It took over 40 years, and a chance encounter, for a Victorian woman to find out what her surname really is.
Heather Ahpee’s husband’s great-grandfather, Robert, moved from China to Victoria during the gold rush era.
“My last name is Ahpee, which is a Chinese bastard,” she said.
“Like so many Chinese names in Australia, this is not a real Chinese name.
“It’s not even [Robert’s great-grandfather’s] Last name. That’s his first name, and it means “peace.”
“We decided when the children were small, so in the late 70s, that we would like to know but unfortunately [Robert’s] father is already deceased.”
The couple then approached other family members, but to no avail.
“We went to see her aunts… but they wouldn’t tell us anything,” Ms Ahpee said.
“They obviously suffered a lot of trauma, I think, [and] discrimination when they were young, and they didn’t want to recognize that they were part Chinese. »
With nowhere to go, the Ahpees gave up the search.
Ms. Ahpee took over the task of tracing the family’s genealogy in 1999 through her work at the Gum San Chinese Heritage Center in Ararat.
The center wanted to exhibit local families descended from Chinese migrants who arrived during Victoria’s Gold Rush.
But the only written record she could find was the Ahpees’ marriage certificate from 1875, where he simply marked her name with a cross because he was illiterate.
But a chance discovery in 2019 changed things.
Avoca and District Landcare were preparing to build a rest stop at Avoca Lead on land that had been donated by a local family.
They discovered a slate tombstone.
It was sandwiched between two wooden planks and bore a Chinese inscription.
It also happens to be the known location of a butcher shop owned by the Ahpee family.
While the building was no longer there, Ms Ahpee said the headstone was well preserved under the concrete which had a hollow where cattle blood could drain and be turned into blood sausage.
“Finding it in Chinese characters was a real breakthrough,” she said.
Mrs. Ahpee had the inscription translated, which revealed that Ahpee’s name in Chinese characters was Gong Pei, and that he came from a small village in southern China called Panyu.
Sadly, Ms Ahpee said her husband died in 1995, before the surprise discovery.
“He would have been so happy,” Ms Ahpee said.
Overcoming language and cultural barriers
Historian and curator Sophie Couchman is all too familiar with the challenges of tracing Chinese genealogy dating back to the 19th century.
She said not only were records in Australia often incomplete, but writing styles had also changed and some letters sounded ambiguous.
“S and T can look alike, so you have to go back and see what the writing style of those letters looked like back then,” Dr. Couchman said.
“And some people’s writing is just atrocious.”
An assistant principal researcher at La Trobe University, she said cultural and linguistic differences add another layer of complexity to the search for Chinese ancestry.
Dr Couchman said one challenge was that Chinese names were written with the surname first, which meant registered names would be reversed.
She said Chinese languages were also tonal, so they could not be written in English.
The classic example, Dr. Couchman said, was mā, má, mǎ, mà.
“If you were to write any of these sounds in English, you would write ‘ma’ but it could mean four different things,” she said.
“When a Chinese man came to Australia, he couldn’t write his name in English or Roman letters, so what you got was an approximation.”
The multiple dialects of the Chinese language were another obstacle.
Dr. Couchman explained that while the Chinese characters remained the same, the name could be pronounced differently depending on where the person is from and what dialect they speak, and vice versa.
Unintentionally registered nicknames
Different pronunciations across dialects could change how a person’s name might be spelled.
Additionally, she said a person’s nickname was often unintentionally incorporated into historical records rather than their official name.
For example, names can be written as “Ah Tan” or “Ah Lim”.
“The ‘Ah’ is something that makes ‘Tan’ or ‘Lim’ a more friendly or familiar name,” Dr. Couchman said.
“In English you might refer to someone as Frank, but if you want to be more familiar you call them Frankie. John becomes Johnny.”
She said it was a common thing among Cantonese, which was a common dialect among Chinese migrants during the gold rush.
“You probably wouldn’t register someone’s name using [‘Ah’ in China]“, said Dr. Couchman.
“But in Australia they are sometimes used and then end up in the official register. And through generations they can be incorporated into people’s surnames.”
She said finding an ancestor was not impossible but just needed creativity.
“Chinese characters become almost useless because [the approximation] becomes their name in the Australian archives, so you search by that name and then you look for slight variations on that name,” Dr Couchman said.
“If the name is Chong, you can try Cheong, you can try Cheung…you start to learn how officials misspell that name, so you’re able to trace those people through the records.”
Sometimes people deliberately tried to hide their ancestry due to the discrimination and stigma attached to being Chinese.
Ms Ahpee said that when her in-laws got married, her mother-in-law’s family did not attend the ceremony because she was marrying a “Chinese”.
But over time, she said, the Ahpees were able to overcome those perceptions because they were quite respected in the Ararat community for their “legendary” charitable work.
Over time, her mother-in-law’s mother even came to live with the couple.
Ms Ahpee said tracing her family history has been a long journey.
“When I started I was around 50,” she said.
“…And by the time there was no one left. The older ones who would have had the knowledge were already dead.”
And although she now has the characters of her surname – 江 – the name of her husband’s great-grandfather and the name of a village in China where family records can go back as far as 700 years , she feels her journey ends here.
“I’m probably getting a little old to start doing this stuff now, maybe one of the grandkids could,” Ms Ahpee said.