Family history charts and worksheets can help you plan and organise your research process, and record and visualise the information you uncover about your ancestors. They can be used instead of, or alongside, genealogy software or websites to document your research. Charts and worksheets are particularly useful to use as a ‘working copy’, where you add information as you go along.
I developed the charts and worksheets below to use in my family history teaching. You can download them in both Word or PDF format. They are provided with a CC BY-NC 4.0 licence, so you can share and adapt them as you like.
To record information about your ancestors
Ancestor chart – for recording your direct ancestors
Earlier this year I was commissioned by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) to compile a bibliography on Tasmania’s Chinese history and heritage.
The bibliography is intended as a tool to help with the study of Tasmania’s Chinese communities across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It documents existing research relating to Chinese people in Tasmania, focusing on history, heritage and community, and provides a survey of publications and other research outputs.
The bibliography was funded as part of TMAG’s Contemporary Migrant Experiences project, with funding from the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations.
On Sunday, 5 June 2022, Kirstie Ross and Grace Williams from TMAG and I presented copies of the bibliography to the Chinese Community Association of Tasmania Inc 澳洲塔省華人聯誼會 at their monthly meeting in Hobart.
The bibliography will be made available in Libraries Tasmania and the National Library through the National edeposit service. I have also made a copy available online in Zenodo.
The compilation of the bibliography marks the beginning of my work on Chinese Tasmanian history and heritage, which I will be pursuing further through the new Everyday Heritage project. Everyday Heritage is an Australian Research Council Linkage project and is a collaboration between researchers at the University of Canberra (Tracy Ireland and Tim Sherratt), University of Western Australia (Jane Lydon), University of Tasmania (me) and GML Heritage in Sydney.
I have produced a short guide to researching Chinese Australians in Immigration (Restriction) Act records in the National Archives of Australia in Sydney.
The guide aims to be a practical introduction to the records, their context and content. It covers the administrative background and processes, how-to steps for researching, a description of the main record series with examples, and copies of various certificates and forms.
Although the examples given in the guide relate to Chinese Australians, information about other ‘non-white’ Australians, such as those of Syrian, Afghan, Indian and Japanese backgrounds, can also be found in the records discussed.
I suspect I will never be finished in my quest to understand the workings of the White Australia policy in the early decades of the twentieth century. My most recent work (which I hope will be published in the next year) has focused on the entry and residence of Chinese wives between 1902 and 1920, including the well-known ‘Poon Gooey case’.
While much of what I know about how the Immigration (Restriction) Act was administered comes from individual case files (known as correspondence files), there has been a gap between these files and the legislation itself. Two items in the National Archives (AP214/9 and D3193) help fill this gap. The Collector of Customs in Adelaide – who like Customs officers in the other states administered the Act in accordance with regulations, rules and instructions from the Department of External Affairs – kept a valuable, and seemingly unique, record of this correspondence from External Affairs. I have not come across other similar items for other states (always happy to be corrected though!)
I’ve had D3193 digitised by the National Archives and, while the cost of digitisation of A214/9 was prohibitive because of conservation concerns, I have photographed it and put the images up in Dropbox (link below). There is another series, AP378/37 – ‘Confidential instructions (old system), 1900–45’, listed in RecordSearch as being held in Sydney, but I haven’t looked at this to see if it contains similar material.
AP214/9 is a register containing copies of the Immigration Restriction Act and related correspondence, dating from 1901 to 1913. It was created by the Collector of Customs in Adelaide, South Australia.
The contents of the register includes:
copies of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and subsequent amendments, as well as related regulations and statutory rules
notes for the guidance of officers administering the IRA
copies of forms used in administering the IRA
instructions from Department of External Affairs to the local Collector of Customs at Port Adelaide.
Much of the content concerns ‘coloured’ arrivals, including ships’ crews, and arriving passengers with physical diseases or disabilities.
It is a large bound volume, with folios marked with page numbers up to 292. The documents (either printed or typsescript carbon copies) are pasted into the register, rather than being written out by hand. Folios 232 to 267 are blank. There is a separate alphabetical index (which doesn’t seem very complete). The last dated document is from 31 December 1913.
