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14 May 2020

Lost at sea: a discovery in a Japanese koseki

As we observe Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we share this story by guest contributor Gordon Hamachi, based on research into his Japanese heritage.

"That’s got to be a mistake," I muttered, as I puzzled over my freshly received koseki tohon.  Koseki tohon are official Japanese government records that identify all family members in a household.  According to the translation, my maternal grandparents' only child was a male named Yojiro Nishikawa, born 21 April 1930.

Family members all disagreed.  My mom is one of seven children, all born in California, starting with Hatsuko (“Grace”) in 1925.  Even if there was some unknown Japanese custom regarding the oldest son, that would be Katsumi, who was born in 1926. Phone calls confirmed what I already knew: nobody had heard of a family member named Yojiro. 

This would not be the first time a government bureaucracy had erred.  When I originally requested my family records from Japan, I was required to attach a copy of my mother’s U.S. birth certificate.  Her birth certificate is a sloppy mess, with multiple typographic errors in both her first and last names. To avoid unnecessary confusion, I silently corrected these errors with Photoshop before transmitting the birth certificate.

Because Yojiro couldn’t possibly be a relative, I promptly forgot about him as I gleefully mined the Japanese government records to add four generations of ancestors to my family tree.  It was months later when I revisited the matter of Yojiro.  This time I noticed something odd that I had missed: according to the koseki, Yojiro was "born above Pacific ocean between Honolulu, Hawaii and San Francisco, U.S." He couldn’t have been born on an airplane, as Pan American’s China Clipper didn’t begin service until 1935.  In 1930 people traveled across the Pacific by boat.

My maternal grandparents, Haruji and Tsuruye Nishikawa, from their Alien Registration cards
Fortunately, steamship records are freely available on  I was delighted to find a couple of matches for my grandmother.  One was from 17 April 1924 when—just after she married in Japan at age 18—she traveled to San Francisco on the Korea Maru.  The other was dated 11 April 1930, when my grandmother sailed on the Tenyo Maru from Yokohama, Japan to San Pedro, California with children ages five, three, and one. Presumably she had taken them to Japan to visit family. Out of curiosity I also searched for the mysterious Yojiro Nishikawa.  This led to a tragic discovery. A separate page of the passenger manifest of the Tenyo Maru recorded that my grandmother gave birth to a son, Yojiro, on 21 April 1930, about 400 miles northwest of Honolulu, followed by his death a few days later of pneumonia, not far from San Pedro.  Imagine the hardship of traveling while pregnant in a tiny third-class cabin with three small children, giving birth on the ship, and then losing the child.

Yojiro was a late addition to the passenger manifest

Only births and deaths reported to the Japanese Consulate in the U.S. make their way into the official Japanese records.  My grandparents never bothered to inform the consulate, but the steamship company doubtlessly reported births and deaths that happened at sea.  This is why Yojiro was recorded as their only child.

That is the story of how I discovered an uncle that nobody knew.

Gordon Hamachi was born in Southern California, moved to the Bay Area to study computer science, and then worked in the tech industry.  Now retired in Mountain View, he has been working on genealogy for the past five years and repairing books at CGS.  Bicycles and computers are some other things that he likes to repair: years ago he was on the board of Berkeley Neighborhood Computers, and more recently he served on the board of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Exchange.
Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society

11 May 2020

A Message from CGS President Jim Sorenson

As various governing bodies take actions to phase in a reopening our economy, CGS is monitoring those decisions to see when we might be able to re-open our library and resume classes at the library. Even after it appears that we can open, CGS will need to determine what measures are needed to ensure compliance with County restrictions as well as to provide for the continued safety of our patrons and volunteers. At this point, I do not expect us to open until mid-summer. Before we re-open, we will publish our new operating procedures in the blog and provide notice of them on our website. Among our "new normal" procedures under discussion are:

  • Library access by reservation only.
  • Social distancing and the wearing of masks while at the library.
  • Rules for the cleaning of touch surfaces.
  • Limitations on the size of classes, SIGs and committee meetings at the library.

