I very much like this explanation by Alexander Don, Presbyterian missionary to New Zealand’s Cantonese population, of the eternally perplexing question of the prefix ‘Ah’ in Chinese names.
Don spoke Cantonese and could read and write Chinese, having first studied in Guangzhou in the late 1870s. This piece comes from his account of a trip visiting Chinese communities around the Pacific in 1897 (Alexander Don, Under Six Flags: Being Notes on Chinese in Samoa, Hawaii, United States, British Columbia, Japan, and China, J. Wilkie & Co., Dunedin, 1898, pp. 11-12.)
Everyone has noticed the prevalence of this prefix to the names of Chinese abroad, and many are the attempts to explain. Generally it is supposed to represent our ‘Mr,’ but on one occasion a Supreme Court Judge gravely informed the jury and counsel that he had discovered it to mean ‘Bachelor’! In China it is used only to familiar friends, to close relatives, to inferiors, servants, and such. In the Colonies one finds the head of a large importing firm, known as ‘Ah ——,’ with ‘& Co.’ often attached. The nearest parallel to this in English usage would be to style the firm, Robert Wilson & Co., as ‘Bobby & Co.’ For the prefix ‘Ah’ has much the same force as our familiar and diminutive affix ‘y’ or ‘ie.’ For the Britons, James Brown, John Smith, and Thomas Jones, to be known among the Chinese in China as Jimmy, Johnnie, and Tommy—this is one with the Chinese Lee Wun, Chan Wing, and Wong Ping, bearing among us the names Ah Wun, Ah Wing, and Ah Ping. Their full names may be—probably are—Lee Yeong-Wun, Chan Shing-Wing, and Won Ping-Kwong. They would never be called Ah Lee, Ah Chan, nor Ah Wong; for these are surnames. Equally Ah Yeung-Wun, Ah Shing-Wing, &c., are not used, just as we do not call a boy Tommy Willie for Thomas William, but either Tommy or Willie separately. Chinese, not knowing the meaning of ‘Mr,’ say, when asked the meaning of ‘Ah,’—‘All the same Mr.’ And thinking that we have only names—not surnames—prefix ‘Ah’ indiscriminately. So I am sometimes called ‘Ah Don,’ and Mr Ings ‘Ah Joe.’