AP214/9, VOLUME 1 is held in the National Archives of Australia in Adelaide and is not digitised in RecordSearch (as of 20 June 2017). My images of AP214/9 are available in Dropbox.
D3193 is a volume containing confidential instructions relating to the Immigration Act (as the Immigration Restriction Act was known after 1912), dating from 1914 to 1919.
The small printed volume has been annotated with handwritten notes and insertions of further documents by the Collector of Customs, Adelaide. The original volume is titled Immigration Act Instructions together with Immigration Act 1901–1912 and Immigration Regulations 1913 and was produced by the Department of External Affairs in 1914.
The contents of D3193 are similar to those in AP214/9.
For Australians whose Chinese ancestors arrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tracing the family history back to China can be a real puzzle.
Whether you’re simply curious about your Chinese origins or are wanting to visit your ancestral village in China, there are two things you need to know – your Chinese ancestor’s name in Chinese characters and their village and county of origin.
Here you will find some suggestions for using Australian records to find these critical pieces of information.
Most Chinese who arrived in Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came from the rural Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province, south of the provincial capital of Guangzhou, north of Macau and inland from Hong Kong. A smaller number of Chinese migrants came from other parts of Guangdong province and from Fujian province (through the port of Xiamen, known historically as Amoy), as well as from other places such as Shanghai.
This post concentrates on Cantonese migrants who came from the Pearl River Delta.
Cantonese migrants came from a number of different areas in the Pearl River Delta, including:
Sam Yup (Sanyi, meaning the ‘three districts’): Namhoi (Nanhai), Poonyu (Panyu) and Shuntak (Shunde)
Heungshan (Xiangshan), later known as Chungshan (Zhongshan)
Changshing, Tsengshing (Zengcheng)
Koyiu (Gaoyao) and Koming (Gaoming)
Sze Yup (Siyi, meaning the ‘four districts’): Sunwui (Xinhui), Sunning (Xinning) or Toishan (Taishan), Hoiping (Kaiping) and Yanping (Enping).
The Cantonese migrants spoke a range of dialects including: standard Cantonese, Cantonese variations such as Shekki dialect, Longdu (Zhongshan Min) dialect, Sze Yup dialects such as Taishanese, and Hakka. The earlier Amoy Chinese spoke Hokkien.
The big stumbling block
To successfully track your family back to China you ideally need your ancestor’s name and their village and district of origin in Chinese characters. If your family migrated to Australia more recently and this information is known within the family, you have a tremendous advantage. If you don’t have this information, you will need to try and work it out from records available in Australia. This can be very tricky.
Until the twentieth century there was no standard way of romanising the various Chinese languages and dialects. Because of this, and because Chinese in Australia spoke different sorts of Cantonese, there is a lot of variation in how personal and place names are recorded in Australian English-language sources. Only rarely are Chinese characters to be found. The discrepancies in how Chinese names were written down in colonial Australia are not necessarily an indication of racist or uncaring attitudes toward the Chinese, but more a reflection of the fact that nobody, including the Chinese themselves, knew how to spell the names ‘properly’ in English.
Chinese personal names usually comprise three characters, with one being the family name and two being the given name – for example, 譚梅玲 Tam Moyling. A few Chinese family names comprise two characters (e.g. O’Young, Seeto), and sometimes a given name comprises only one character.
Although the characters remain the same, the pronunciation of a name changes depending of the dialect spoken. For example, the two-character surname 司徒 is pronounced Situ in Mandarin, Seeto in Cantonese and Soohoo in Sze Yup. The common family name 陳 is pronounced Chen in Mandarin, Chan/Chun in Cantonese, Chin in Hakka, and Tan in Hokkien.
Chinese personal names were recorded in many different ways in Australian records and, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at least, rarely was a name written down ‘correctly’. A person’s name might have been recorded with multiple spelling variations – for example, one early Sydney resident was recorded as Man Sue Bach, Mum Shou Pac, John Ah Shue Bach, John A. Sue Bach, John Ah Sue and John a Shue.
Because of the different word order (surname first in Chinese but last in English), many Chinese given names came to be used as surnames in English – for example, Wong Chun Bun might became known as Jimmy Chun Bun and his children registered under the surname Bun.