These measures are expected to remain in place for several months. Some of our committees and SIGs have already started having meetings using remote conferencing and we are taking steps to enable the presentation of many of our classes using that technology. Those classes will be announced on our website as well as on our blog and elsewhere. As a follow-up on a previous blog posting, I’m continuing to write sketches of each of my grandparents as I remain at home. The following is just a brief summary from that work:

My paternal grandparents were married, but not to each other. She was 19, he was 43 and her family doctor. The specific circumstances of the encounter which led to the birth of my father will never be known. The doctor died three years later in 1921 of what he thought was the flu. Months later, the public health service determined that he had died of typhus fever at the front end of an epidemic within the Navaho community in New Mexico where he was supervising the construction of a hospital for these often-neglected people. He may have been the worst of my grandparents but also the most noble.

We will have plenty of time to learn more about our ancestors. We will have time to tell the stories of our ancestors. But right now, our ancestors would want us to stay safe so that we will be able to do those things in the future.   

James Sorenson, President

Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society

09 May 2020

Chinese Couplets: A daughter's long search for her immigrant mother's past

On Mother's Day, we are pleased to share this story by guest contributor Felicia Lowe.

I didn’t really know my mother.
She spent most of her life hiding who she was.
Lying about where she came from, how she got here.
What secrets were so dark that the truth had to be concealed?

These are the opening lines to my documentary “Chinese Couplets,” which explores the impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943) on four generations of women—my maternal grandmother, my mother, Lettie Kam, my daughter, Alana, and me. The story is shaped by my quest to unravel the mystery surrounding my mother’s origins, the revelation of her illegal immigration to America during the period of Chinese exclusion, and the resulting web of secrecy and shame underlying her assimilation and achievement of the American Dream. The journey takes us from contemporary San Francisco to 1930s rural China, across the world to pre-revolutionary Cuba, post-Mao rural China and again to California, a place on the cusp of its own revolution in multiculturalism.

Felicia Lowe's mother (center) as a baby,
with her mother and older sister.

The research was complicated and messy.  There was not a single source to gather the information I needed to formulate a picture of my mother’s journey to America. For one, she was a “paper daughter,” meaning she had assumed the identity of a child of a citizen, one of the few exempt classes allowed to enter the United States in 1937. For me, the intrigue began when I was three years old and my mom instructed, “If anyone asks where I come from, say Hawaii.”  I knew from my aunt, her older sister, that they were born in China so it was very confusing.

My mother maintained her “born in Hawaii” persona most of her life and refused to offer any explanation as to why her maiden surname was Kam (Kam Sau Quon) while her sister’s last name was Louie.  At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Kam Sau Quon’s files revealed the story of a family with three young children who left Hawaii for China in 1924, then chose to return in 1937 as war was escalating in China. To learn of my mother’s early life, I read my aunt’s immigration transcripts.  She left China in 1931 in an arranged marriage so there was no subterfuge in her interrogation answers.

An ally in my investigation was my daughter, Alana.  She was able to break through her grandmother’s shell of secrecy by interviewing her for a school assignment. Out of it emerged a huge revelation.  My mother did not meet her father until he returned from Cuba when she was 15.  He’d left his pregnant wife and five-year-old daughter to find work there.  Chinese in Cuba?  That was new news to us.

Trips to Cuba and China followed in search of answers.  The most precious was a visit with my mother to Dutou, the village she’d left six decades earlier.  Like the Chinese couplet, a traditional poem consisting of two lines of verse held in contradictory and complementary balance, my family’s cross-generational tale encompasses a series of interlocked pairings: my mother’s secretive relationship to the past and the mother she left behind when she emigrated to America… my own fraught relationship with my mother… and my daughter Alana’s less-burdened curiosity about her Chinese ancestry and the bright hope it offers for healing the immigrant cycle of rupture, abandonment, denial and shame.

The turbulent times in which my mother came of age, the powerful challenges that all immigrants face, and the strength of the women, both my grandmother and mother, define my daughter and me.  It is their gift and our legacy–secrets and all.

Felicia Lowe is an award winning television producer, director, and writer with 40 years of production experience.  Her films “Chinese Couplets,” “Carved in Silence,” “Chinatown,” and “China: Land of My Father” have been broadcast on PBS and are used in classrooms across the country.  She’s long been associated with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation through her films and activism.

Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society

08 May 2020

Online genealogy: Week of May 11-18

Here are some of this coming week's online genealogy events. Most of them are free. See our post “Genealogy Learning in the Time of Coronavirus,” for links to archived classes at Ancestry, FamilySearch, RootsTech, and more.

Asian Americans, a five-hour film event, premieres May 11 & 12 on PBS. "Told through intimate personal stories, the series will cast a new lens on U.S. history and the ongoing role that Asian Americans have played."
The National Genealogical Society's Virtual Family History Conference begins May 20. Visit the NGS website for details.

The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society continues its series of free webinars.

Legacy Family Tree and MyHeritage offer these webinars: 
May 13 & 14: The Ultimate Family History Interview by Nicka Smith
May 15: Fridays in May: DNA with Diahan by Diahan Southard

Also, Legacy Family Tree continues to unlock one archived webinar per day for free viewing. The classes are based on a 7-day rotating theme:
  • Sundays - Methodology
  • Mondays - DNA
  • Tuesdays - Ethnic Genealogy
  • Wednesdays - TechZone
  • Thursdays - Around the Globe
  • Fridays - Beginners
  • Saturdays - Technology
This week:
May 11: Foundations in DNA 1 of 5: Genealogy and DNA by Blaine Bettinger
May 12: Full Circle: Tracing the Descendants of a Slaveholding Ancestor by Nicka Smith
May 13: 3 Ways to Use Gmail Smarter by Marian Pierre-Louis
May 14: How to trace your UK ancestry by Kirsty Gray
May 15: Time and Place - Using Genealogy's Cross-Hairs by Jim Beidler
May 16: Advanced Googling for Your Grandma by Cyndi Ingle
May 17: 50 Records that Document Female Ancestors by Gena Philibert-Ortega
May 18: DNA Rights and Wrongs: The Ethical Side of Testing by Judy Russell

Conference Keeper lists many of the above, as well as these events:

May 12: How to Interview Military Veterans with Kayleen Reusser
May 13: Quhat's in a Nayme? by Maureen Brady
May 13: Finding Military Records by the Genealogy Zoom Chat Series: An Illinois Multi-Library Event
May 14: Acadia with Mark Labine, hosted by the Minnesota Genealogical Society
May 14: Legalese for Genealogists by the Genealogy Center
May 15: Your Next Step: Write Your Family History with Stephen Szabados
May 16: Meet the Pilgrims! by Pinellas (Florida) Genealogy Society

Stay safe, be well, and happy learning!

Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society

04 May 2020

Online genealogy: Week of May 4-10

Here are some of this coming week's online genealogy events. Most of them are free. See our post “Genealogy Learning in the Time of Coronavirus,” for links to archived classes at Ancestry, FamilySearch, RootsTech, and more.

NOTE: The National Genealogical Society's Virtual Family History Conference begins May 20. Visit their website for details.

The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society continues its series of free webinars.

May 4: "Using Third-Party Tools to Analyze Your Autosomal DNA" by Blaine Bettinger 

Legacy Family Tree and MyHeritage have an ongoing series, including a series of "Fridays in May" live Q&As with a different expert each week. This week:

May 5 & 6: "Smarter Search Strategies for Genealogy" by Thomas MacEntee 
May 6:  "Crème de la crème: Targeted Autosomal DNA Testing to Isolate Pertinent Genetic Cousins" by Paul Woodbury
May 8: "Fridays in May: Tech with Thomas" kicks off with a live Q&A with Thomas MacEntee
Conference Keeper lists many of the above, as well as these events:

May 5: "Learn to Build an Online Family Photo and Video Collection With Collectionaire"
May 6: "Ancestry Library Edition" presented by the Genealogy Zoom Chat Series: An Illinois Multi-Library Event
May 6: "Jewish Genealogy and Home DNA Testing: A Virtual Discussion," hosted by Gordon Center for Performing Arts
May 6: "3 Steps to Prepare for a German Heritage Tour" by Family Tree Tours
May 8: "Pandemic 1918! Combating the Influenza Epidemic During the Great War" with Tina Beaird

Stay safe, be well, and happy learning!

Copyright © 2020 by California Genealogical Society