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Anglo surnames tell Chinese stories

3 February 20170 comments

A new photographic exhibition explores the stories of Chinese-Australian families who have lived in this country for generations.

The exhibition has been organised by Ken Leanfore, a fourth generation Chinese Australian, who was intrigued by how original Chinese names had become anglicised over generations.

Ken is a descendant of migrant Chan Luen Foh, who had his Cantonese name phonetically translated into an anglicised name, Charlie Lean-Fore, by NSW officials in the 1890s. The hyphen was lost overtime, though some descendants still go by the original surname.

Russell Jack

Realising his family’s experiences weren’t unique, Ken – a Sydney-based photographer – was inspired to document stories of people within the Australian-Chinese community who live with a contrast between ethnicity and name.

‘What’s in a Surname?’ is a photographic portrait series – part of the City of Sydney’s Chinese New Year’s Festival program – that explores multi-generational Chinese-Australian descendants living with unusual or anglicised surnames.

“All my life people have asked about the origins of my surname, with plenty assuming I’m of European descent – specifically French,” Ken said.

“My great-grandfather actually arrived from Guangzhou in the 1890s – so it’s quite a leap from France to a dodgy translation from the Aussie gold rush era.”

“It’s been quite common for people to say ‘you’re more Australian than I am!’ after they hear just how long the Leanfore family has been in Australia.

“My dad, Gerald, has always mentioned that other families have a similar story – so this project is really just a culmination of that and my interest in photography,” he said.

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said the stories of immigration and the mix of those people into our community, illustrate the rich history of Chinese descendants and their contribution to our city.

“Our Chinese New Year Festival has continued to evolve as one of Sydney’s best loved festivals and now one of the largest Chinese New Year celebrations outside Asia,” Cr Moore said.

Ken spent nine months researching Chinese-Australians with anglicised names across the country, uncovering a range of descendants each with their own fascinating story, often conveyed in thick Australian brogue.

“Since the mid-1800s Chinese migrants, through personal choice or bureaucratic misstep, have found themselves living in Australia with names that often bear little relation to their origins,” he said.

“The change was perhaps a way to assimilate to a new community due to social pressure, or it was changed through bureaucratic administration.

“In the 19th and early 20th centuries the majority of Chinese who went overseas to Australia and New Zealand were from Guangdong province and spoke Cantonese or local dialects.

“As many of these Chinese migrants could not speak English, and the customs and immigration officials could not speak Chinese or understand the structure of Chinese names, the names recorded for many early migrants often bore little resemblance to their actual Chinese names.

“As a result, the anglicisation of Cantonese names in Australia and New Zealand has evolved randomly, more or less from the beginning, with names often first rendered approximately and haphazardly into English by immigration officials,” Ken said.

Featured in the exhibition is Bendigo’s Dennis O’Hoy, a member of the Bendigo Trust, and a driving force behind the city’s trams network.

Dennis’s grandfather, Louis O’Hoy, came to Bendigo in 1860 and was one of the originators of the Chinese association and Chinese procession.

Also featured is Russell Jack, the founder and director of the Golden Dragon Museum in Victoria – a museum dedicated to the history and culture of the Chinese people who immigrated to Australia.

‘What’s in a Surname?’ will showcase at the Klei Gallery in Albion Place from 27 January to 10 February. The exhibition is one of more than 80 associated events that are part of the Sydney Chinese New Year Festival.

For more information visit sydneychinesenewyear.com