Many, many Chinese personal names also include ‘Ah’ or ‘A’. This represents the character 阿, which is a prefix added to a given name as a familiar or informal form of address, much like adding ‘ie’ or ‘y’ to the end of a name in English (Ann to Annie, Tom to Tommy).
While sometimes confusing, romanised versions of personal and place names can tell us helpful things. For example, personal names written with a ‘sl’ or ‘shl’ or ‘thl’ 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 Sze Yup sub-dialects rather than standard Cantonese.
Or, a woman’s name that includes a ‘See’ or ‘Shee’ (氏) usually gives her father’s family name and indicates that the woman was married – a bit like the term née. Ham See, for example, would be a married woman who was born into the Ham (譚) family – Ham would be her father’s, not her husband’s, surname.
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 Books. She has also published articles on the subject in the Chinese Historical Society of America’s journal Chinese America: History and Perspectives.
Janis Wilton, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional New South Wales 1850–1950, New England Regional Art Museum, 2004
Jon Kehrer, ‘Who was “John Chinaman”’, The Ancestral Searcher, vol. 24, no. 4, December 2001, pp. 201–205
Jon Kehrer, ‘Honourable ancestors: My search for the Chinese connection’, The Ancestral Searcher, vol. 27, no. 4 December 2004, pp. 328–333
Gary Presland, ‘Some difficulties in researching Chinese ancestry’, in From Gold to Federation: Papers from the Fourth Victoria Family State Conference, ed. Noelle Oke, Penfolk Publishing, Melbourne, 2001.
The native place of many Chinese is recorded in Australian sources as Canton – which variably refers to the province of Guangdong or the capital city of Guangzhou. However, most migrants came from the rural counties outside the capital, rather than the city itself. Unfortunately if ‘Canton’ is all the information you can find about your ancestor’s origins you will probably not be able to progress your research much further.
More occasionally county, city, town or even village names are recorded: Sunning, Sun Wui, Heung Shan, Amoy, Shekki, Kongmoon, Lee Yuan, Chuk Sau Yuen or Bak Shek, for example. Sometimes it’s easy to identify these places, sometimes it’s not. The smaller the place, the harder it can be to identify, but the more useful it will be if you eventually work out where it is.
The trick is to be able to translate from the old romanised version of a place name to how it is known today. The Cantonese city known in Mandarin today as Jiangmen (江門), for instance, might have been written Quong Moon, Kong Mun, or Kongmoon.
There are several words that often appear as the last syllable in village names that it can be useful to recognise:
choon or toon – 村 cun, meaning ‘village’
g. 南潮村 Nam Chew Toon
lee or lay – 里 li, meaning ‘village’
g. 南勝里 Nam Sing Lay
yuen – 園 yuan, meaning ‘garden’
g. 竹秀園 Chuk Sau Yuen.
You can use clues you find in other records, such as distance from a larger town or physical characteristics of the place, to help narrow down your search for your particular village. If you know your ancestor’s surname you can also cross-check village names with the surname. The following database of village names is useful for this purpose:
The ‘Location, location, location’ section of the Chinese Genealogy forum (http://siyigenealogy.proboards.com/) is an excellent place to read up how others have gone about identifying and locating their ancestral villages.
If your ancestor came from Taishan, Xinhui or Zhongshan counties, you might find relevant information in the material produced by a project undertaken by the Asian Library at the University of British Columbia that identified the village and town of origin of Chinese migrants to Canada. Many migrants to Australia came from the same places as those who went to Canada. See:
You should obtain Australian marriage and death certificates for the original Chinese ancestor, as well as birth certificates for their children and death certificates if the children died young. Sometimes a Chinese groom or father will have signed his name in Chinese characters and the birthplace will be more specific than just ‘Canton’ or ‘China’.
Immigration, travel and alien registration records
Immigration and travel records, as well as alien registration records, might contain details of people’s place of origin and their name in Chinese. Twentieth-century travel documents issued to Chinese Australians under the Immigration Restriction Act and related records are held by the National Archives of Australia. ‘Aliens’ (people who were not British subjects) were required to register with the government from World War I. These records are also held by the National Archives and can contain Chinese signatures, information about place of birth and so on.
