Tag: Language

The trouble with spelling Chinese names

Names can be one of the trickiest parts of researching Chinese Australian history. They consistently seem to puzzle and confuse people – there’s the way that given names became surnames, the way that spellings changed over time and in different places and the way that ‘Ah’ appears everywhere.

I’ve written before about some of the challenges that come with researching Chinese names in Australian records. There are tricks you can learn, but my main piece of advice would be to be creative in your searching and in your spelling. I’ve recently been tracking a man whose name I first came upon as Mum Shou Pac—but he’s also turned up as Man Sue Bach, John Ah Shue Bach, John Ah Shue and John a Shue. All of these variations appeared in records from the same year and when he was living in the same place! I am yet to track him before that one year, and my stumbling block is knowing what name his baptism and marriage and the births of his children might be listed under.

I’ve heard some people say that the irregularity of spelling of Chinese names in early Australian records was the result of the disregard that white residents felt for Chinese residents—perhaps even that it was the result of racist attitudes. I have a slightly different take on it, as illustrated by discussions during a court case from South Australia in 1845.

In November that year, a young man named James Coyle was charged with, and then found guilty of, stealing the watch of a Chinese man named John Pegue at Gawler. John Pegue gave evidence at Coyle’s trial, and the following exchange took place when he was being cross-examined by Mr Poulden, the lawyer:

John Pegue: … I am no scholar; I do not know how to spell my name; I call it Pegue.

Mr Poulden: Do you know the letters in your name? Can you write?

John Pegue: No, I cannot write English; it is a China name; I cannot write Chinese; I am no scholar—not at all; my China name is Piggu.

Mr Poulden noted that in the indictment the name was spelled with two ‘g’s’ while in the deposition it was not. The Advocate-General thought the name sounded like it should have two ‘g’s’, and apparently the police at Gawler called him ‘Piggy’ (it doesn’t seem that this was necessarily meant in a derogatory way, just that it was how the name sounded to them). The judge noted all this ‘only shows that different people spell different ways.’

I think there are a couple of things going on here—things that happened over and over again as Chinese residents and white residents met and interacted in the colonies—things that influenced the way that many thousands of Chinese names were recorded in Australian records.

First, although it seems that John Pegue was fluent enough in English to give evidence, he was not literate. He did not know the alphabet. He could not even write his name in Chinese. He didn’t then know how his name should or could be spelled in English. There was no ‘right spelling’ to be written down.

Second, those who were recording his name in English couldn’t decide among themselves what spelling best represented the sounds of Pegue’s name. Was it represented better with a single ‘g’, or two ‘g’s’? Because Chinese names were written down phonetically, the way that English-speakers recorded them could be influenced by their own background, dialect, accent and level of literacy.

I’m not saying that cultural ignorance and misunderstanding had no part in the curious ways that Chinese names were recorded in colonial Australia. But when you explore the mechanics of how those names were written down, and about the personal interactions and exchanges they involved, the situation seems so much more complex and interesting than simple ignorance.

I’d love to hear other stories of strange renderings of Chinese Australian names.


1845 ‘LAW AND POLICE COURTS.’, South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 – 1900), 26 November, p. 3, viewed 12 February, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article27451418.

Looking like a pak ah pu ticket

On 19 March 1930, the Sydney Morning Herald reported the arrest of a white girl, two white men and a Chinese man in a ‘suspect “Pak-a-Pu” den’ in Sydney. Along with the suspects, the police took with them ‘a number of squares of rice paper covered with strange Oriental signs’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 1930).

These little paper squares were pak ah pu tickets and they would have looked something like this:

Pak ah pu ticket

(This ticket was passed on to me through my mum by an amateur local historian from Epping in Sydney. I don’t know where he got it from or what year it dates from – probably early 20th century. The square is about 9.25 by 8.5cm, on a piece of paper that’s 14 by 11.5cm. Here’s another one, from New Zealand, which has been used.)

Pak ah pu was one of the popular forms of gambling that made their way overseas with nineteenth-century Chinese migration to Australia (and New Zealand, the USA and other places). Its name came from the Cantonese baakgaap piu – literally meaning ‘pigeon’s note’ or ‘pigeon’s ticket’ – and it was what was commonly known as the Chinese lottery. Spellings vary, including pak ah pu, pak a poo, pak a pu, with or without spaces and hyphens.

