Celebrating Asian Heritage Month in Canada

It’s weird to be away from this blog for so long and then start writing again.  I finally decided enough was enough and try to get back to regular blogging.

The month of May is Asian Heritage Month.  To help celebrate, here is one of my favorite genealogical resources and one in which I really spend more time exploring–the Immigrants from China database from Library and Archives Canada (LAC).

These registers list all immigrants of Chinese origin arriving in Canada between 1885 and 1949.  If you know a little of Chinese Canadian history, you will know that the Canadian government forced Chinese immigrants to pay the Head Tax from 1885 to 1923.  These files are not easy to search for a couple of reasons:

– all names are listed in English which meant that many Chinese immigrants inadvertently had their names mixed up (convention is to list the surname  or family name first followed by the individual name)  or worst, “anglicized”.  Depending on the government official, the surname “Chen” could have been heard and spelled “Chin” or “Chan” on the file.  The chance of finding your ancestor is simply made more difficult when you have to take into account all the variant spellings.

– no one ever talks about this but what all about all the “paper sons and paper daughters” who entered Canada illegally?  Paper children borrowed the identity papers of established families so they could come to North America.  Think of it as “identity theft”.  I admit that I haven’t done much research in this area but I suspect that a good portion of Chinese immigrants may have entered the country illegally.  This is not something that many individuals, especially of our grandparents/great-grandparents generation, in the Chinese community would want to admit to but these “paper sons or daughters” certainly add another level of complexity to genealogical research.

Besides the obvious informational value of this database, what I find most fascinating is how these files got indexed.  For many years, public libraries such as Vancouver Public Library and North York Public Library had the microfilm reels.  Unless you knew when a particular individual arrived, the exact name he/she used and possibly, the Head Tax registration number, people did not find the reels easy to use.  Apparently it took a couple of health researchers who applied for and received funding to index these files to help them with a major research project that had nothing to do with genealogy at all. Just goes to show how historical records can be used for all kinds of projects.  Historians and genealogists maybe the obvious and perhaps, maybe the most popular choice but they are not the only ones who have a vested interest in ensuring the preservation and accessibility of our historical records.

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