Top 3 tips for Chinese Australian family history research

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.)

Wedding of Elsie May Chinn and Kum Mow, Sydney, 1917 (Sun, 18 February 1917, p. 16, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article221962375)

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
  • Chinese-Canadian Genealogy – the specifics are Canadian, but this site provides many ideas that can be applied to Australian research

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