Monday, February 27, 2017

The Challenges of Charting a Chinese Family Genealogy

After I had worked on my own family tree for a few years, I began charting my husband Mike's Family Tree, when someone was asked how certain family members were related to others. 

What that led to, in addition to the usual surprises, was an education about the affects of the Chinese Exclusion Act on his family. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act was a United States federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. 

This law was not repealed until 1943 - that is 61 - sixty-one years of what was, in the words of Republican Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts "...nothing less than the legalization of racial discrimination." 
In addition, interracial marriages of Whites and Chinese was not made legal in the United States until 1948, which affected other members of the family. 

I found that Mike's grandfather Sam entered the US from China through Seattle, Washington, on September 10, 1920, in the midst of this restriction.  He jumped through some hoops, for sure. He didn't want his children to have to go through this experience, so once he was established, brought his wife Law Moy to the United States, and they had their children in Utah and Wyoming.  

Ways around the Chinese Exclusion Act necessitated smuggling, false documentation, and what were referred to as "paper sons" - Chinese sons of American citizens, at least on paper.  Since Mike's grandfather Sam was not an American citizen at the time, this did not include him, but it may have affected some of the documents that were found for other family members.

Sam and his wife Rose set up a restaurant in Rock Springs, and later in San Francisco, building their own rich family history as American citizens. Sam petitioned to be a citizen in 1948, and became a naturalized citizen in 1950.

Sam Chan, in front of his On Rock Lo restaurant, Rock Springs, 1940s.
The challenges of determining the real ages and names of some of Mike's family members is ongoing. As Michael's cousin told me:  "The Chinese, sign Last Name, Generational Name, Name.  This is the order for caricatures in a name.  All of the girls in the same generation have the same Generational Name and all of the boys have the same Generational Name, but it's different from the girls.  So, for instance, all of the girls, who are my first cousins have the same generational name,"Sook" as me.  All the boys have the same generational name as my brother, "Hing".  It's the duty of the male grandparent, from the husband's side to do this, so Paul Tung named all of us."   She added: : "It's tricky trying to define names that are phonetically written in English, because if you use a mandarin dictionary for a Cantonese pronunciation, it won't be correct, and visa versa. The paternal grandfather gives the names."

Thus explains why "Chin" is also "Chan" in the charts.   

Another great challenge for me is that there is very little about Mike's ancestors on the net.  In essence, I am creating the database for his family, in Ancestry, Wikipedia, and other sites, so that others in his family - or future generations - can access that information. This includes data and photos. 

When I added Mike and his American-born family members, my job became much easier.  Documentation is more available.   Though the Wong-Chan chart does not go back further than 5 generations, I am content to leave it at that.  It is a good start for future generations, considering the affects of our country's discriminatory practices had on Mike's ancestors.  My Irish family members faced their own discrimination two centuries ago, so it does seem to be par for the course. Once we are here...we are HERE.     

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