Some Chinese migrants became naturalised British subjects in the colonial period, and their application forms and certificates can include details such as place of origin and their original signature in Chinese. Naturalisation applications, rejected applications and cancelled and confiscated naturalisation certificates are found in state archives and in the National Archives of Australia.
From the 1890s, Australia’s Chinese communities had their own Chinese-language newspapers, including the Chinese Australian Herald and the Tung Wah Times. The Tung Wah Times has been indexed in English, which allows you to search without knowing Chinese. The index can be helpful in identifying articles that might include an ancestor’s name in Chinese.
The major early Australian Chinese-language newspapers are also available through the National Library of Australia’s discovery service, Trove. If you have located names in Chinese characters you can search the newspapers even if you only have basic Chinese language skills. See:
In the early twentieth century, young Chinese were allowed to come to Australia to study. Most who came were the children or relatives of people already living here. These students were issued with special Chinese student passports that included their name and place of origin in Chinese characters as well as in English. Many of these passports are held in immigration files in the National Archives of Australia. On how you might be able to use these passports to identify your ancestor’s village of origin, see:
Here are my ‘top 3’ suggestions on where to start your Chinese Australian history.
(Note: these suggestions are most relevant for New South Wales, and for tracing Chinese ancestors who arrived in Australia from south China before World War II.)
Top 3 sources
Look here first!
Birth, death and marriage records – You can search for and purchase copies of BDM certificates through the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, or get transcriptions through an agent. If you can, get copies of more than just your direct ancestral line (e.g. birth certificates for your grandmother’s siblings as well as your grandmother), since certificates often contain different bits of information. Also see if you can find church or parish registers and family notices in the newspaper.
Trove digitised newspapers – Try searching Trove using variations of your ancestors’ names, limit your searches by state or to a particular newspaper, or search more generally using a term like ‘Chinese’ and the place they lived.
National Archives of Australia (NAA) – Search in RecordSearch using variations of your family members’ names. The NAA collection is vast, but here’s an example of what you might find.
Top 3 research tips
Researching your Chinese Australian family is largely like researching any other Australian family. Some of the records you consult might be different (e.g. immigration, naturalisation or alien registration files), but the principles are the same. Contact your local library, historical society or genealogical society for help.
Chinese names were written down in many different ways in Australian records. Few records give people’s real Chinese names. Keep a list of each different spelling of your ancestor’s name you find, to use in keyword or name searches.
To trace your Chinese family back to China, you need to know their real Chinese name (preferably in characters) and their home province and district (‘Canton, China’ isn’t enough). During your research be on the look out for anything written in Chinese characters and make a copy.
Top 3 books
Janis Wilton, Golden Threads: The Chinese in Regional New South Wales, 1850-1950, New England Regional Art Museum in association with Powerhouse Publishing, Armidale, NSW, 2004
John Fitzgerald, Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2007
Shirley Fitzgerald, Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The Story of Sydney’s Chinese, revised edition, Halstead in association with the City of Sydney, Ultimo, NSW, 2008
Top 3 websites
Chinese Genealogy – a really helpful forum that’s especially useful for tracing your ancestral village
About six months ago I embarked on a new endeavour. I took a redundancy from the public service and began to spend my days at home — researching, writing, doing the washing, weeding the garden and wrangling kids. After twelve years in the public service — my entire grown-up working life — it has taken me a while to adjust. I was used to being a breadwinner, used to juggling the hectic demands of full-time work around my kids and my crazy need to keep up my historical pursuits in my ‘spare time’. So I’ve been feeling strangely guilty about the time I have, now that I don’t rush off to the office every day. I have done some occasional freelance work over the past couple of months and will need to get back to more paid work again in the new year — whether as a freelance editor/historian or back in an office job, I don’t know. For now though I have the rest of the year to get done the research and writing I’ve been bursting to do and couldn’t fit in before. No pressure, right?
