Researching Asian-Pacific American History & Genealogy

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, so this month I’m going to share some resources for researching Asian-Pacific American history & genealogy.  Some of the most well known events tied to the Asian experience in the United States are negative:  the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. 

As jobs became harder to find in the years following the Civil War, Chinese immigrants took the blame and anger of other Americans who, unable to find jobs, started competing for jobs that had traditionally been held by Chinese immigrants who were willing to work for lower wages.  Labor leaders like Dennis Kearney & H.L. Knight with the Workingman’s Party in California gave speeches and wrote articles such as this one, urging for the exclusion of the Chinese from California and the U.S.  Norman Asing, a business owner prominent in the San Francisco Chinese community wrote this letter to California governor John Bigler chastising him for his stance against Chinese immigrants.  In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, originally limited to a 10 year period, but extended under the Geary Act in 1892 with even more restrictions placed on Chinese immigrants.  You can read more about it on these two online exhibits, one from the Library of Congress and one from the Harvard University Library.

 In 1924 the Johnson-Reed Act or Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants who could enter the U.S. each year based on national origin.  It completely barred immigrants from all of Asia.  It wasn’t until 1943, when the U.S. allied with China against the Japanese during World War II that the Magnuson Act (Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943) was passed opening up limited immigration for the Chinese again.  It wasn’t until the Magnuson Act was repealed in 1965, that large numbers of Asian immigrants began arriving in the United States.  Worth checking out is the PBS documentary Becoming American: The Chinese Experience, with program summaries and online resources available here

Japanese Americans were at first not as impacted by immigration laws, but in the 1920s, immigration acts began to focus on all Asian immigrants.  New immigrants were denied entry, and naturalization and property ownership rights were taken away from those already in the U.S., even from their American-born children.   One of the most well known acts committed against Japanese in the U.S. is relocation and internment during World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, allowing for areas of the country to be designated military zones from which people would be banned at the discretion of military leaders.  The process of moving “enemy aliens” from coastal areas eventually led to the relocation of Japanese American families to internment camps. 

There are many excellent resources that document how this happened and provide access to photographs, oral histories and other primary resources concerning the experience of those who were interned.  This well-documented Wikipedia article goes into great detail describing Japanese American interment, this online exhibit from the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum has a chronology of the events leading up to and including the internment process as well as some oral histories, photographs and correspondence, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History also has a great online exhibit.  Some of the most interesting exhibits though are the Japanese American National Museum’s Collections Online and the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives(JARDA)

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the basic steps you take to research your family history in America are the same up to a point, no matter your ethnicity.  If your family recently immigrated to the United States from an Asian or Pacific-American nation or region you should talk to your parents or grandparents about their experience.  If that’s not possible, there are many books in our collection that discuss the experience of various immigrant groups in the U.S.  Series such as “Coming to America” and “The New Immigrants” cover Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, East Indians and more.  There are also books such as A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Immigrant & Ethnic Ancestors and The Source: a Guidebook to American Genealogy that discuss how to research various ethnic groups. 

There are also a large number of online resources to aid you in your search.  The National Archives has compiled an online aid for ethnic heritage research and includes here links for Asian genealogy resources.   Cindy’s List includes links on "Asia & the Pacific", "China, Hong Kong & Taiwan", "Philippines", and "Japan".  The Family Search Research Wiki is a useful tool for many topics in genealogy, but relevant to this topic, they have a “Browse by Country” feature that leads you to resources available through Family Search on various countries as well as some general information on those nations.  Take a look at these pages on India, Laos, the Philippines, and Hawaii.  Notice that there are varying levels in the number of resources available, and be sure to scroll to the bottom and read the “Did You Know?” section as it may explain why you’re having trouble finding certain records. 

Remember, due to the fact that a lot of Asian & Pacific Americans are more recent immigrants, there might be privacy restrictions on some of the records you want to access.  In these cases it becomes even more important to talk to your family members who might hold the originals of those records or can gain access to them for you.  For example, my great-grandmother passed away in 1999 and I’m not closely enough related to her to request a copy of her death certificate due to the fact that Texas restricts access to death records for 25 years to only those considered to be immediate family members.  My mother had to request the record for me since she’s considered an immediate family member.   Start reading and talking to your family members, remember to document everything you find, and have fun researching your family history!