Canadian Genealogy · Chinese Culture · Chinese Genealogy · Genealogy How Tos

Who are you Mrs. Cumyow? A case study resolving conflicts in primary sources

In this post I will share my work in proving a woman’s maiden name by using records, direct and indirect information, and conflicting primary sources. She was Estaire Marion Cumyow (1913-55), the first wife of Gordon Cumyow (1897-1988). As it turned out, I thought I was only confused about her last name and then discovered there was also doubt about her first name. Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest.

What was Estaire’s real name?

Chinese naming practises

Traditionally, Chinese provided their names with the surname first. For example, Gordon’s grandfather was Won Ling Sing (1823-1904). The surname is Won (溫). This naming practise stresses the dominance of the family over the individual. In individualistic North America, given names come first. Gordon’s father took his surname as his middle name, combined his given names to form his new surname, and added an English name in front: Alexander Won Cumyow (1861-1955).

Of course, the Chinese tradition of surname first baffled everyone from immigration to hospital officials and continues to bamboozle family historians today. This confusion is reflected in documents. Just because a record is a primary source doesn’t mean it’s right.

Researching the records

In the following seven records, I’ll take you through my analytical process to learn Mrs. Cumyow’s real names – one record at a time. It’s important to realize the research process can influence the proof argument. In genealogy, one should always start with recent events and work backwards in time. Often this means searching for death records – registration, certificate, obituary, grave – first.

Death registration record of Estaire Cumyow, 1955

Here is the death registration for Estaire Marion Cumyow. A death registration record in British Columbia provides for a person’s name at death, name of spouse if known and names of parents. An indirect clue might be the name of the informant. In this case, we are looking for the maiden name of a married woman. Estaire’s surname at decease is “Cumyow” – her married name. To find the natal name, we review her father’s surname, here provided as “Lung.”

According to this record, the maiden surname is “Lung.”

Excerpt, 1955 death registration of Estaire Cumyow

Obituary record of Estaire Cumyow, 1955

With a death event, the natural next record to locate is an obituary. Obituaries often list the names of surviving family members and while only men will have direct evidence for surnames, a woman’s surnames might be mentioned if she has a surviving father, mother, or brother. In this obituary, Mrs. Cumyow’s mother is listed as “Mrs. Thom Lung” but her brother as “Fred Thom.”

According to this record, the maiden surname could be “Thom Lung” or “Thom.”

Obituary of Mrs. Cumyow, The Province, 22 Feb 1955

Obituary of Mrs. Thom Lung, 1955

This is the obituary for Estaire’s mother, Stella Thom Lung. Of the people listed, only son Fred would carry the surname and it is missing in the obituary: “…survived by 1 son, Fred.”

Obituary of Stella Thom Lung, The Vancouver Sun, 16 Oct 1956.

Based on this record, the surname is “Thom Lung.”

Death registration of Mrs. Thom Lung, 1956

This is the death registration for Estaire’s mother Stella. Death registration records hold more – and generally more accurate – information about a decease than an obituary. I located Mrs. Thom Lung’s record at the Royal BC Museum’s online genealogy database lookup where the surname is filed as “Thom Lung.” Fortunately, both the index and record were available online. In this record there are four name references but the evidence conflicts. The third question suggests “Lung” is the surname and the nineteenth question suggests it is “Thom.” The sixteenth question would have been helpful but apparently even Fred wasn’t sure. Still more evidence is needed.

  • Q3: Print full name of deceased: Lung (surname or family name) Stella Thom (all given or Christian names in full)
  • Q15: If married, widowed or divorced give name of husband or maiden name of wife of deceased: Thom Lung
  • Q16: Name of father: N.K. [not known]
  • Q19: Signature of informant: Fred Thom
Excerpt, death registration of Mrs. Thom Lung, 1956

According to this record, the surname could be “Thom Lung,” “Lung,” or “Thom.”

Marriage registration of Gordon Cumyow and E. Marion Thom, 1946

This is the marriage record for Gordon Cumyow and a woman surnamed “Thom.” Like a death registration, a marriage registration record has a wealth of useful detail. In addition, a marriage registration tends to be a primary source where the informant is more likely to be talking about themselves. In this example, it’s likely the bride gave the information about her surname: “Thom.”

However, like all good genealogy puzzles, this record gives assurance with one fact while simultaneously removing assurance with the other. Here the bride gave her first name as “Esther.” Who is “Esther”? Previous records said “Estaire.” Perhaps Esther wanted something unique.

