Family Names

18 October 2018 by Roy Preece

Chinese and English

Su Yen went to New Zealand to study English for a while and had quite a difficult time there as she tells in Dear Su Yen*. I have always admired these brave young people who go, usually alone, halfway across the globe to study in a very different culture and with little knowledge of the local language. For an English person to pop over to France seems very easy in comparison. 


Many Chinese, especially from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, live in New Zealand. Australia and New Zealand have both developed strong trade links with South-east Asia. Snowflake Books’ Mandarin-English books are sold in Australia too.

So, when I was looking up some information on ‘nicknames’ following Lorna’s article on giving names to students at language school, and I came across some lists of family names, I was not surprised to find that some Chinese family names are among the top ten most frequent names among births registered in those countries.

Everyone knows that Smith is the most frequent name in England. I always find this a little surprising since many family names are assumed to derive from occupations in the past and smithing was, and is, a rather specialised skill, with its secret methods and hell-like image. Surely there would have been more ‘thatchers’ and ‘cowherds’ and so on in the past?

Sure enough: in England, Australia; New Zealand and even in the USA, Smith is the number one name (in Ireland, of course, it’s Murphy). I also discovered that the most frequent Chinese family name is Li. Can someone tell me what that means and why?. In New Zealand, Li now just makes it to number ten in the ten most frequent family names.  Wang, by the way, is number eight. 

Some readers may have spotted that missing from my list of English-speaking countries is Canada. Canada is very popular with Chinese and on the whole welcoming, as I discovered when I spent some time at Waterloo University there 25 years ago. Su Yen found on a recent visit to Vancouver to promote Snowflake Books that the libraries there are well-stocked with Chinese language books. I was intrigued therefore to learn that Li is the number one family name in Canada and Smith is the second.

*Here is Su Yen’s first encounter with New Zealand, from page 136 of Dear Su Yen

            “ ‘Why (or when? or what?) do you come to New Zealand?’

Oh, gosh, I was stuck in the Customs and did not understand what the question was about? I stood tensely in front of the customs officer like a log of wood which couldn’t say a word. It was so hard for me to feel calm when lots of people of different races came and went in such a huge place with so many languages mixed up in the messy air.

            ‘I… I…come to New Zealand for…studying English…’

            ‘―for three months.’ The officer kindly helped me to finish my sentence after I had taken so long trying to work out the right answer for her question.

            ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ I was so pleased and kept nodding till she showed me a card…

            ‘Do―You―Have―This? This? Or This? In Your Bag?’ It was much better that she pointed out to me those pictures of fish, cow, pig and shoes on the card instead of asking me questions so that I could go out to the real world from the stressful airport much more quickly.

            The first scenery of this strange country that came to my eyes was huge countryside and many pretty scattered houses with pitched roofs. My friend dropped me off by a lovely detached house which was surrounded by a big dreaming garden. An old white couple came to welcome me to join their family for my first visit in their world. I thought I was walking into a film when they showed me around the house.”     

But the house was not as welcoming as it seemed! Read more in Dear Su Yen.