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,


  1. Martin Gilbert says:

    The problem is not just names, but places too. I have seen a similar thing with my Great Grandfather, who incidentally is the “Charley Fun Chung” in the PROV Forgotten Faces exhibition. What the immigration desk man wrote down – Im Fun Chung – as he got off the ship became his Australian identity, though he eventually adopted an anglicised name. We are fortunate in that some of his court documents include his name written in Chinese, so we have a little better idea now. The same problem still comes up in trying to find the name of his place of birth. When Charley applied for Naturalisation, he said he came from “Nayon”, which of course does not exist by any spelling of Chinese places that I have been able to find. What I did stumble across today was Heyuan, one of the cities in the Sze Yup that many Hakka people emigrated from. Someone trying to write this word phonetically in English may well come up with something like Nayon. Does this “ring true”, or am I barking up the wrong tree? Thank you for your site, it’s fascinating.

  2. Stevenfrancis says:

    My great grandfather Edward took his wife’s surname soon after they married (Ah Poo to Thurlow). I am assuming this was done due to the racism that was encountered as a child living in Australia during the late 1800’s into the 1900’s. He died in 1943. He was also a scientist who was very successful in his field. However, very little is known about him because his children (including my Grandmother) concealed our Chinese background throughout their lives. It was not until after she died that a distant relative informed us. The interesting thing is Edward’s parents were recorded as Ah Kum and Ah Sen – which could mean Grandpa and Grandma in Chinese.

    • Kate says:

      What a fascinating story! I know of lots of examples of Chinese names being changed in various ways, but I don’t think I’d heard of a Chinese man taking his Anglo wife’s surname before.

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