Finding your Chinese roots

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.

You can also download a printable pdf of this post.

Chinese origins

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)
  • Tongkun (Dongguan)
  • 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.

Source: Him Mark Lai Digital Archive,

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.

Personal names

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).

Petition of Chinese residents of Melbourne, 1857. Source: PROV VPRS 1189/P0, unit 482,

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.

For more on overseas Chinese names see:

  • ‘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
  • Kate Bagnall, ‘The trouble with spelling Chinese names’, Tiger’s Mouth [blog], 12 February 2013:
  • 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.

Place names

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 ( 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:

Australian sources to consult

The following records are places where you are more likely to find personal names and village origins in Chinese characters.


A headstone in Chinese often provides the person’s name and place of birth in China. See:

Chinese graves in the old Chiltern cemetery, Victoria

Birth, death and marriage records

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.


Naturalisation records

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.

Chinese newspapers

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:

Chinese student records

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:

Application for a Chinese student passport for Wong Ching Hung, 1923. NAA: A1, 1927/2279,


  1. Vanessa says:

    Hi Kate, I’m trying to find where my great grandfather Jimmy Gee Hoy is from and where his daughters are in China as they returned to canton in 1820’s I have a document he signed in Chinese but can’t find a way to read it could you please help.
    Thank you in advance

  2. Anne W says:

    Hi Kate

    Is great to come across your website and will read with interest as I am trying to trace my ancestor Too Tong (called William Too Tong once in Australia) from Amoy/Xieman and came to NSW (lived in Tingha) 1850s. Someone recently told me “Tong” is not usually from Amoy/Xieman.

    • Julie Gough says:

      Hi Anne (also as per AMOY posts below in response to Tony and Carol)

      I have just started a new facebook group today for descendants of 19th century immigrants – from Amoy & hoping it will bring people together to co-assist in learning and sharing about their various Amoy originating ancestor’s journeys and lives – it is called :
      “AMOY immigrants to Australia – a descendants group”

      Anyhow I hope you are interested in joining and letting others of Amoy ancestry know about it.

      + thanks again to Kate for all her work and guidance.


  3. Di Stubbs says:

    Thank you for such a wonderful body of work Kate. I am descended from George Ah Kin who cam to Australia probably in the mid 1850s. Can I suggest to other researchers that they have their DNA done? I and many of my Chinese family have tested. Last year I got my then 92 year old Aunty tested. According to Ancestry she is still 29% Chinese. I have now found definite matches which indicate we are connected to Wo Chang and See Wong both born in Yung Mak China around 1838. This seems to be nearby where we thought our ancestor was from. Either of these could be a sibling. Not perfect but more than I knew last week.

  4. Katrina Ellery says:

    Hi Kate
    I’m trying to trace my Great Grandfather who at some point in the 1870’s resided in or near Emmaville NSW. Possibly Tent Hill down the road from Emmaville. His name is Cos Hee or could be Hee Cos. He had a son out of marriage called Cecil Williams (O’pun) whose mother was also half chinese. Her father’s name was Daniel O’Pun from Amoy as well. I’m also trying to find when they arrived in Australia and from where.

    • Neil Porter says:

      Hi Kate,
      My great grandfather was also Daniel Ah Pun and in the 90s my Aunt and I travelled to Emmaville Cemetery to place a wooden cross on Daniel’s grave. It had been unmarked up until then. Daniel had formed a relationship with my great grandmother and they had at least two children, one being my grandmother Evelyn Theresa Gertrude O’Pun. I have that family tree and some background on my arm of the family, but nothing about Daniel or his younger brother who accompanied him to Australia. Before she passed away, my Aunties Beryl and Edna recalled their conversations with Daniel when they were kids where he talked about his home in Amoy and his sisters back in China. Would love to hear from you. My email address is
      Best wishes, Neil Porter.

    • Jesse says:

      Not going to lie Katrina, but from digging through my own family archives I’ve discovered that my Chinese origin surname was Hee also!