So, overly ambitious as always, here’s what I plan to do between now and January:
manage the publication production of my first book, Chinese Australians: Politics, Engagement and Resistance, co-edited with Sophie Couchman, which we are about to send to the publisher, Brill (ongoing)
finish writing a chapter, tentatively titled ‘Writing home from China: Charles Allen’s transnational childhood’, for Paul Arthur’s edited collection Australian Culture and Identity: Transnational Perspectives in Life Writing, to be published by Anthem Press (by end of September)
sole parent for a couple of weeks while Tim attends conferences in Japan and London (September/October)
prepare two written papers, on ‘Early Chinese families in Australia’ and ‘Finding your Chinese roots’, for Congress 2015 Canberra (written papers need to be in four months before the conference!) (by end of November)
organise, with Julia Martinez, a workshop on Chinese women in Australian history at the University of Wollongong in early December, as well as preparing my own workshop paper on the arrival of Chinese wives to Australia under the Immigration Restriction Act, 1902 to 1920
organise my three-week research trip to Hong Kong and Guangdong for January 2015 — I’ll spend two weeks based at the Overseas Chinese Culture Research Centre at Wuyi University in Jiangmen doing fieldwork in Xinhui and Kaiping and then a week of archival research in Hong Kong (the trip is supported by a Humanities Travelling Fellowship from the Australian Academy of the Humanities)
redevelop my website and blog a bit more than I have been (I’ve got a few half-written posts I’d really like to finish!).
Looking at this long list of things I’ve committed myself to doing, I’m also very aware that sitting in my inbox are quite a few emails from people hoping for some help with their family history research. I love hearing from people whose family stories intersect with my research interests and I regret that I’m not able to respond to them all in a timely manner — catch me on a bad day and your email might sit there for weeks or months, catch me on a good day and you’ll get a reply straight away! I do try to catch up, but if you’re one of those people waiting for a response from me, I hope you understand that sometimes a pressing deadline, or a request from my four-year-old to take her to the park, has to come first.
Over a decade ago one of the most useful tools for Chinese Australian history research was developed as part of the Chinese Heritage of Australian Federation project – an English-language index to two of Australia’s early Chinese-language newspapers, the Tung Wah Times and the Tung Wah News. For someone like me, whose Chinese reading comprehension skills were rudimentary at best, the index meant there was some practical way to find relevant material in the newspapers. Articles I located, for example, provided evidence of Chinese Australian attitudes towards intermarriage between Chinese men and non-Chinese women, something that was difficult to ascertain from other sources.
My best find was an article that related to a story I was told during fieldwork in Taishan in 2003. The story told of how foreign wives of Chinese men would give their husbands doses of poison before they made a return visit to China, a poison that could be reversed only if the man returned overseas to his foreign wife within a particular time for the antidote. My informant stated that this was the cause of the death of his uncle, who had been a laundryman in Cuba in the 1920s and was known to have had a Cuban wife. The article in the Tung Wah News provided a second example of this same story, suggesting that it was an urban myth of sorts among the qiaoxiang villages.
Unfortunately, with time the Chinese Heritage of Australian Federation website, and the Tung Wah index with it, could no longer be maintained and it was archived by La Trobe University. The index lost functionality in this process, meaning that searches no longer worked and only a certain number of items in the index were browsable.
Which brings me to the point of this post.
Thanks to the hard work of Sophie Couchman and Tim Sherratt, the Tung Wah Newspaper Index has been redeveloped and a sparkly new version is now up and running. The index can be searched or browsed, as you’d expect. But Tim has also made sure the index includes Linked Open Data and a basic API and has made the code and data available on Github.
In October 1913 Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Atlee Hunt, sent a circular to the state Customs departments asking if they kept records of Chinese Australians who used their birth certificates as identity papers when travelling overseas.
Queensland already kept such a register, and Hunt felt that:
Such a register is very desirable to enable a check to be kept on persons claiming admission to Australia on birth certificates, as it is an easy matter for a number of copies of the same certificate to be obtained, and the experience of the past shows that in some instances several Chinese have attempted, sometimes successfully, to land on copies of the same certificate. (NAA: A1, 1913/20069)
An example of the early difficulties that both Chinese Australians and government officials had with using birth certificates as identification can be found in the case of Fred Hong See (see NAA: BP342/1, 13021/357/1903). Fred was born in Sydney in 1885 to Chinese parents who, when he was very young, took their son back to China. Fred’s father later died and, in 1903, Fred returned to live with other relatives in Sydney. When he arrived, Customs officer J.T.T. Donohoe doubted his identity and would not allow him to land. Donohoe’s suspicions were based on the fact that Fred could not speak any English and his feeling that Fred looked older than the age stated on the birth certificate he presented.
