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26 May 2020

Chinese Exclusion Act files in Seattle: a treasure trove of information

We continue our observance of Asian Pacific Heritage Month with this blog post about the Chinese Exclusion Files found at the National Archives in Seattle. Trish Hackett Nicola leads a free webinar on the collection on May 28.

Trish Hackett Nicola never expected to find herself specializing in records related to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Her own ancestry is German and Irish. But when the Seattle-based genealogist met Loretta Chin about eighteen years ago, she was introduced to the Chinese Exclusion Act files held at the National Archives at Seattle. Chin “told me about how wonderful these files were, and she became my mentor,” says Nicola. Today Nicola works with a small team of volunteers who have devoted themselves to preserving and indexing the more than 50,000 government files collected on Chinese immigrants between 1882 and 1943. The files represent those who arrived at the ports of Seattle, Sumas, and Port Angeles in Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Vancouver, B.C.

Since May 2015, Nicola also has published an ongoing blog,, in which she features particularly interesting finds from the records. “I started the blog to highlight the personal stories that are found in the Chinese Exclusion Act case files,” she says. “I wanted more people to know what valuable family and social history is found in these files." 

Lee Gok Suey, father of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee

There’s the case file for Lee Gok Suey, for example, born in China although both his father and grandfather were American citizens. His father, grandfather, and other relatives had to undergo detailed and repeated interrogations before Lee was finally granted admission to the U.S. in 1937, at the age of 17. Lee grew up, served in the Korean War, married, and fathered five children—one of whom, Edwin, would become San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor in 2011. This file contains more than 50 pages of detailed information about Ed Lee’s ancestors and relatives, including specifics of the village in China where the family came from.

12-year-old Ora Chang in 1910

In sharp contrast is the slim file that contains an application by Charlotte Chang seeking to take her young son and daughter with her on a trip to visit relatives in China in 1910. The file contains names and addresses of many family members but little more. It does, however, include a charming photo of twelve-year-old Ora Ivy Chang, dressed all in white, with enormous satin bows in her hair.

The files vary widely in content; each is unique, providing a glimpse into the lives of immigrants from all parts of China. They usually contain “incredible” photos, Nicola says, and intimate details of the subject’s life. “The file might describe the person’s village and neighbors, or tell if they owned a rice cooker, or the number of windows in their house.” Of crucial importance to genealogists is that the files usually contain the subject’s original name written in Chinese characters, enabling researchers to trace their Chinese family back hundreds of years. “We now have two volunteers who speak and read Chinese and we are including the name of the subject of the file in Chinese characters on the blog,” says Nicola.

The Seattle files are indexed by file name and number. Nicola and fellow volunteers are now meticulously adding important metadata to each file—names, keywords, cross-references to relatives' files, notes on photos, maps, or other items of interest, and much more. Trish Hackett Nicola gives an overview of the Seattle Chinese Exclusion Act Files on Thursday, May 28. This is a free webinar hosted by CGS; register at the link at EventBrite.

Trish Hackett Nicola is a certified genealogist with more than 30 years of experience. She has volunteered at the National Archives in Seattle since 2001.
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