Locating East Asian Family Roots

I have been asked on various occasions how to locate East Asian family roots, especially information about which ancestors immigrated where and when, and how to locate roots prior to immigration. Since different Asian American groups differ in history, timing and circumstances surrounding waves of immigration, family structure, and so forth, most online tools are group-specific rather than lumping all Asian Americans together. Here I offer tools and resources that may be useful for Americans of east Asian descent, focusing on Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino.

First, I emphasize starting with the standard resources described in this blog (as well as in other family history resources), such as census records, probate records, death records, and so forth. These records may give clues as to the district, town, or village from which ancestors immigrated, which you might then be able to visit.

Many Chinese American ancestors passed through Angel Island (sometimes dubbed the West Coast equivalent to Ellis Island, although it served more as a detention center than a port of entry); during World War II, some Japanese Americans were also detained there. Unlike Ellis Island, however, Angel Island does not maintain immigration records. Those are kept at the National Archives Records and Administration. (You might, however, find helpful resources about Angel Island itself on Cyndy’s List). Probably the easiest way of finding National Archives Records for Asian Americans is to go to the Chinese-Americans Guide. There, while you won’t find an online searchable database, you will find a detailed description of the kinds of records that are available, and where they are located. A wide variety of records are archived, such as immigration records, and Chinese case files, diaries and letters. To have some idea of where to begin, you would need to know approximately where and when your ancestors entered the U.S., working with other tools described in this blog such as U.S. Census records, family stories and letters, and so forth.

Branching beyond the National Archives, you will find three somewhat different kinds of related sources for digital tools and resources for Asian American family history: those produced by family history organizations (especially Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org); those produced by members of the national origin group (such as Hmong Genealogy and Korean Genealogy) or individual members of the group; and those organized by the GenWeb Project. The family history organizations have probably the deepest array of resources, although they may charge a fee to join. Websites organized by national origin groups may have more extensive information about the group itself, although that depends on who organized the site. Some of the websites created by members of the national origin group I find very helpful when authors discuss their own search and what they learned from that process. The GenWeb Project is a worldwide volunteer organization, organized by nations, states, counties, or other configurations. Some locations have rich websites of resources, others have only just started or are in the process of starting. I personally believe it is useful to use all of these kinds of sources, especially since the information you are looking for may be hard to find.

Chinese ancestry. You can start tracing your family using standard U.S. census data by searching your Chinese surname, although as Alice Kane points out, you need to be aware that at the point of immigration, Chinese names were often recorded inaccurately when American recorders did not know how to transliterate Chinese into English. Traditionally, Chinese clans have recorded their genealogy in Jia Pu, records some of which go back hundreds of years, and which for the most part give greater prominence to males (who carry on the family name) than to females. While Jia Pu aren’t all digitized, Family Search does have a collection that is worth looking at, if you read Chinese. Records are also kept by province, which might prove useful if you know generally where your ancestors immigrated from. Wikipedia has a useful list of Chinese language surnames, some of which have quite a bit of information. On YouTube is a discussion of Finding your Ancestral Village in China. Although its scope is limited, it shows the relationship between family name, county, and village, and how you might conduct a search online.

Japanese ancestry. Carolyn Brady’s website is somewhat like this blog in that she researched her own Japanese family ancestry, and shares both what she learned about Japanese American genealogy in the process, as well as her Takagi and Yamasaki family history. This may be a very good place for Japanese Americans to start, since Brady addresses questions you will likely have as you start your own search. GenWeb Japan has several potentially useful links, such as link to a searchable database of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. between 1887 and 1924. One of the links that at the time of this writing doesn’t work would take you to the National Archives of Japan, which has a searchable digital archive, complete with information (in English) about how to use it.

Filipino ancestry. Dutch genealogist Henk van Kampen created a webpage of Genealogy in the Philippines Resources that is very helpful. In addition to directing family historians toward tools in Family Search, he suggests that you start with the Catalog of Filipino Names, which discusses the impact of Spanish rule on Filipino names and naming systems, then gives an extensive list of “truly Filipino” names. In addition to links to other tools, van Kampen includes a blog about his wife’s Filipino ancestry, which I found interesting. If you are on Facebook, I recommend checking out the Filipino Genealogy Project, where many people are posting their discoveries, questions, insights, and so forth. The Geni Project, which is another large family tree organization, has an interesting page on Families of the Philippines, although since it focuses on notable personalities, you may not find it helpful.

To theorize about why your family immigrated, John Lee’s discussion of the Hidden “P” Factors and Immigration is very useful, taking you beyond the who, when, and where, to explore the circumstances leading people to leave their homeland, and the difficulties as well as resources they probably encountered after immigrating.


  1. Hi Christine, I loved this article on genealogical research! Several movies and television shows have also hopped on the bandwagon of discovering our family history. Makes for a relevant and interesting project to do with one’s extended family as well! Diana Y. Paul, http://www.unhealedwound.com

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