A woman with white jaw length bob wearing a black jacket with a red name tag with Heather in front of red Chinese doors.

Four-decade journey to uncover true surname of Ararat’s Chinese-Australian family

It’s taken more than 40 years, and a chance encounter, for a Victorian woman to find out what her family name really is.

Heather Ahpee’s husband Robert’s great-grandfather left China for Victoria around the time of the gold rush.

“My family name is Ahpee, which is bastardised Chinese,” she said.

“Like so many Chinese names in Australia, it’s not a proper Chinese name.

“It’s not even [Robert’s great-grandfather’s] family name. It’s his given name, and it means “peace”.

Ms Ahpee says she and her husband had to abandon the search after being stonewalled by family.(Supplied)

“We decided when the kids were little, so in the late ’70s, that we’d like to find out but unfortunately [Robert’s] father already passed away.”

The couple then approached other family members, but to no avail.

“We went to his aunties… but they didn’t want to tell us anything” Ms Ahpee said.

“They obviously suffered quite a bit 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 abandoned the search.

Summarizing the search

Ms Ahpee returned to the task of tracing the family’s genealogy in 1999 through her work at Ararat’s Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre.

The center wanted to exhibit local families who were descendants of Chinese migrants who had arrived during Victoria’s gold rush.

But the only written record she could find was the Ahpees’ marriage record from 1875, where he simply marked his name with a cross because he was illiterate.

But a chance discovery in 2019 changed things.

A gazebo and fence surrounding a headstone on the ground with roadworks and construction in the background.
A slate headstone bearing a Chinese characters of Ahpee’s real name was found underneath a butcher store.(Supplied: Avoca and District Landcare)

The Avoca and District Landcare group was preparing to build a highway rest stop at Avoca Lead on land that had been donated by a family in the area.

They discovered a slate headstone.

It was sandwiched between two timber boards and bore a Chinese inscription.

It also happened to be a 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 underneath concrete that had a hollow in it where blood from livestock could drain and be made into blood pudding.

“Finding it in Chinese characters was a real breakthrough,” she said.

Ms Ahpee had the inscription translated, which revealed Ahpee’s name in Chinese characters to be Gong Pei, and that he came from a small village in southern China called Panyu.

Unfortunately, Ms Ahpee said her husband had died in 1995, before the surprise discovery.

“He would’ve been so pleased,” Ms Ahpee said.

A placard with English translations of Chinese characters: Dated 1850s Tomb of Bi Jiang
The Chinese characters found on the headstone have been translated into Mandarin.(Supplied)

Overcoming linguistic and cultural hurdles

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 handwriting styles also changed, and certain letters looked ambiguous.

“S and T can look similar, so you have to go back and see what the writing style of those letters was like at the time,” Dr Couchman said.

“And some people’s handwriting is just atrocious.”

An adjunct senior fellow at La Trobe University, she said cultural and linguistic differences added another layer of complexity to tracing Chinese ancestry.

Dr Couchman said one challenge was that Chinese names were written with the surname first, which meant that recorded names would be flipped.

A woman with blonde hair wearing a charcoal cardigan and a green bead necklace in front of a bookshelf.
Dr Couchman says Australian records are an approximation because Chinese names can’t be captured in English.(Supplied)

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 those sounds in English, you would write, ‘ma’ but that could mean four different things,” she said.

“When a Chinese person came to Australia, they couldn’t write their name in English or Roman letters, so what you ended up with was an approximation.”

The multiple dialects within the Chinese language was another obstacle.

Dr Couchman explained that while Chinese characters remained the same, the name could be pronounced differently depending on where the person was from and the dialect they spoke, and vice versa.

Nicknames unintentionally recorded

Different pronunciations across the dialects could change how a person’s name might be written.

Moreover, she said a person’s nickname was often unintentionally incorporated into historical records rather than their formal name.

For example, names could be written as “Ah Tan” or “Ah Lim”.

“The ‘Ah’ is something that makes the ‘Tan’ or the ‘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 people, which was a common dialect among Chinese migrants during the gold rush.

A bluestone headstone with a motif of a Chinese gold miner with the record number and name engraved
Dr Couchman says ‘Ah’ often gets unintentionally incorporated into official records, like on gravestones.(ABC Wimmera: Gillian Aeria)

“You probably wouldn’t be recording somebody’s name using [‘Ah’ in China],” Dr Couchman said.

“But in Australia, they are sometimes used and then end up in the official record. And through the generations, it can be incorporated into people’s surnames.”

She said finding an ancestor was not impossible but just needed creativity.

“The Chinese characters almost become irrelevant because [the approximation] becomes their name in Australian records, so you search by that name, and then you search for slight variations on that name,” Dr Couchman said.

“If the name is Chong, you might try Cheong, you might try Cheung… you start to learn the ways in which officials misspell that name, so you’re able to trace those people through the records.”

downplaying heritage

Sometimes people deliberately tried to hide their ancestry because of discrimination and the stigma attached to being Chinese.

Ms Ahpee said that when her in-laws got married, her mother-in-law’s side of the family did not attend the ceremony because she was marrying a “Chinaman”.

But over time, she said, the Ahpees were able to overcome those perceptions because they were quite well-respected in the Ararat community for their “legendary” charitable deeds.

Over time her mother-in-law’s mother even came to live with the couple.

An old discolored photo of a young man with a button down coat, his sister with dark shoulder length hair and another man.
Ms Ahpee’s father-in-law, Eric, (right) said there were some racial tensions in his family to overcome.(Supplied)

Ms Ahpee said tracing her family history had been a long journey.

“By the time I started, I was 50-odd years old,” she said.

“… And by the time there was nobody left. The older ones who would’ve had knowledge were already dead.”

And while she now has the characters of her last name — 江 — the name of her husband’s great-grandfather, and the name of a village in China where familial records can date as far back as 700 years, she feels her journey ends here.

“I’m probably getting a bit old to start doing that stuff now, maybe one of the grandchildren might do it,” Ms Ahpee said.