Chinese American Names:  Tradition and Transitione

Chinese American Names : Tradition and Transition
by Emma Woo Louie
Call number 929.40951

p. 48.  The Vocative "Ah" in Names.  One more ancient name custom should be mentioned because of its direct bearing on some surnames belonging to Americans of Chinese descent.  It involves the vocative "Ah" for calling a person by name, as in "Ah Wei."  This is a central and southern Chinese name custom.  The use of "Ah" denotes familiarity when addressing a person by name, whether man, woman, or child, and seems to soften the abruptness of a monosyllabic name.  Kinship  terms are also prefixed by this  syllable, as in "Ah Gung" or "Ah maternal grandfather" and "Ah Gu-gu" or "Ah father's sister."

The Cantonese not only use Ah as a prefix to a name, they repeat it after the name when trying to catch another person's attention, as in "Ah Ngoon ah!"   In North China, familiarity is indicated by the use of "lao" (meaning "venerable" or old) as a prefix to the surname, as in lao Wang or "old Wang."

Perhaps this use of the vocative Ah and the word lao is due to the fact that neither the family name nor the monosyllabic given name can be stated by itself.  As. Dr. Y.R. Chao points out, it is only the two-character given name that can stand by itself.

NOTE:  Only LE and Jue Chong had disyllabic names, all the other brothers and sisters had "Ah" inserted into their names.

p. 66. Derogatory Names.  Not surprisingly, Chinese Americans who do not speak Chinese may be told that they are "not really Chinese."  This message is found in the term ABC which stands for "American-born Chinese."  It implies that the native-born who cannot speak Chinese has either rejected or lost his Chinese heritage.  Yet many native-born Chinese Americans cheerfully use this term in describing themselves.

ABC came into existence, I believe, during the 1970s at the same time as FOB--"Fresh off the boat"-- a term that disparages the new immigrant.  Apparently the term ABC distresses some parents who try to instill a Chinese identity in their children.  As one woman wrote: "Many do not speak the Chinese language, but, in contrast to Chinese youths of the 60s and 70s, who tended to ignore their roots, the ABCs of the 80s are proud of their Asian heritage.

Prior to World War II, the belittling term for the native-born was Jook sing.  It means 'hollow of a bamboo.'  To the uninitiated, these may seem inoffensive words except that it is like calling someone 'Airhead.'  It implies that, due to the inability to speak Chinese, such a person has no culture and is too Americanized.  Sometimes the native-born retaliated by calling their foreign-born peers China-born or Jook kok-- "node of a bamboo."  Since this is the thickest part of the plant, it implies stupidity or thickheadedness.  It seems that these terms have been replaced by ABC and FOB.

...  Professor Wolfram Eberhard of the University of California once wrote that many Chinese Americans in California are descended from "adventurous" businessmen.  Recent research by Dr. Sucheng Chan confirms this: "By allowing merchants to have their wives with them, the (exclusion) laws made it possible for them to reproduce themselves biologically more readily than could other groups.  That meant they could reproduce themselves socially as well, since the vast majority of the second-generation Chinese Americans were children of merchants who grew up in family settings with a petit bourgeois orientation."  (ie, the lower middle class, or small shop keepers).

p. 35.  Most Popular Surnames.  Li is the most popular Chinese surname ... this most recent finding that Li is the most common family name and Chen is the most popular one in southern China would not come as a surprise to many Cantonese speakers.  An old Cantonese saying states:  "Guandong Chan, Tin Ha Lee."  Translated, it means that  Chans (or Chens) predominate in Guangdong province while Lis predominate in 'tin ha' or the rest of China.  In addition to Chan, the next most common names in Guangdong province are Lee, Cheung, Wong, Ho, Chau, Au, Woo, Ma and Mak.

p. 96.  Ship Passenger Lists.  Masters of ships were required by federal law, since 1819, to file passenger lists with the collector of customs upon arrival at a port of entry.  Although ship passenger lists for San Francisco were destroyed by fires in 1851 and in 1940, a reconstruction of these lists from 1850 to 1875 shows that Chinese names were rarely recorded.  Most Chinese came as steerage passengers and therefore their arrival--like that of all steerage passengers--was recorded by the number per boatload.  (So it's not likely we'll ever find Yee Chung or Sun Ho on any passenger manifest.)

p. 95 and 103.   Early Official Records.  "Emperor Guangxu's Third Year."  This would be 1877 since the emperor began his reign in 1875.   K.S. 3 is the year of the Emperor Guangxu's reign -- Kwong Suey in Cantonese.

p. 106.  Identification Certificates.  Four main types of certificates were issued: the "Section 6" Certificate, the Return Certificate (or Certificate of Departure), the Certificate of Residence, and the Certificate of Identity. "Section 6" referred to the particular section of the 1882 law that described this document issued to the exempt class, such as merchant.  But it did not guarantee admittance.  Any conflicting information obtained through intensive interrogations conducted by immigration officers could have resulted in denial of entry.

If a resident of Chinese ancestry wanted to take a trip abroad, he had to apply at least a month in advance for written permission and for a Return Certificate from the immigration department.  The traveler even had to return to the same place from which he departed in order to be readmitted.  No Chinese person could take a trip outside of this country on the spur of the moment--not even to Canada or Mexico--without jeopardizing his status.

Merchants, teachers, and students had to apply for  the Exempt's Certificate (Form 431); the American-born citizen applied for the Native's Return Certificate (Form 430); and the resident laborer obtained a Laborer's Return Certificate (Form 432).  After 1909, immigration authorities issued a Certificate of Identity for both admission and readmission purposes.

