This month we are taking a closer look at Chinese-Australian family history. Australia is home to more than 1.2 million Chinese-Australians, many born in Australia, with lineages that span generations of Australian history. Others have migrated more recently from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

Many of the core family history approaches and resources used within Australia will be applicable to Chinese-Australian family history research. However, there are some specialised resources, tips and advice that our reference librarians can offer, particularly if you are researching and working with Chinese language but don’t have fluency.

This August our family history and Asian collections librarians are delivering a webinar on Chinese-Australian family history, releasing a new research guide on our Chinese collections and have selected a range of works that will be on display in the Main Reading Room at the National Library.

You may not be able to make it to the building to see the books and journals display, so here are a few highlights which showcase the resources available to help you to connect with your familial past and grow understanding of the lives of your ancestors.

Journeys into Chinese Australian Family History, and Secrets, Silences and Sources: Five Chinese-Australian Family Histories

Sophie Couchman (Editor) 

A Chinese Trader in a old truck, and a young Chinese girl in a white dress

Journeys into Chinese-Australian Family History and Secrets, Silences and Sources: Five Chinese-Australian Family Histories are, in our opinion, foundation works for those looking to trace their pre-federation Chinese-Australian family history. Journeys offers clear and skilfully crafted advice on researching and working with Chinese language when you don’t speak Chinese. It also deep dives into resources such as certificates of title, using DNA in your search for Chinese ancestors and more.

Secrets tells the stories of Chinese immigrants who settled in Australia and established families in the nineteenth century. These stories give a rich and vivid account of the past, whilst simultaneously sharing the research strategies and resources used to bring these histories to life.

Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility between China and Australia

Kate Bagnall & Julia T. Martinez (Editors)

6 Chinese women in traditional clothing

Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility between China and Australia is a resource that helps the researcher to understand the challenges in unearthing the stories of their female Chinese-Australian ancestors from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As identified by the authors, there are unique challenges in discovering more about Chinese-Australian women through history, and a dearth of surviving personal manuscript materials (letters, diaries, personal photographs etc).

The stories in Locating Chinese Women are meticulously researched and provide an exemplar of how official records, newspaper articles, photographs and secondary sources can be used to weave together the narrative of a life. In doing so, they have also revealed the stories of women who - in the face of the White Australia Policy and racial politics of the early twentieth century - would not be silenced or dissuaded from standing in the public eye.

Chinese-Australian Journeys: Records on Travel, Migration and Settlement, 1860 - 1975

Paul Jones

A Chinese family posing for a portrait with 20 members

Chinese-Australian Journeys: Records on Travel, Migration and Settlement, 1860 – 1975 by Paul Jones is, perhaps, the definitive guide to official – colonial or government – records relating to the day-to-day administration of the travel and settlement of Chinese-Australians from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1970s.

The guide uses concise descriptions of each of the record series’ held by the National Archives of Australia, including data and information to assist with your research. This includes arrival and settlement, naturalisation and Alien Registration, wartime experiences, and records relating to the social, economic and political dimensions of Chinese settlement.

Importantly, the records retained by the Archives includes those territories with historical ties to Australia such as Papua New Guinea and a number of Pacific Island territories.

A Biographical Dictionary of Historic Figures in Bendigo's Chinese Community

Leigh McKinnon & Anita Jack

A white bird woven into a black and gold silk robe

A Biographical Dictionary of Historical Figures in Bendigo’s Chinese Community features prominent Chinese-Australians, both individuals and families, living in Bendigo during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

If your family once hailed from the Bendigo region, this might just be the resource that you need to successfully track your family back to mainland China : your ancestors’ names in Chinese characters and their village and district of origin.

In addition to providing western names, where possible the authors have included Chinese characters, and names in romanised Mandarin and Cantonese, together with date of birth and birth village and county. This kind of detailed biographical information is a gold mine for the family historian! And it is accompanied by intimate accounts of the daily lives those profiled, including reproductions of the kind of early portraiture which is often lost or terribly difficult to unearth.

Ancestors: Chinese in Colonial Australia

Jan Ryan

An elderly Chinese man smiling wearing a brimmed hat

Ancestors : Chinese in Colonial Australia by Jan Ryan examines the journeys of Chinese emigrants who travelled extensively before reaching Australian and finally settling in Western Australia. This is a beneficial read for any researcher looking for information on Chinese settlement in Western Australia but will be particularly helpful to those focusing on the latter part of the nineteenth century. 

Ancestors uses data and archival resources to help to tell the story of Chinese-Australians, as one of the largest groups within the global Chinese diaspora. It provides information on migrant origins in mainland China including dialect groups, recruitment from Singapore, legal status and attitudes they faced within the Australian workforce. This book dispels some myths about the experiences of Chinese immigrants in Western Australia, where they were – on paper – afforded the same legal rights as European immigrants.

This volume was also translated into Chinese but is tricky to find as it was published for an international audience.

For honour and country: Victorian Chinese Australian in World War II

Edmond Chiu, AM & Adil Soh-Lim

Chinese man in a world war 2 Australian Army uniform

There is long record of Australians with Chinese ancestry serving in the defence forces, even prior to the twentieth century at a time when Australian-born children of Chinese settlers faced significant racial intolerance, persecution and social exclusion.  Honour and Country: Victorian Chinese-Australians in World War II shines a light on those who provided service to the war effort. With the inclusion of an honour role of the Chinese-Australian men and women who served their country, it tells stories of bravery, along with those who paid the ultimate price. The accounts focus on those who served in both military and civilian roles during the first and second World Wars and how their actions shaped the generations who followed. Written in both English and Chinese and methodically indexed and referenced, this is superb resource for those researching the military history of their Victorian ancestors.

If you are interested in this topic, here are some additional recommended titles:

Want more?

If you have questions about any of these resources or your own family history research, please Ask a Librarian.

The Library is actively working to capture the experiences, images and voices of Chinese-Australians through a dedicated collection project.

Further reading

Collecting Chinese Australian stories

The past is present: Putting family history in Context

Languages in Print - Chinese

National Library of Australia Chinese Collection

Discover online Chinese language resources