Challenges in Obtaining and Using Census Records of Chinese

 Census records are valuable for many reasons. For governments, they are essential for planning.  For historians, demographers, and sociologists, they provide data for research.  And for genealogists, they can inform family histories. But Census records are only as useful as they are complete and accurate or they may lead to faulty conclusions.

Today, most Americans are somewhat familiar with and accepting of the importance of cooperating with census takers.  But in the early years, people were unaccustomed to such procedures and may also have been suspicious and reluctant to answer questions from strangers at their doors.

In 1880, the New York Tribune described some of the experiences in gaining cooperation from residents in answering questions from census enumerators, especially among groups such as the Chinese, many who did not speak or understand English. (Note the often patronizing side comments)

 "The Chinese as a class jealously guard against intrusions into their habitations but the Census Commission, however, opened all the doors yesterday. A person unacquainted in the district might easily enough ask one of the Chinamen all the questions and then 10 minutes afterwards, meeting the same Celestial in another house, innocently endeavor to repeat the examination.  They all look alike.  Most of them were dressed in blue blouses and trousers some more black gowns of material resembling cambric;  and others had discarded entirely the blouse for the costume and short hair,  “Allee samee Melican man.”  Nearly all the Chinese live in basements or first floors. If a door happened to be unlocked the proprietor usually appeared with the proprietor appeared with a gruff, “what wantee.”

A census enumerator in New York Chinatown, 1930. (He may only be asking directions, not counting heads).

"Upon showing him the formidable, official looking book, however, and explaining the object of the visit in very “pigeon English,” the callers were invariably treated with distinguished consideration and in many places were escorted through the house. Some places were plainly furnished, most of them were shockingly dirty, and nearly all were pervaded with the sickening odor of opium smoke. Some of the dialogues with Chinamen were very amusing. When asked if they were married, many of them would answer first, “No,” and then qualify the answer by adding, "not married in America, married in China.”  None of them appeared to be particularly lonesome, however, but nearly everyone of them expressed his intention to return to China as soon as he made "plenty money.”

When asked how enumerators were selected to count Chinese, an official pointed out in another newspaper article in 1880 how difficult it was finding people who could speak Chinese. One Chinese-speaking applicant was not hired because he could not write English even though he could speak it. Also, since the district where most Chinese lived also had many white people, he felt that a Chinese enumerator would not be able to get good cooperation from whites.

While his concerns were probably valid, the use of non-Chinese enumerators evoked the same problems counting Chinese. Moreover, they often confused the given and surnames since they are in reverse order to American names and the phonetic transcription of Chinese names was inconsistent. These problems, in addition to occasional poor pensmanship, make it difficult for genealogical and family history research which require names, and not just demographics and counts, of the residents.

1 comment:

  1. An earlier post in March, 2013 on this blog about the census is at:



About Me