with Author Lisa See
For those not familiar with her works, specifically "On Gold Mountain," Lisa gave a short background presentation on her family and its Los Angeles connections.
Using a friendly, down-to Earth, and humorous style, Lisa See laid out eight key tips for researching your family history.
Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of China Dolls, Dreams of Joy, Shanghai Girls, Peony in Love, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain.
Lisa See will spoke on her family history research for her book, On Gold Mountain.
1. NATIONAL ARCHIVES
Lisa suggested making a visit to the National Archive in San Bruno, CA, near San Francisco. Lisa suggested two main “Keys” that can unlock data and files at the Archive.
A. A Person's Identity Number
Look for file numbers or identity numbers on ancestor immigration cards, certificates and documents. Many times names were spelled or translated incorrectly, but the numbers will help to locate files with pictures and documents, as well as other linked files.
B. Business Names
During the "Chinese Exclusion Act" years, only merchants, diplomats, students and ministers were admitted more easily into the country. Many Chinese came into the country as "merchants." As a merchant, one was required to re-file status documents every six months and list business partners. According to Lisa, on the last page of these merchant filings there would be a listing of connecting files.
Contact and visit the local archives of the places your ancestors lived. Lisa visited archives in Los Angeles, Medford OR, Sacramento and San Francisco. In Sacramento, Lisa found ledgers from her 2nd Great Grandfathers business as well as information on when the business opened. Archives can also be sources of death certificates and marriage certificates. Local archives can also provide clues as to the environments that your ancestors lived in.
3. LOCAL LOS ANGELES RESOURCES: CHINESE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, CHINESE AMERICAN MUSEUM & THE HUNTINGTON LIBRARY
Chinese Historical Society of Southern California
415 Bernard Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012
The Chinese Historical Society of Southern California contains a vast collection of books and dissertations. It also contains an incredible collection of recorded oral histories from a project conducted in the 70s. There are seven volumes of transcribed interviews and follow-up interviews are also being collected. The Chinese Historical Society is working with the Chinese American Museum to centralize the interviews. Consider a visit, even if your family is not in the collections. You can gain great insights into the environment, costs, conditions and discrimination that your ancestors experienced.
Chinese American Museum www.camla.org
425 North Los Angeles Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012
The Chinese American Museum had a large collection of family pictures and is also a repository for family stories and interviews. You are encouraged to add your stories to their collection. There are many interesting exhibitions. One past exhibition of note was on Paper Sons.
Huntington Library www.huntington.org
1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, CA 91108
The Huntington Library holds the Y.C. Hong Collection. You Chung (Y. C.) Hong was a successful and renowned immigration lawyer in Los Angeles. The Hong Family has donated all his papers to the Huntington. The Huntington is now in the process of indexing and digitizing the collection.
4. OTHER LOCAL HISTORICAL SOCIETIES
Visit and write to the historical societies of where your family lived. Talk to people who volunteer with the historical societies. The volunteers at these societies are more than willing to talk to you about what they know and will sometimes go out of their way to help you. Lisa related a story about her finding out the name of her 3rd Great Grandmother by asking an offhanded question about whether or not it ever snowed in Medford to a historical society member.
5. GATHER ORAL HISTORIES
Start with the oldest people first. Ask the oldest people who else they think you should talk to. Younger members of the family might be more willing to talk if they know that older members have already begun telling their stories. Don’t start with controversial or uncomfortable questions first. Ask questions about good memories like favorite games as children or favorite foods. What was their first memory of coming to America? Build trust before getting to tougher questions. If they start talking and then all of a sudden get quiet, just respond by not saying anything. Chances are they will want to fill the silence and start talking again.
6. LETTERS, DIARIES & PHOTOS
Seek out long forgotten boxes of letters, diaries and photos that are stuck on shelves in the attic or in garages. Try and get family members to identify people in photos and get Chinese writing translated.
7. GO PLACES
You get a good idea of how your family might have lived if you actually go to the places that they lived. Lisa went to Medford, Sacramento, San Francisco and China. Visiting the actual places helps you dimensionalize the people in your family history beyond just names, dates and places.
8. THE IMPORTANCE OF ACTUAL HISTORY
History happens to people. History happens to families. Understanding history can help you understand why your family made the decision to come to the U.S. and why they came when they did. Understanding history and the laws and rulings that affected why decisions were made. Understanding the Exclusion Act and the Paper Son phenomenon could help lead to many discoveries in your family history and why decisions were made.
Lisa See concluded her talk with a Q&A Session:
(Questions and Answers are paraphrased and not exact quotes.)
Question: What is your next project?
Answer: Lisa is working on a story about a woman who gives birth to a baby girl in the Yunnan Province of China and then subsequently gives up the baby for adoption. The baby is adopted by a woman in Pasadena, California. The story revolves around all three women, the biological mother, the adoptive mother and the adopted child. The area of China, Yunnan, is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet and famous for ancient tea trees.
Question: How do you get older people to talk?
Answer: According to Lisa, on her trips to China, the older people are, the more they want to tell you their stories. They are even more likely to talk to you if they think they’ll never see you again. An incredible amount of information was lost during the Cultural Revolution.
Question: If you don’t speak Chinese, what do you do?
Answer: Lisa See asks friends and family that speak Chinese to help her. Sometimes she hires students attending school in Los Angeles from China to help her. When traveling in China, she tries to hire a native Chinese speaker familiar with the dialect of the area she is visiting. She avoids academics that speak Chinese that is too formal – the more colloquial the better.
Question: What do you do if you are not a good writer?
Answer: Don’t worry about it. Think of it as writing a Christmas letter that you are going to stick in your Christmas card. Write for yourself and write for your family. Once the people are gone, the stories are gone. Write something from the heart. You are doing this for your children and grandchildren. Don’t get hung up on style. Just do it.
After the conclusion of the presentation, Lisa very graciously stayed to sign books, pose for pictures and chat with those in attendance.