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Researching Chinese-Australian family history

This is a sneak peek into edition 24 of Traces!

Through years of research, Mandy Gwan has discovered many details about her Chinese ancestry.

I’ve known since I was a little kid that I have Chinese ancestry; it was never a secret. But I have no memory of being sat down at Grandma’s kitchen table with a glass of Milo and a Chips Ahoy! choc-chip bickie (one of my childhood favourites), and being told the nitty-gritty of it. I had to wait until I was a grown-up before discovering that my great-grandfather arrived from China in the early 1870s and spent his life cabinet-making, shopkeeping, and market-gardening his way around New South Wales until he died in 1942.

I mention Grandma because she – a white Australian woman from an Anglo background – was the one who married my three-quarters-Chinese grandfather, and it was around her kitchen table that my mum, my brother and I would sit during school holiday visits and chat (having our latest school report scrutinised, and presenting her with the most recent school photo for display on her 1940s sideboard).

The only thing I remember about those chats (besides, ‘Did you wash your hands before you came to the table?’) is a discussion about our surname. In the absence of my grandfather, who had died before I was born, Grandma had always espoused that Quan was our family’s original Chinese name, not Gwan. Forty-odd years later, I discovered that this was not the case.

When I first began researching my Chinese ancestry, I thought it would be so much harder than exploring my Anglo heritage. Most of the brick walls in my Chinese-Australian ancestry were created by my ignorance of Chinese culture and migration, and by 19th-century anti-Chinese bureaucracy. Gradually, as I became less ignorant, the brick walls came tumbling down. As you will see from the things I’ve learnt along the way, it has been more challenging in some respects, but mostly it’s been no different at all.

To discover Mandy’s tips, read the latest edition of Traces.

Pictured: Quong Tart and Margaret Scarlett with their five children, circa 1900. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

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