what they can tell you.

Be sure to ask for any documents to do with the family's history, and get a copy of what you find. Look for death certificates, birth certificates and any other item that records some aspect of an ancestor's life.

Keep a special look out for a certificate issued by federal Chinese immigration officials. In their attempts to control Chinese immigration, federal authorities set up a special department which issued various certificates to document the arrival and presence of people of Chinese origin.

These documents show the person's name and place of origin, and usually have photographs. They also have registration numbers, which might prove to be useful when you start looking through other sources.

The names recorded on the documents might not be the same as the names you know -- because the spellings were often left to the discretion of federal officials who did not speak a Chinese dialect. They might also have been indexed incorrectly, again because of unfamiliarity with the language.

You might even find a copy of a head tax certificate, proving that your ancestor paid the tax that was charged by the federal government between 1885 and 1923.

The tax started at $50, was raised to $100 in 1901, and to $500 in 1903. It did not apply to all Chinese; under the 1903 legislation, merchants and their families, diplomats, clergymen, tourists, students and men of science did not have to pay.

The government did not keep a copy of these certificates, so your only hope is to find one that has been retained in the family or donated to a museum or society.

Chinese arrivals were also recorded in the General Registers of Chinese Immigration, which have been indexed by the Department of History at the University of British Columbia and placed online by Library and Archives Canada.

Bringing together information gathered at individual ports across Canada, the General Register is the single most important source of Chinese head tax information. Entries include the person's name, amount of head tax paid, age, and district and village of origin in China. These registers include arrivals from 1885 to 1949.

You should also look in passenger lists, which show arrivals in Canada. Some of these are on the Library and Archives Canada website, and some are also on microfilm at major libraries and archives.

There are many other sources of information, including the birth, marriage and death indexes on the B.C. Archives website. If you find your person there, go to the B.C. Archives on Belleville Street to obtain a print of the certificate.

B.C.'s early death certificates provided clues regarding how long a person had lived in Canada and in the province. That might help to confirm a year of arrival.

If applicable, check the 1901 and 1911 census returns, which will tell you how long a person has been in Canada, where he or she lives, and other personal information. Links to census indexes are at CanGenealogy.com .

Old newspapers should also be checked for news stories, advertisements for stores, and obituaries. Look for both English-language for Chinese-language newspapers.

City directories could also be consulted. Be warned that in early directories, Chinese names were often listed in the back of the book, along with Japanese and "Hindoo" residents, and also that the spellings were recorded by English-speaking enumerators.

Also look for church registers, records of land sales, and cemetery and probate documents.

Updated August 11, 2008


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