  • Q13: Print name in full: THOM (surname or last name) ESTHER MARION (Given or Christian names)
  • Q25: Name of father: THOM (surname or last name) LUNG (Given or Christian name)
  • 32: Signature of Bride: [Esther M. Thom]
Excerpt, marriage registration of Esther Marion Thom, 1946.

According to this record, the surname is “Thom” and the first name is “Esther.” The middle name, “Marion” is not in conflict.

Is there a death registration for Thom Lung?

From the above, we know Esther’s father died after she was conceived and before her mother died: 1912-1956. It would be great to find the death registration for the father but there are multiple possibilities (and none of these records are digitized):

  • Ling Tom, 18, died at New Westminster in 1913
  • Long Tom, 50, died at New Westminster in 1913
  • Lung Tai Tom, 79, died at Chiliwack in 1926
  • Him Thom, 71, died at New Westminster in 1930
  • See Fong Thom, 67, died at New Westminster in 1930
  • Tom Lung, 73, died at Kamloops in 1935
  • Long Foo Tom, 58, died at Nanaimo in 1935

It is also possible Thom Lung or Lung Thom died outside of British Columbia and his death would not therefore be at the provincial registry.

Birth registration for Estaire (Esther) Thom, 1913

No birth record for Estaire is publicly available. The privacy wall with publicly available birth registrations is currently one hundred twenty years (before 1903). Estaire, who was thirty-three in 1946, was born abt. 1913. It’s possible to acquire a copy through BC Vital Stats but I’m not on the preferred list. [EDIT 23 Jun 2022: thank you to reader Linda M. for correcting me here. It’s possible for anyone to acquire a death record of a deceased person in BC if the death occurred more than twenty years ago. It’s just costly: abt. $50.]

Death registration for Frederick Thom, 1975

This is the death registration for Frederick Thom.

From the above, we know Estaire had a brother: Fred. Searching for his death registration could provide information about his surname and that of his father. This is indirect evidence: searching for proof of Estaire’s surname by searching for her brother’s records. Fred’s 1975 death registration has no conflicts regarding his surname.

  • Q1: Surname: THOM
  • Q1: All given names in full: FREDERICK CHONG
  • Q13: Surname and give names of father: THOM LUNG
  • Q17: Informant: Wallace Thom
Excerpt, death registration of Frederick Thom, 1975.

According to this record, the surname is “Thom.”

Newspaper article – Esther Thom, 1929

This is the oldest record in this case study: a news article from The Vancouver Sun daily newspaper. In Feb 1929 there was a well-attended party and the journalist took unusually good care to capture the names correctly. In the fourth paragraph are listed “Mrs. E. Chang Suey… Mr. Harry Cumyow, Miss Esther Thom.”

Fourth paragraph, “Many attend international club dance,” The Vancouver Sun, 1929.

This is where cluster research (researching a group at once) comes in handy. We can likely surmise that Harry Cumyow is related to Gordon Cumyow without too much effort, but cluster research shows that Mrs. E. Chang Suey is also family. Harry is Gordon’s elder brother. Mrs. Chang Suey is Harry and Gordon’s paternal aunt, Elizabeth Won, sister to Alexander Won Cumyow. (As noted above, Alexander’s surname, “Cumyow,” is derived from his two given names: Cum Yow.)

Simplified family tree showing Alexander, sister Elizabeth, sons Harry and Gordon, and Gordon’s first wife Estaire (Esther) Thom.

If the party happened in 1929, then here are the names and ages of the Cumyows who went to the event:

  • Harry Cumyow, b. 1895, abt. 34
  • Gordon Cumyow, b. 1897, abt. 32
  • Elizabeth [Won] Chang Suey, b. 1871, abt. 58
  • Esther Thom, b. abt. 1913, abt. 16

Esther later married Gordon at thirty-three but she may have met him at this party when she was just sixteen.

One of the startling realizations for me doing this work is just how well the old Chinese Canadian families knew each other. There are many reasons for this, among them a hostile external environment, the dominance of British Columbia, and restrictive land covenants. If a family was Chinese and rooted in BC, chances are excellent they knew one another very, very well.

According to this record, the surname is “Thom” and the first name is “Esther.”

City Directories

City directories might have the Thom Lungs / Lung Thoms but they are not more likely to be accurate with the Chinese surname issue and are therefore not a good record source for this case.


I conclude that Estaire Marion Cumyow was born likely Esther Marion* Thom in abt. 1913.

Photo of Estaire Marion Cumyow
Estaire Cumyow, The Vancouver Sun, 1955.

