Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

Why a Chinese person may have more than one name

In the historic record, and even today, there are many reasons why a Chinese individual may have a number of different names or have their name spelt differently in different documents. Some of the reasons are as follows:

- Mandarin, Cantonese and other Chinese dialects are tonal and so cannot be fully expressed in English script. Attempts to write it phenetically can result in a number of spellings. While the pinyin system is widely used now for Mandarin this was not the case at the turn of the century.

- Many Chinese people, particularly men, were given a number of names: a baby or milk name, a pre-marriage name and then a married name. New names might also be taken when opening a business for the first time or retiring.

- Some people also adopted western names after arrival in Australia. Interestingly Chinese women do not change their names when they marry but as this was not understood in Australia they often ended up with a mix of both their married and maiden name.

- The Chinese, unlike Europeans, write their family name first and then their given name. This means that given and family names are often confused.

- It was also common for the term 'Ah' to be mistakenly included in names such as 'Ah Moy'. This term was not a name or part of a name but was simply used with personal names of one syllable to make them sound more 'polite'.

- Many of the Chinese who immigrated to countries like Australia in the 19th and 20th centuries were not literate in their own language and rarely proficient in written English. Paperwork was therefore frequently completed by Australian officials and so the spelling of names might vary across official records as those completing them guessed the spelling of the names they were hearing.

- Due to communication break downs it was also common for individuals to be mistakenly called by their business or company name rather than their personal name.

For further information see:
Williams, Michael, 'Appendix 1 - Chinese language considerations' in Brief sojourn in your native land: Sydney's huaqiao and their links with south China during the first half of the twentieth century, MLit, University of New England, 1998. (click here).

Couchman, Sophie, Tong Yun Gai (Street of the Chinese): Investigating patterns of work and social life in Melbourne's Chinatown 1900-1920, MA(Public History), Monash University, 1999, pp.11-12.