Tracing your Chinese Australian Genealogy

June 7, 2020  - by 

More than 1.2 million people of Chinese descent live in Australia today. While many are first-generation immigrants, others have deeper roots. The first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived more than 150 years ago. If you have Chinese Australian ancestors, here’s an introduction to their history and how to discover their stories.

Why Chinese Immigrants Came to Australia

Historical evidence suggests that Chinese explorers knew about Australia as early as 1477. By about 1700, Chinese families were eating Australian seafood—sea cucumbers harvested by fishermen from present-day Indonesia along the shores of what is now Northern Territory of Australia. But the first known Chinese immigrant to Australia did not arrive until 1818. Mak Sai Ying, a 20-year-old man from Guangzhou (Canton), landed in British colonial New South Wales, where he became known as John Shying. He married, fathered four sons, and, after working as a carpenter, became an innkeeper.

chinese australians celebrating the chinese new year.

Few Chinese immigrants followed until the mid-1800s. Beginning in the 1840s, the British government gradually stopped transporting convicted criminals to its Australian colonies, which it had been doing since 1788. A labor shortage ensued. Additionally, gold was discovered in Australia.

During this time, life in southern China was difficult. There were wars, famine, and unemployment. Responding to these “push and pull” factors, Chinese workers began migrating to Australia. Almost all were men; most came from Guangdong (Kwangtung) and Fujian (Fukien) in southern China.

These Chinese immigrants went wherever there was work, such as gold mining in northern Queensland, agriculture in New South Wales, and construction in Western Australia. Many eventually settled in ethnic “Chinatown” enclaves in major cities.

Caption: Chinese gold miner in Queensland, Australia, 1860s.
Chinese gold miner in Queensland, Australia, 1860s. State Library of Queensland Digital Image Collection, Image 60526.

Many British colonists resented the success of Chinese laborers, who worked cooperatively and diligently. Others feared job competition, intermarriage, and diseases brought by Asian arrivals. Beginning in the 1850s, the British colonies passed laws to discourage or restrict Chinese arrivals. In 1901, the newly-formed Australian national government passed the Immigration Restriction Act. This law ushered in a “White Australia” policy that curtailed Asian and other nonwhite immigration until 1958.

Genealogy Records about Chinese Australians

When researching your Chinese Australian family history, begin by gathering family stories, photos, and documents. Watch for details of your relatives’ identities, including their full names (and original Chinese surnames); dates and places of birth, marriage, and death; names of parents, spouses, and children; and specific places of origin in China. This basic information will help you build your family tree.

Next, look for your Chinese Australian relatives in historical records on FamilySearch.org and elsewhere. If you find a relative’s name written in Chinese, keep a copy of it, even if you can’t read it. The characters may reveal additional clues. Search for documents such as the following:

the 1842 marriage register entry for Chinese Australian pioneer John Shying and his second wife, Bridget Gillorley.
  1. Birth, marriage, and death records, including Australian civil registration records. Shown above is the 1842 marriage register entry for Chinese Australian pioneer John Shying and his second wife, Bridget Gillorley.
  2. Immigration passenger lists. Unfortunately, some passenger manifests do not list Chinese travelers by name. Many workers traveled back and forth to China repeatedly or went home to die. Some New South Wales lists include information about crew members, some of whom were Chinese. If you find a possible relative listed in an online index, try to access actual record images to see what additional details may be written there.
  3. Newspapers. Look for accounts of community life, historical events, and cultural attitudes in Australian newspapers. Access many through Trove, a free website of the National Library of Australia, which includes Chinese-language newspaper collections (some are partly in English or have an English-language index).
  4. Certificates of Exemption from the Dictation Test. To deter nonwhite immigration, the Australian government required immigrants to pass a dictation test (which was designed for Asians and other nonwhites to fail). Chinese residents who wanted to travel internationally had to apply for an exemption to this test if they wanted to reenter the country. This paperwork has detailed identifying information and even photographs of the applicants.  
  5. Alien registrations. Until recent decades, most Chinese immigrants were barred from becoming Australian citizens. During and after World War I and II, noncitizens filled out alien registrations, and so did many Chinese Australians who were born in Australia or who had naturalized.
Two chinese australian children outside a building

Additional historical records at the National Archives of Australia and other repositories may reveal your family stories. Chinese heritage museums in Australia have collections and exhibits that explore the stories of Chinese Australians in the 19th and 20th centuries too.

Helpful resources for Chinese Australian research include the following:

Tracing Ancestry Back to China

As you learn about your Chinese relatives in Australia, you will hopefully discover your family’s specific place or places of origin within China. With the information you can find in Chinese Australian records, hopefully, you can trace your family tree successfully back to China.

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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Comments

  1. Wish you could publish information about Chinese Hawaiians especally Chinese who came to Hawaii in 1840s to work in sugar industry on island of Hawaii. Any possibility of that happening. Thank you, Maureen Conner

  2. Another fabulous resource for Chinese Australians during the gold rush from the 1850s onwards is the Public Record Office of Victoria’s goldfield records. All gold diggers and gold miners, regardless of their nationality, had to have a licence to search for gold. Having researched these records extensively for my own (non-Chinese) family, I can confirm there are a great many Chinese names in those licence and other registers. Unfortunately, they are not online and require a visit in person to review the registers. But, in my opinion, they are well worth the effort.