Fred was quickly sent on his way back to China, and it was only through the threat of legal action by his well-respected relatives in Sydney and their payment of a deposit of £100 that Fred was permitted to stop at Brisbane for re-examination. With evidence provided by Fred’s relatives, the Brisbane Collector of Customs, W.H. Irving, was satisfied that he was, in fact, telling the truth. After Atlee Hunt’s approval, Fred was allowed to stay.
This is the copy of Fred Hong See’s birth certificate that he presented to officials on his return to Australia in 1903. It can be found with other correspondence about the case in NAA: BP342/1, 13021/357/1903.
In the decade after the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act, the processes for its administration continued to be refined and tightened, primarily to prevent the fraudulent entry of Chinese into Australia. Hunt’s request for the keeping of birth certificate registers came about from a concern that ‘as other channels of fraudulent entry are being blocked, the Chinese will make a determined effort to utilize birth certificates to that end.’
His Customs circular of 1913 set out the details that Customs officers should record to enable correct identification on a person’s return to Australia:
number of birth certificate
date of issue
date of birth
date of departure from Australia
remarks concerning departure
date of return
by whom examined, landed or rejected
The Collectors of Customs responded thus:
Victoria reported that had been keeping a register from the beginning of the year (1913), but without the level of detail requested.
New South Wales had not been keeping records, but was now ordering a book for the purpose.
Western Australia had no special register, but would immediately open one.
South Australia said they had not had any need for a register, as there had been no cases of Chinese being admitted on birth certificates there.
Tasmania would begin keeping a record, but had only had four cases to date.
And the Northern Territory had been keeping record of Chinese arriving on birth certificates since 1911.
It became the practice for birth certificates to be endorsed by Customs officials on a person’s departure. This usually included taking a handprint and attaching a photograph, as well as recording the details in a register. Some people also went through the formality of applying for a CEDT.
The two remaining registers
To my knowledge, only two of the birth certificate registers still exist, those for Queensland and New South Wales. The Queensland register is held in the Brisbane office of the National Archives, and a digital copy is available through RecordSearch:
The first volume, of 16 double pages, has suffered flood damage and can be difficult to read in parts. The second volume, which has 23 double pages, is much more legible. A sample page from the second volume is shown below – this is a left-hand page, with the remainder of the details about each person completed on the corresponding right-hand page.
The single register for New South Wales, held in the National Archives’ Sydney office, is more substantial than those for Queensland, demonstrating the greater amount of travel that occurred from Sydney. The register contains around 150 double pages and includes an alphabetical index at the front. The entries date from 1904 to 1962; those before 1913 were presumably copied from records elsewhere. It is also fragile and difficult to read in places, but it has recently also been digitised and made available through RecordSearch:
The page reproduced below is a left-hand page, with further details about the travels of each person available on the corresponding right-hand page.
Making use of the registers
These registers are valuable sources of information about Chinese Australian families in Queensland and New South Wales, and can provide missing pieces of information for people who did not apply for CEDTs when they travelled overseas (which many Australian-born Chinese did not).
Having them digitised is great, especially for those of us who can’t easily get to the Brisbane or Sydney reading rooms – but what would be even more useful is if the information contained in the registers was in a form that could be searched and sorted. I’m working on a bigger project relating to Chinese families in New South Wales, based around a database of information sourced from marriage and birth records up to 1918. I’m part-way into transcribing relevant details from the published BDM indexes with 1000 entries (out of an estimated 3000–4000) in the database so far!
The information found in the birth certificate registers obviously relates very strongly to this, so I have another crazy plan to also transcribe the information held in the Sydney register. It’s not going to be a quick job – and it’s one that could easily be shared since the New South Wales register is online. So, if you happen to have some spare time and don’t mind deciphering old handwriting, I’d love to hear from you!