I’ll explain my reasoning. The 1946 marriage record is more likely to be accurate than the 1955 death record even though both are primary evidence because Estaire herself was the likely informant for her marriage. In addition, Estaire’s brother Fred signed his surname as “Thom” for his mother’s 1956 death record. Fred’s 1975 death registration has no surname conflicts. Estaire and Fred’s mother Stella may have adopted “Thom Lung” as her surname but it was not likely to be the original surname. Finally, the oldest record, an article from 1929, provides Estaire’s surname as “Thom” and first name as “Esther.” These four records – Estaire’s marriage record, her mother’s and brother’s death records, and the newspaper article – support the conclusion.

* For simplification, this study concerns only Estaire’s English names. It’s highly likely she also had a Chinese name.


I share this with you as a peek behind the scenes at the detailed analysis that goes into building an accurate family lineage. I have completed my accreditation study for the storied Won Cumyow family. Estaire (Esther) Marion Thom Cumyow was not the focus of my study by a long shot but it took several days to determine one important fact: her real name.

Thank yous

This study been a long, hard slog but now it’s done I’m so very grateful for all the help I’ve received, particularly from my friend and mentor Kelly Summers, AG.

Also thank you to reader J.L. for the email conversations about this fascinating family.


Canada, British Columbia, Division of Vital Statistics, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, Marriage Index 1871-1945, [digital images], registration no. 1946-09-013148, index and marriage record of Gordon Won Cumyow and Esther Marion Thom, 12 Oct 1946, Vancouver, British Columbia, Royal BC Museum ( accessed 6 Jul 2022).

Canada, British Columbia Division of Vital Statistics, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, “Death Index 1872-2001,” [index and digital image], index and record of Estaire Marion Cumyow, died 18 Feb 1955, Vancouver, registration no. 1955-09-002442, Royal BC Museum ( accessed 20 May 2019).

_____ index and record of Stella Thom Lung, died 12 Oct 1956, Vancouver, registration #1956-09-011140, Royal BC Museum ( accessed 6 Jul 2022).

_____ index and record of Frederick Chong Thom, died 3 Nov 1975, Vancouver, registration #1975-09-016490, Royal BC Museum ( accessed 12 Jul 2022).

“Many attend international club dance,” The Vancouver Sun, 23 Feb 1929, pg. 18, cols. 6, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, [digital images], ( accessed 7 Jul 2022).

“Mrs. Cumyow to be buried Wednesday,” The [Vancouver] Province, 22 Feb 1955, p. 8, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, [digital images], ( accessed 29 Nov 2020).

“Mrs. Cumyow to be buried Wednesday,” The Vancouver Sun, 22 Feb 1955, p. 15, col. 5, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, [digital images], ( accessed 29 Nov 2020).

“Thom Lung,” The Vancouver Sun, 16 Oct 1956, p. 24, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, [digital images], ( accessed 6 Jul 2022).

7 thoughts on “Who are you Mrs. Cumyow? A case study resolving conflicts in primary sources

  1. Hi Linda, good article. You may have found this already but here’s another record to add to your collection. Her CI-9 record when she crossed the border to Seattle. However this record raises more questions as her reported age was 30 in 1938 and her birth year reported as 1908. It appeared she knew Gordon Cumyow but was not married to him yet. In fact there are multiple CI-9 entries for Esther Thom from age 21 to 31. In her age 21 photo in 1929 (the year of the party) she did not look like she was 16.

    1. Nice sleuthing, Robert! I wanted to take a few minutes to look at your finds before responding. As you note, her age is also a question mark. Both the marriage and death record suggest a birth year of 1913. These immigration documents provide a date five years earlier: 1908. I notice the birth date and month – 20 Jan – is the same as that provided in the death registration. Generally, I give immigration documents more credence than marriage registrations when it comes to birthdates. And I notice the informant for the death registration was her brother-in-law, “R.W. Cumyow” (likely Richard).

      Frankly, 1908 is a more likely date for the party. Sweet sixteen is pushing it but twenty-one makes sense.

      I knew quite a few Chinese women who fudged their age (thanks to incredible genetics). It doesn’t surprise me that Esther who became Estaire may have been five years older than she publicly admitted.

  2. Absolutely fascinating! It’s a real shame you can’t get a copy of that birth cert. I’m so used to being able to order what I need from England (within reason), which includes births until about 1984! Like you, I prefer the marriage cert to the death cert for accuracy for just the reason you give – Estaire was the person giving the info when she married and unlikely to lie, while I’ve seen enough errors on death certs to use them only alongside other evidence and to thoroughly investigate the information I find on them.


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