  5. Judy Peiris says:

    I am searching for information on my grandfather’s origins. He was known as Louey Hee, b. 13/10/1874, in Toishan. He arrived in Launceston, 1896 on S.S.Chungtu. He settled in Melbourne living exclusively in Little Bourke Street, until he died in 1951. During that period he owned a number of restaurants. I have recently acquired a copy of his will which mentions a grandson, Louey Gooey Shau, of Toishan. It appears that there was family, possibly prior to arrival in Australia. I would be interested to find details of this family connection but am at a loss as to how to start.

    • Kate Bagnall says:

      Hi Judy. Have you tried contacting the See Yup Society in South Melbourne? If your grandfather was from Toishan, he may well have been a member. If you haven’t already, you could also get in contact with CAFHOV, who have lots of expertise in researching Melbourne/Victorian families. Kate

  6. Peter Spark says:

    I am trying to trace the AH FOO family who came from SUNNING. Arthur Ah Foo visited Sunning several times during the 1910s and 1920s. His parents were Louey Ah FOO and Gertrude Mary Ah Foo. Arthur later in life in Australia dropped the AH and became known as Arthur Foo in the 1940s. I assume his parents died in Sunning Canton – his mother having been born in Australia. I had hoped some death records for Gertrude ah Foo (nee Goon Wing) would be avaialable in China. Any help appreciated.

    • Kate Bagnall says:

      Hi Peter. Unfortunately there are no centralised death records in Guangdong that I know of. To do further research in China you usually need people’s names in Chinese characters and the name of the ancestral village. Cheers, Kate.

    • Jon says:

      Sunning County is the old name for Taishan City. Consequently you should consult the USA Immigration Services index to family names published in 1963. It’s been digitised by Dominic Wu. It’s link is that for the Roots db.

  7. Michael Bennett says:

    Will you be doing a similar post for the Amoy/Fukien migrants? I’ve read that Chen/Chin is the most common family name in Xiamen, but you imply that that name would be Tan in Hokkien, so is there also a Chin name that meant something different among Hokkien speakers?

    • Kate Bagnall says:

      Hi Michael,

      I won’t be doing a similar post for the early Amoy migrants, as I haven’t traced anyone back to Fujian myself. From my experience, the information needed (Chinese name and village origin) is rarely found in Australian records about the Amoy Chinese who came in the 1840s and 1850s. But I’d love to know if anyone has been successful in such a quest.

      A list of common Chinese surnames in Wikipedia ( gives the pronunciations/romanisation of the surnames in Hokkien (Min Nan). The section on common Singapore Chinese surnames might also be of interest to you.


      • Michael Bennett says:


        Thanks for replying. Sadly, I don’t have the necessary clues to trace our man from Amoy.

        Our line of the family worked hard to suppress their Chinese origins. We’re not even quite sure what his name really was. I work from the theory that the name he was buried as: ‘Joseph Chu Chin’ was a westernisation of ‘Chin Chu’ + Joseph, an anglicisation of whatever his personal name was.

        We think he was one of the undocumented labourers brought to southern New South Wales in the early 1850s. He married an Irish girl in Wollongong and had a couple of children before moving to the Braidwood district where his story became intermingled with gold seeking Chinese.

        In the early years of the 20th century most of his descendants hid their Chinese origins, morphing their family name into English variants like ‘Churchill and ‘Churchin’, although at least one of his daughters married into the defiantly proud Australian Chinese community.

        Even if we never learn anything more about Joseph’s origins, it would be good to find that someone has managed to learn the full story of an Amoy ancestor.

        Thanks too for the general information about Chinese surnames, but more for your mention of Min Chinese. That explains how one or more members of Joseph’s family may have worked as a translator on the Araluen goldfields despite apparently speaking a different variant of the Chinese.


        • Tony Anderson says:

          My family story is similar to Michael’s. Though I found my Chinese ancestor mentioned in Margaret Slocomb’s book ‘Chinese Indentured Pastoral Workers on the Norther Frontier 1848 to 1880’. His name was Tan Wan and later settled in Banana, Central Queensland, having four children with an woman from New York. The male descendents became well known as jockey(s) and trainer(s) in horse racing post WW1 – 1950s. I’m descended from his female line. I found a record of my great-great grandfather because the station to which he was contracted was still in the hands of the same family, who had donated historic employment records to the archives. Because these indentured labourers had contracts assigned to pastoralists by the importing ship’s captain, are there any records still in existence in the National Library or Qld State Library archives?

