The tales Chinese last names tell us about immigration
Apr 18, 2019
Photo: Shutterstock
Viola Zhou andQin Chen
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In a multi-part series, My name... is complicated, Inkstone looks at names, identity and the stories behind them. Join our conversation by subscribing to the Inkstone newsletter.

Apart from being badass martial arts icons, Bruce Lee, and Jet Li have one more thing in common – they share the same last name.

In English, Lee and Li are two different last names, but in Chinese, they’re written as the same character – 李. It is one of the most common Chinese last names.

The distinction in English is the result of two different transliterations. “Lee” comes from a system of romanization of Chinese characters common among Cantonese speakers in southern China, whereas “Li” comes from Pinyin, the standard system of romanized spelling used by Mandarin speakers in mainland China.

If you want to get your head around China’s vast regional and cultural differences, Lee and Li is a good place to start.

Here are three ways Chinese Americans got their romanized surname, according to Genevieve Leung, a linguist at the University of San Francisco, and Emma Woo Louie’s 1998 book Chinese American Names: Tradition and Transition.

A same Chinese surname may be spelled different ways in English. Photo: Felix Wong

1) Immigration officers

The first group of Chinese immigrants arrived in America in the early 19th century to mine for gold, work in factories or build train lines. It was a time when few Americans knew how to translate Chinese names into Latin letters, and so immigration officers simply tried to write down the names as they were spoken.

Most of these immigrants came from the Pearl River Delta in southern China (today’s Guangdong province). And they introduced themselves in Cantonese, Taishanese and Hakka – the most common languages of south China.

For example, the surname 林 is often spelled “Lin” when it’s derived from Mandarin – but most early immigrants got the spelling “Lim,” “Lam” or “Lum” based on their southern tongues.

Similarly the two-character family name 司徒, spelled “Situ” in Mandarin, was transliterated as “Soohoo” for Taishanese-speaking immigrants, and “Szeto” for Cantonese speakers.

Chinese poems can be seen on the walls in the barracks of the Angel Island Immigration Station, where immigrants waited to be processed. Photo: AP Photo/San Francisco Chronicle, Michael Maloney

From 1882 to 1943, the US banned the immigration of Chinese workers with the Chinese Exclusion Act.

After the restriction was lifted, a surge in ethnic Chinese immigrants speaking Mandarin and other non-Cantonese tongues brought with them a greater variety of surnames.

These language-dependent spellings have become a way for Chinese Americans to trace their family histories, according to Genevieve Leung.

“When Chinese Americans met people with the same spelling, there’s some imagined closeness they shared: ‘you came at this time, too’.”

2) Personal preferences

Genevieve Leung said that later generations of immigrants were able to choose their preferred transliterations based on their mother tongue, hometown and personal preferences.

Some adopted surnames looked Anglo-American, such as Lowe, Mark, Young or Locke. Others stuck to their original, more “foreign-sounding” surnames.

“Folks would tend to romanize their names based on uniqueness, or similarity,” Leung said. “It really depended on whether you wanted to be known or not, stand out or not.”

Language-dependent spellings have become a way for Chinese Americans to trace their family histories Photo: AFP/Getty Image/Spencer Platt
How I got my surname
Two American-born Chinese tell us why their surnames are spelled the way they are.
Alan Chin
My family came from Toishan. We use Toishanese as a basis for transliteration.
That is why we are “Chin” – this is closer in pronunciation than Cantonese “Chan” or Mandarin “Chen.” My brother, who was raised in Hong Kong, chose “Chan” for himself. Or you could say he followed the standards set by the British colonial government.
Kimberly Chua
My grandfather grew up in the village of Fujian, where it would have been pronounced as “Chua” based on the local Fujian dialect. In Mandarin, it would have been pronounced as “Cai,” in Cantonese “Choi” or “Choy.”
Grandfather later migrated to the Philippines, where the name is very commonly spelled and pronounced “Chua.” So he went with Chua and when the family came to America, we kept the last name. 
Former US Ambassador to China Gary Locke has a name that looks more Anglo-American. His surname can also be spelled as Luo, Lo or Lok. Photo: Simon Song

3) Romanization rules

If you want to learn Chinese, Pinyin is your friend. The official romanization system in the People’s Republic of China boasts 1.4 billion users across the world.

The large number of mainland Chinese who came to America following the country’s opening up in the early ’80s almost all spell their surnames according to Pinyin.

But in self-ruled Taiwan, most people follow the earlier Wade-Giles system, which was developed by 19th-century British diplomats.

Recent immigrants from mainland China mostly spell their surnames according to China's official romanization system. Photo: Xinhua/Michael Nagle

So if you meet someone surnamed Zhang, Zhou, Jiang, chances are they’re from mainland China.

But if they’re Chang, Chou, and Chiang, they could be from Taiwan.

Leung says the various ways to spell a surname help both the name’s bearers and also non-Chinese Americans recognize the diversity of the immigrant community.

“That’s the beauty of being Chinese,” she said. “We aren’t just Mandarin, We aren’t just Cantonese. We are such a large group of people, and naming is a cool way to distinguish the population.”

Correction: an earlier version of this article misspelled Kimberly Chua as Kimberley Chua.

Viola is a multimedia producer at Inkstone. She covered Chinese politics for the South China Morning Post.
Qin is a multimedia producer at Inkstone. She was a senior video producer for The New Yorker.