Marlon K Hom provides this explanation of pak ah pu in his book Songs of Gold Mountain (University of California Press, 1987, pp. 25–28):

Baakgaap piu is a lottery game based on the first eighty words of the ‘Thousand Word Prose’ (Qian zi wen), a well-known four-word-per-line prose-poem. No words are duplicated in the prose; hence there are eighty different spots on which the players can bet. A player wins if his choice of words matches the winning word(s)… The game’s popularity was due to the fact that, in addition to being a simple lottery that required no skill but only luck, it did not require presence of the player, who could carry on his usual business while playing the game. Agents in storefronts wrote up the lottery tickets for the players; in addition, couriers for the operators were readily available to pick up or deliver bets and winnings. This game was also well received by non-Chinese players. The Japanese mockingly called it baka (‘foolish’), a play on its Chinese name, baakgap (lit., ‘pigeon’). It was also immensely popular among white players, so much so that, according to Stewart Culin, white casinos later adopted it and turned it into the game of Race Horse Keno, and later, simply Keno. Here, eighty numbers, written from left to right and top to bottom, replace the original Chinese characters, which were arranged from top to bottom and right to left.

The Stewart Culin that Hom refers to was an American ethnographer who, in 1891, wrote a paper entitled The Gambling Games of the Chinese in America. The Elliott Avedon Virtual Museum of Games at the University of Waterloo (Canada) has more information about Stewart Culin and an online transcript of his paper on Chinese gambling.

In Australia, pak a pu was one of those parts of Chinese culture that became so familiar that it entered the vernacular. Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English lists the expression to ‘look like a pakapu ticket’, meaning to be completely indecipherable (8th edition, edited by Paul Beale, pp. 850–51).

The ABC’s Kel Richards recalled this about the expression:

Any writing that is difficult to decipher was once labelled ‘a pakapoo ticket’…

The origin of the expression is a Chinese gambling game played with slips of paper marked with columns of characters…

…It’s an expression that seems to have died out, but still I remember being told, as a school boy: ‘This exercise book looks like a pakapoo ticket, Richards.’ From that use it was extended to describe anything that was untidy or disorderly. The earliest citation for this sort of use is from Eric Lambert’s novel, based on his wartime experiences, called Twenty Thousand Thieves (1951) in which an officer complains that the platoon’s pay book ‘looks like a pak-a-poo ticket’…

Because of the inability of Aussies to read these Chinese characters, such slips were said to look like untidy scribblings. ‘Pakapoo ticket’ is another distinctively Aussie contribution to the English language. (Kel Richards, ABC NewsRadio website)

And another small reminder of the widespread presence of the Chinese in 19th- and early 20th-century Australia and their influence on colonial life in many ways, large and small.

Traditional or simplified?

When I studied Mandarin at Sydney University in the late 1990s, everyone spent their first year learning to read and write traditional characters. At the end of that year, we could choose which way we wanted to go. Looking back at my textbooks, it would seem that I went down the ‘traditional’ road. Well, for six more months at least. After that I went to Guangzhou to study at Zhong Da (Sun Yat-sen University), and the rest, as they say, is history.

I’m very glad, though, that I did have that initial basic education with traditional characters. Just today, for instance, I’ve been looking at some Victorian naturalisation applications dating from the 1850s and 1860s on which the Chinese gentlemen have signed their names, amazingly, in characters. (It’s all a bit exciting when one comes across a name in characters.) My Chinese is pretty rusty, but at least I’m familiar enough with old-form characters to be able to look them up!

I recently did some investigations into Chinese schools in Canberra, with the thought of getting my nearly 4-year-old daughter started on the path to Chinese literacy. The one school that teaches traditional characters has had so little interest that they are no longer putting on new classes. The biggest and most active school goes with simplified characters, although they say they do give the students chances to become familiar with traditional ones. I think that’s a bit of a shame (much like I think it’s a shame that my daughter’s going to end up speaking Mandarin, if anything, rather than Cantonese or dialect… But I digress!)

So what about bringing traditional characters back? Of course, in some places they never went away. (Another good reason for knowing traditional characters is to be able to make sense of noodle restaurant menus in Hong Kong when one’s Mandarin is ignored and one’s Cantonese is unintelligible.) But seriously, the latest issue of Geremie Barmé’s China Heritage Quarterly (no. 17, March 2009) has a really interesting article about moves to reintroduce traditional characters. Have a look at The Chinese Character—no simple matter.