On 13 September 2008, I spoke at a gathering of the Chinese Australian Historical Society in Sydney. The workshop was called ‘Stepping ashore: How to research your Chinese family history’. It was attended by about 30 people – some just embarking on their family research, some struggling with particular research problems, some well into it and perhaps more knowledgeable than the speakers! Here’s what I talked about, with links and references as promised.
Most people doing Chinese family and community history research start in Australia, with what they know from families and from Australian records. But the lives and journeys of Chinese ancestors began before they stepped ashore here. While not without their challenges, Australian sources can help us find connections back to China – from clues in how Chinese names were romanised to working out what’s written on a Chinese headstone…
The talk focused mostly on how Chinese personal and place names appear in Australian records. Because there was no standard form for romanising Chinese until the 20th century, and because people spoke in different dialects, there is lots of variation in how personal and place names are recorded in English-language sources. Only rarely are Chinese characters included.
These romanised versions of personal and place names can tell us helpful things however. For instance, personal names written with a ‘sl’ or ‘shl’ sound at the beginning (like Dang Bown Sluey or Slit Schin) suggest that these people were likely to be from Taishan, as this sound is particular to Taishanhua rather than Cantonese. Or, a woman’s name that includes a ‘See’ or ‘Shee’ usually gives their father’s family name, and indicates that the woman was married. Ham See, for example, would be a married woman who was born into the Ham family – Ham would be her father’s, not her husband’s, surname.
The native place of many, many Chinese is recorded in Australian records as Canton – which usually means the province of Guangdong, not the city Guangzhou. More occasionally county or city or town or even village names are recorded: Sunning, Sun Wui, Heung Shan, Amoy, Shekki, Kongmoon, Lee Yuan, Bak Shek… Sometimes it’s easy to identify these places, sometimes it’s not. The smaller the place, the harder it can be to identify.
Finding Chinese characters for personal and place names can be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, but is very helpful if the goal is to locate and visit an ancestral village in China. There are Chinese-language sources, such as newspapers and clan or association records, that could provide these details; Chinese characters are also often found on gravestones and in certain types of government records.
The following are some websites, articles and books that might provide more clues to understanding personal and place names, or might help in locating Chinese characters.
Chinese personal names, as they appear in English-language sources, are slippery things. They were written down in many different ways, often with the one person’s name recorded with multiple spellings or multiple variations.
American Emma Woo Louie has written on Chinese American names, much of which applies in the Australian context. Her book is Chinese American Names: Tradition and Transition (McFarland & Company, 2008). A preview of the book is available from Google Book Search. She has also published articles on the subject in the Chinese Historical Society of America’s journal Chinese America: History and Perspectives.
Chinese names on the Chinese-Canadian Genealogy website
Kate Bagnall, Golden Shadows on a White Land, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2006 – Section 4: Belonging (starts on p. 196)
Janis Wilton, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional New South Wales 1850–1950, New England Regional Art Museum, 2004
Like personal names, Chinese place names were written down in various ways. The trick is to be able to ‘translate’ back from the romanised version to how a place is known today. Today’s Jiangmen, for instance, might have been written Quong Moon, Kong Mun, Kongmoon.
The Chinese Genealogy forum is an excellent place to read up on locating and visiting ancestral villages.
You can also browse or search the Surname and Village Database, which provides access to information from the Index of Clan Names By Villages published by the American Consulate General in Hong Kong in the 1970s.
Have a look at Google Maps, or if you’ve got Chinese characters for the place name and can read a bit of Chinese, you can look for it in the online map at ditu.sogou.com. Smaller villages aren’t likely to be there, though.
Headstones in cemeteries can be a great place to find Chinese characters for personal names and native villages. Work on transcribing and interpreting Chinese headstones is happening more and more.
Doris Jones’ Reading Chinese gravestones, on the Golden Threads website, is an excellent introduction to understanding the information written on Chinese headstones.
Doris Jones, Remembering the Forgotten: Chinese Gravestones in Rookwood Cemetery 1917–1949, Invenet, Sydney, 2003
Linda Brumley, Liu Bingquan and Zhao Xueru, Fading links to China: Ballarat’s Chinese Gravestones and Associated Records 1854–1955, on the Chinese Heritage of Australian Federation website
Kok Hu Jin’s numerous books describing and translating Chinese gravestones around Australia, published by the Golden Dragon Museum at Bendigo