Chinese Americans Study Their Roots

Documents issued to Bok Ying Chin, grandfather of Amy Chin (Courtesy of Amy Chin)

Amy Chin didn’t encounter many fellow Asians when she began attending genealogy workshops in 2007. When she started looking into her family’s history, there were no roadmaps to help her navigate the intricacies of uncovering her family’s route from China to America.

“I taught myself how to find all this history,” she said. “It was always there but nobody went and looked for it. As I started doing it more, people started asking me how to find [theirs too].”

A number of challenges specific to Chinese immigrants make their search trickier. Chin, who is an arts consultant and community organizer in New York, is one of a handful of self-taught genealogists helping others make sense of a process that took them years to piece together. For many families, the barriers to learning more about their past stem from a lack of intergenerational cultural transfer; languages, knowledge, and customs were not passed down. Because of this, Chinese American histories are relatively unusual, despite the recent growth of interest in genealogy, buoyed by the popularity of DNA testing services such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe.

On June 8 and 9, Chin and her colleagues will be speaking at the third Chinese American Genealogy Conference in New York. Among the presenters is Henry Tom, a former geographer in Arizona who started hosting his own workshops across the country in 2010. His specialty: helping people track their family’s villages of origin in Guangdong province, from which a majority of Chinese immigrants from the 1800s to mid-1900s originated. Then there’s Patrick Chew, an internationalization manager for Change.org in San Francisco, who lectures about Chinese naming conventions. Another expert: Anthony King, who, after working for the federal government, now volunteers at Salt Lake City’s Family History Library, one of the largest repositories of Chinese family records outside mainland China. Together, they’ve formed a core group to share research and help each other with their projects.

Resistance to exploring roots

At the first Chinese American Genealogy Conference in New York in October 2016, most attendees were retirees with time and resources to devote to research. The group has since grown from about 40-50 people to an expected 150-200 in June.

Many Chinese Americans may not know about their extended family trees. Chinese society is patrilineal, and families kept documents called “jiapu” and “zupu,” family and clan books recording generations upon generations of male descendants. Some families, such as Tom’s, still trace their lineages back 4,000 years. Others fell victim to China’s Cultural Revolution in 1966 under Mao Zedong, during whose rule records were completely destroyed. For many who immigrated to the U.S., record-keeping did not survive the trip. Often, second- or third-generation Americans were not aware of their family’s history before arriving in America.

U.S. law plays a significant role in this knowledge gap. Following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a law barring Chinese laborers from entering the country, migrants who entered illegally or knew somebody who did – which was highly likely – were disinclined to open up about their past. They preferred to start afresh in their new home.

“Nobody wanted to talk about it because they felt it endangered their own status,” Chin said. “Digging into your genealogy and your immigrant past was kind of taboo for the longest time.”

Some immigrants – usually men – who entered the U.S. with false identities used coaching books drafted by those who were already U.S. citizens. They memorized entirely new biographies to prepare for the grueling interviews that greeted them when they arrived. “Paper sons” they were called.

Amy Chin (Photo courtesy of Amy Chin)

After her mother’s death in 2006, Chin discovered just such a coaching book in a safe deposit box. She soon learned that her paternal grandfather had sold papers to two men from China who then claimed to be his sons and thus gained citizenship. This discovery pushed Chin, who had no knowledge of this history beforehand, toward genealogy.

There were more than 200 prompts in the book, ranging from softball questions such as “Where were you born?” and “How old is your father?” to the more specific ones such as “Is your village surrounded by fences made of bamboo or wood?”

A wrong answer could easily draw the attention of immigration officials who fastidiously collected records. Today, these case files are publicly available through the National Archives and are cornerstones of Chinese American genealogical research.

Tools to explore the family tree

Although the ban on Chinese immigrants was partially overturned in 1943 and eventually completely lifted with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act continue to be felt. The fear of discovery, alongside the pressures of assimilating into America, often prevented the transfer of cultural knowledge.

Some descendants of immigrants may not be aware, for example, of the wealth of information that a gravestone can provide. If somebody born in China dies and is buried elsewhere, their gravestone will indicate the province, county, and village in which they were born. Deciphering these markers is one of the first steps in retracing a person’s immigration history. But they’re often written in Chinese and a lot of these descendants may not have picked up the language.

Chew is the only person in his family who learned to read and write Chinese. His grandmother, who passed away in the ’70s, had brought a handwritten copy of their family tree with her from China to the U.S. The first person recorded in it was born in 799 C.E. Chew, who was born 33 generations after that, was the only one in his family who showed any interest.

But there are a number of additional challenges that Chinese genealogy poses even with a family tree in hand and an ability to read Chinese. Naming conventions, for example, can be tricky. In China, one person might have had multiple names. First, there was not only the given name, but in addition other names might have been assigned in earlier generations, often during adulthood or at the time of marriage. If they were famous, they might have received another name. Then they may have anglicized their name to promote assimilation in America. Finally, an immigrant might have used a false name.

“I would go to these mainstream workshops and I could learn the tools, like how to look up a census record,” Chin said. “But then I had to figure out under what name my [relatives] were listed. They may have come under a false identity, or the census-taker likely misspelled it.”

Susan Miller, the director of programs for the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, goes to a number of genealogy workshops and conferences. When asked about the prevalence of Asian topics at these events, she said: “Not enough, quite frankly.”

This, despite the fact that DNA testing services and genealogy research is generally on an upswing. Terry Koch-Bostic, the chair of education at the National Genealogical Society, says the number of people who have used DNA testing services has almost tripled since 2017.

A bigger mission

Nonetheless, genealogy research among Chinese Americans remains limited. The 150-year-old peer-reviewed journal of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, The Record, has yet to publish an article on Asian American ancestry.

“Believe it or not, it’s really still a very new field in the United States,” said Koch-Bostic. “There’s really not that many people doing Chinese and Japanese research.”

The history of the Chinese in America is colored by exclusion and every story uncovered is a validation of their contribution to the American narrative. The research is especially timely now, as the country celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railway’s completion, where Chinese workers made up the bulk of the workforce. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed a little over a decade after that.

“The stories of Asian Americans are rarely explored,” said Chin. For her, “it illustrates this perception that Asians are newcomers.”

There’s a certain urgency to this research. The last generation of immigrants whose parents and grandparents were directly affected by the Chinese Exclusion Act and knew China before the Cultural Revolution – the Baby Boomers and those who belong to the Silent Generation – are aging out. Genealogists like Chin are realizing the value of recording their stories before this link to the old world is severed.

“If you’re just doing it for family, that’s really nice, but there has to be a bigger mission,” Chin said. “It’s really impressing on people about how important it is to find audiences that are beyond your immediate family and friends. [It’s] sort of like rewriting ourselves back into the history of this country.”

The Chinese American Genealogy Conference will be held at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies on June 8 and 9. For more information, visit thinkchinatown.org/genealogy. Fruhlein Econar is a member of the 2019 class of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. 

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