As the story goes, my great-grandfather Yip Sang had a cat named Ah Tom. I like to think it was an inside joke: the Ah to express affection, and the Tom for a tom cat: Ah Tom. I imagine Yip going about his day to day business, moving from warehouse to office, followed by Ah Tom. They say Ah Tom slept in Yip’s bedroom, but after he died, Ah Tom never went in the room again. Say it with me. Awwww.
Today I’d like to look at the particular naming construction of Ah, or 阿. You’ll see it everywhere in old letters and in records from passenger lists to census forms. It’s another reminder to me that the Chinese who left China to make their way in the world roughly a century ago were predominantly from Kwongtung (Guangdong, 廣東 or 广东).
9 things you may not know about the name “Ah” (阿)
- There is no English language equivalent.
- It’s technically not a name in itself – it appears with names.
- It’s used for women and men.
- It comes from the southern part of China, in the languages of Cantonese, Hakka, and Chaozhou (Teochew), among others.
- It could be a sign of respect for a man, such as “Mr.” Ah Sam, the grocer.
- It could be a sign of respect for a woman, such as Ah Tat, the neighbour.
- It could be a sign of affection, indicating a diminutive name. (For example in English: kitty for cat.) Ah Tom, the cat.
- It could be a nickname, showing closeness and familiarity among people who know one another well but who are not related. To construct a nickname, drop the last name and use Ah with the first name. For example, Yip Sang might have been called Ah Sang among his friends.
- It can be used with nouns such as auntie, uncle, or somebody; therefore the word Ah alone might not be a reliable clue that the word following is a name at all. To this day, I have photos of my grandmother’s friends (plural) I only know as Ah Yih, or Auntie.
How common would it be to use “Ah” in names?
Bearing in mind I am approaching this from a non-Chinese speaking perspective, I would say it would be very common to use the name Ah based on the ideas around guanxi (gwaan-hai in Cantonese, or 關係). I learned about this concept while touring Sze Yup (aka Siyi), Guangdong, China a year ago, and it blew my mind. Suddenly, a lot of things that my family did – from how they pushed me to ask Uncle for a job, to where my parents chose to live – made a lot more sense. [28 Jul 2021 – thank you to sharp-eyed reader AJ for the correction of Wuyi to Siyi.]
Guanxi is a system of interrelationships, family, connection, community, and power. It’s how things get done. It’s I know a guy on the macro-social scale. It’s being able to navigate barriers and red tape with I know a woman on the inside who can help. It’s coming to a new country not speaking the language and immediately connecting with the clan association for help getting work, learning English, and finding a place to stay. It’s trading favours for favours, a lifetime ecosystem of trading future indebtedness for immediate need. You are born into your clan web, you are connected to your clan throughout your life, and you die still a member of the clan.
It’s how Chinese relate to one another. I ask you now: How common would it be to use the familiar form of address?
A little misunderstanding went a long way with historic records
Okay, so now we know what 阿 means, we can go on to all those immigration records, censuses, and passenger lists. I’ve been asked on several occasions,
I think I found my great-grandfather in the census. He was called Ah Wong. Our last name is Wong. How do I know for sure that’s him?
Unfortunately, you don’t. As I hope you can see from my list above, the word 阿 or Ah is not a name, and the second part of that name might be the first name, a nickname, a relational word, or – we can’t totally rule this out – the surname. How did this happen?
We don’t know, but the thinking is that the question What is your name? was either misunderstood or mistakenly translated as By what name are you called? It’s a subtle difference with major consequences.
What are the consequences for genealogy?
Here are two possible outcomes:
- Essential records normally available to the family historian such as census records and passenger manifests are filled with lists of names using the Ah form, and are therefore far less likely to be useable; and
- Official government records beginning with immigration papers might reflect this confusion in unpredictable ways: the name LEE Wong, or Ah Wong, could be spelled in English (and for all time as) Ahwong or Wong. It’s the equivalent of George BROWN’s family being renamed the George family after the immigration process, and it’s very common.
My friend Geoff Wing explained to me his ancestor ENG Wing Him lost his family name on entering Canada and that’s why he’s named WING instead of ENG.
Example: When did Yip Sang first arrive in N. America?
I would like to prove Yip Sang’s first arrival in North America.
I’m fortunate in that he first went to California abt. 1864, because while there are no passenger arrivals to Victoria and Vancouver before 1905, there are index cards for Chinese departing Hawaii from 1843-1900 at the Hawaii State Archives. Honolulu was an important port on the San Francisco, Yokohama, Manila, Hong Kong steamship circuit.
I went through the records, trying every name variation I could invent. This is one of the best hints: a man by the name of “Yip a Sung”, aged 27, travelling from Hong Kong to the USA in 1876. Could this be Yip Sang? Maybe. (For example, I have spent 2 hours looking for the “Ship “Anglo Saxon” in 1876, on the Hong Kong to Hawaii route. I found a ship fitting the description, the Anglo Saxon built in 1856, but she sank in 1863; and she didn’t sail the Pacific. Sigh. Another genealogical mystery.) As usual, more research is needed.
And that’s where I’m now stuck: learning more about shipping lines circa 1850, passenger lists for Hong Kong and Honolulu, and the various archives from Hawaii to California. With every new geographic location, there is the possibility of uncovering a new clue, or better, an archivist who knows the records. In other words, my very own form of guanxi, or I know someone on the inside.
As readers of this blog know, I am not a Chinese speaker. I therefore approach the subject of learning Chinese with equal parts humility and pride (because being a lifelong student means making mistakes along the way, and because it feels wonderful to learn Chinese, one word at a time). If you’ve been with me from the beginning, you’ve see me struggle with the word 氏 (Shee, Shi, Sze, or See). It baffled me that Yip Sang had 4 wives who all had the same first name. Imagine my surprise to learn that 氏 wasn’t a name at all: it was the character for wife, meaning from the family of. For more, see my post All Chinese wives are called Shee.
Sources and thanks
For his ongoing help answering my questions about Cantonese, huge thanks to Jason L, and for his explanation of ENG Wing Him, my thanks to Geoff Wing.
Chinese last names: a history of culture and family, Legacy Tree. (29 Mar 2019). Accessed 31 Oct 2020.
Pop Cantonese: 關係 – Guanxi, Gabriella Zanzanaini, Zolima City Mag (9 Jun 2016). A brief post discussing a Very Big Concept in Chinese culture.
Chinese passenger manifests index, Hawaii State Archives Digital Collection. 1151 Punchbowl Street, Honolulu, HI. Not only Chinese passenger manifests, but also Japanese and Portuguese. Any cross-Pacific travel in your family history should have you checking out this important port.
What to call your relatives in Cantonese, Little Chinese Things. In this post, Odette writes a wonderfully helpful post, complete with Chinese characters and pronounciations in English (in jyutping, or Cantonese words in English, if you want to get technical).
Next time: In search of your Asian roots by Sheau-yueh J. Chao
Did you know there is a book on genealogical research on Chinese names in English? I received a copy recently and will do a book review.