Documenting Family History

Oral History Interview Techniques

While other ethnic groups might consider written family documents as containing mostly true information, Chinese Americans do not always have that luxury if their ancestors immigrated during the Exclusion Act period from 1882 to 1943.


Because of the Exclusion Act and other immigration restrictions, many Chinese were and still are reluctant to talk about family history. Fears about deportation were real. Interviews might remind our elders of the interrogation process when they entered this country. The following are steps to take that may help you gain accurate information from your interviews.

  1. Interview Your Elders

    If you have living elders and have started conversations with them about your family history, ask if you can record the conversations so that you can get the details accurately. Never record without knowledge of the person you are interviewing. Use digital equipment or you may wish to have an informal session and just take written notes.

  2. Record Your Interview

    If you are recording, label each recording immediately with the date, location, narrator (person being interviewed), and general topic. Summarize the interview soon after so that you have important information easily accessible. Do this while the interview is fresh in case there are words that are inaudible.

  3. Start with General Facts

    Start with general family information such as a family tree to focus on the factual. You may verify information in documents you have obtained in your search, which can be a major task if there were paper sons or paper daughters involved.

  4. Use Life Stage Outlines or Questions

    Consider using life stage outlines and questions found in such common sources as grandparent books as well as oral history sites. For example, "What type of holidays did you celebrate?" might elicit a description of Chinese New Year and other typical Chinese holidays.

  5. Look for Themes

    Look for themes to develop out of your relative's responses. Developing these will give you a more interesting story or set of information.  Some possible themes: separation from family, hardships of the times, help from family, being the first to...

  6. Share Your Stories

    Consider donating a copy of your interview(s) to the Angel Island Immigrant Voices Project. You can contact them at


Other Resources for Interview Techniques


Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide inspires you to turn to members of your own family and community as key sources of history, culture, and tradition. This booklet presents some guidelines and  features a general guide to conducting an interview, as well as a sample list of questions that may be adapted to your own needs and circumstances. 


Oral History Association 

The association provides guidelines for conducting oral interviews and has an outline of topics for oral interviews.


UCLA Center for Oral History Research 

The center conducts in-depth, multi-session oral history interviews with individuals who have been a part of the history of Los Angeles and its many communities. A collection of Asian American interviews are also available.


For more detailed information about how to trace your Chinese family history, purchase the Guide for Researching Your Chinese Family History