          • Kate Bagnall says:

            Hi Tony. There are archival materials in various libraries, such as station records in the John Oxley Library (which were used by Margaret Slocombe) and the papers of Robert Towns in the State Library of NSW. If you’re interested in pursuing this, I’d look closely at the footnotes in Slocombe’s book to see if she’s used any of relevance to your ancestor, and it would also be worth having a look at the work of Maxine Darnell, who has also written on the Amoy indentured labourers. Good luck!

            • Tony Anderson says:

              Hi Kate. I don’t know why I missed your post last Sept. I’m still interested in pursuing the original indenture documents for Tan Wan clues. I reside in Cairns, though am a member of Qld State Library so will begin there. I’m also familiar with Darnell’s work. There is no recorded marriage for Tan Wan & Emma Levy and the children were registered as illegitimate though his name is recorded as father for the first child Birth Register entry on 6 May 1866. The ‘Father’ column details were retrospectively amended a year later on 8 Nov 1867. They were circled and a side entry made by the Rockhampton District Registrar noted it should read ‘illegitimate’. Seems to be an administrative attempt to rewrite history. The children took the family name Tanwan and his partner Emma death record name is Tanwan so subsequent Birth, Death, Marriage records are easy to locate. I am unable to find an official death record of Tan Wan, though suspect he may be buried in a Chinese section of the Banana Qld cemetery and these records may be lost. I do not think he returned to China as some did, given his children seemed to do well and inter-married with other pioneering families. .

          • Julie Gough says:

            Hi Tony

            I have just started a new facebook group today for descendants of 19th century immigrants – from Amoy & hoping it will bring people together to co-assist in learning and sharing about their various Amoy originating ancestor’s journeys and lives – it is called :

            “AMOY immigrants to Australia – a descendants group”

            Anyhow I hope you are interested in joining and letting others of Amoy ancestry know about it.

            + thanks to Kate for all her work and guidance.


      • Carole Beddow says:

        Have found a Robert Seeong, Amoy, China married my great grandmother Mary Jane Lee on 20 January 1867. Robert died 18 August 1903 in Roma, Queensland, Australia. I do have a copy of their marriage certificate. Robert is also listed on my grandfather’s birth certificate.

        • Julie Gough says:

          Hi Carole (also as per post above in response to Tony)

          I have just started a new facebook group today for descendants of 19th century immigrants – from Amoy & hoping it will bring people together to co-assist in learning and sharing about their various Amoy originating ancestor’s journeys and lives – it is called :
          “AMOY immigrants to Australia – a descendants group”

          Anyhow I hope you are interested in joining and letting others of Amoy ancestry know about it.

          + thanks again to Kate for all her work and guidance – and letting me post this hopefully!


          • Carole Lee says:

            Hi Julie, According to birth certificates Chinese Robert Shong fathered children with Mary Jane Lee, my great grandmother from Ireland. Well DNA says that is not completely true. I believe Mary Jane had 5 children to 4 different men and Robert Shong fathered only 2 children. I had my suspicions because my dad told me that his father William and his brother Fred were not allowed to use the Chinese name of Shong as they were not Chinese so grew up using their mother’s Irish maiden name Lee. Both William and his brother Frederick used the name Lee as did their children and grandchildren. Another clue is that I personally met some of Fred’s children as my aunts and uncles. There is no physical evidence amongst any descendent of William and his brother Fred of any Chinese resemblance. The families all have a British appearance. Through DNA I have been able to trace correctly the name of my great grandfather who came from England. Recently I watched an ancestry show on TV and the comment was made that what was written on birth certificates was not always the correct information. Our Lee family can vouch for that. Carole Lee.

    • Julie Gough says:

      Hi Michael (also as per posts responses here to Carole, Anne and Tony)

      I have just started a new facebook group today for descendants of 19th century immigrants – from Amoy & hoping it will bring people together to co-assist in learning and sharing about their various Amoy originating ancestor’s journeys and lives – it is called :
      “AMOY immigrants to Australia – a descendants group”

      Anyhow I hope you are interested in joining and letting others of Amoy ancestry know about it.

      + thanks again to Kate for all her work and generous guidance – including this blog !


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