Chinese Americans also found that planning a weekend visit to Canada or Mexico was like planning a year's trip to China.  For instance, in 1940, when my husband, who lived in Seattle, decided to visit friends in Vancouver, Canada, for the first time, he almost forgot he had made such plans by the time he received permission to do so.  However, after being instructed to apply to the Canadian government for permission--Canada had similar Chinese exclusion laws--he abandoned his plans.  (This obviously affected the Chan's on their 1929 China trip from Vancouver as well).

Certificate of Residence.  Beginning in 1892, all resident laborers had to register for a Certificate of Residence (called a "chock gee" in Cantonese) or face deportation (27 Stat., 25.)  Although the law did not stipulate it, many merchants registered for one because, from time to time, immigration authorities conducted raids in Chinatowns across the nation to arrest the person found without this certificate for the purpose of deportation.

p. 151.  Family Associations.  A good indication of surname clumping in an area is the presence of a clan, or family association, because membership is based strictly on surname.  You don't have to be directly related to any other members because of the belief that people of the same family name are all descendants of a common ancestor.  Family associations are usually found in metropolitan areas, but not all surnames that were brought to this country are represented by one; it depends on interest and leadership as in any organization. (In Sacramento, our family belonged to the Joe association)

Historically, family associations were first established in California but, according to Him Mark Lai, these were not formally organized until about 1870.  It was one of three types or organizations that were founded by the early immigrants from Guangdong province; theother two are the district association and the tong or fraternal group.

In the early decades, the family association was like a home away from home for the men who did not have families here.  The early immigrants had a keen sense of clan solidarity and of family obligation since they came from the Southern part of China where clans have been strong for many centuries and where clan rules guide proper behavior.  These organizations provided a mailing address, a place for members to meet informally, and temporary housing.  Clan elders arbitrated disputes, no doubt acting 'in loco parentis'  for the younger men.

Incidentally, one basic concern of the early immigrant  was that, if death took place in this country, their bones would be returned to the home village for reburial.  Bodies were exhumed in about 10 years after burial so that the bones could be cleaned, then ceremoniously packed in a special box for shipment to China.  Prior to the 1940s, shipments of bones were made regularly.  (No doubt the bones were reburied in large funeral jars since this was a common practice in southern China.   However, bodies could be exhumed three years earlier since the coffin is not buried as deeply as it is in America.)  This practice undoubtedly kept the Chinese cemeteries in this country  from being overcrowded as this seems to be occurring today.

Family associations usually have a voice in local Chinatown affairs because many belong to the umbrella group of associations, such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) that acts as a quasi-official governing body in most large Chinatowns in this country and in Honolulu.

"Tongs" and "Fongs".  The name of a family association may refer to it as as 'tong', which  means 'ancestral hall.'  This word, for example, is seen in the name Leong Jung How Tong Association that was organized in St. Louis, Missouri.  However, the Leong's Family Association in Boston, like many other family associations, eschew this word in English using it only in the Chinese title.  The avoidance of the word 'tong' may have occurred during the years when it often conjured up the image of 'tong wars' and the violent means by which the fraternal tongs used to resolve disputes prior to the mid-1930s.

p. 175.  Indexes of Villages and Family Names.  During the 1960s, the American Consulate General in Hong Kong compiled indexes of heung and villages located in four particular districts of Guangdong province, namely:  Toishan, Hoiping, Sunwui, and Chungshan districts.  Descendants of the immigrants who came from these districts may find them especially useful for confirming the Chinese characters to their surname and for the place of origin for their ancestors.  The name of each heung and that of the village and its marketplace are recorded in English and Chinese.  Family names are similarly recorded except these are listed only when fewer than 6 different family names are found in a village.

p. 133.  Naming After Placenames.  Certain other Chinese name traditions have been transferred in the selections of an American name, such as naming a child after a placename.  Courtland Chow was named after his birthplace, a small town located south of Sacramento.  He was almost named 'Woodland,' after a town that is located north of Sacramento.  His father had wanted a name to match up in sound with the Chinese name he had already selected for his first-born son.  When the doctor heard about this, he felt that he had to take a hand in the matter.  He said to Mr. Chow:  'Why don't you name your son after our town?  Nobody knows where Woodland is.'   IT'S A SMALL WORLD:  Courtland Chow was my mother's cousin, and he was the family optometrist with an office on Freeport Blvd.  The doctor in question is undoubtedly Dr. Raymond J. Primasing of Courtland, the typical country doctor, who delivered us three Chong boys at Mercy Hospital.  Primasing's office is still in Courtland, now staffed by Dr Henry Go.

p. 99.  "Charley".  Charley is another American name that stands out for the early Chinese emigrants.  Lee Charley is the name of a 7 year old boy born in Oregon and Charley is the name of a cook.  Apparently this name became very popular among the Chinese who settled in the New England states, New Jersey and New York.  According to the 1930 Chinese business directory, many an owner of a laundry was named Charlie.  Sometimes this was spelled Chas. as in Chas. Wong and Chas. Sing.  [This connects with Mr. C. Charlie in the 1906 courtroom battle.]

Sometimes the name of a Chinese store was recorded instead of the owner's name.  For example, Wa Chung is listed as a merchant in the 1870 census for Seattle but this was the name of the store owned by Chin Chun Hock, the first Chinese merchant in the city.  The 1880 San Francisco census lists Quan Wo as a shoe manufacturer and Poy Kee as a ladies' shoe maker, whereas these are names of shoe manufacturing factories as listed in the 1878 Wells Fargo Business Directory.  [Bill:  Have you seen these Wells Fargo directories?  Maybe it gives the addresses of Yee Chung's and Man Wah's stores, unless it is for San Francisco only.]

BTW my Chinese name is Leong Siu Wah, which translates to 'smiling face' (Ron Chong)

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