WHAT'S IN A NAME? A Brief (and Confusing) Lesson in Chinese Characters and Their Translations

By Carla M. Pacis


When searching for a Chinese ancestor, the first thing one must know is the Chinese character of their Chinese name.  However, when one is several generations removed from the original name, language and characters, then it is most probably not known and becomes very difficult or impossible to find. 

Without the help of Ed dela Cruz of Relative Finder, I would never have found out that the Sy in Syquia has a Chinese character that looks like “grass” and is referred to as such.  An interesting example Ed gave was when a calligrapher is preparing wedding invitations for Tsinoys surnamed Sy, Siy or See, her first question is usually if the Sy character is that of “grass”, “step” or “calculate”. 

The Chinese language and writing system is in itself complicated. This becomes even more convoluted when translated into Western languages as there was no standard method for translation particularly during the Spanish and English colonial periods. 

In the conversion from sangley to Chinese mestizo to Filipinos, Filipinos of Chinese heritage have lost much of the information that would have helped us trace our origins.  Fortunately, in my family’s case, the 1920 landmark case where the Chinese family of Vicente Sy Qia sued the Filipino family for their inheritance provided some information.   Vicente’s origins in China were traced and his relatives and neighbors from Am Thau, his village in China and Binondo were located and interviewed.  This case confirmed with certainty that Vicente had a Chinese wife and two sons with her.  This was further confirmed by the existence of his tomb in the Chinese Cemetery in La Loma that had but two names carved into the cornices – Ricardo and Evaristo, his two Chinese sons. The tomb however had no Chinese characters but words in Spanish carved onto the sarcophagus.

In the same case, Vicente is sometimes referred to as Sy Tiong Kii and his brother Joaquin was referred to as Joaquin Martinez Sy Tiong Tay.  As explained by Ed de la Cruz, it was common practice among the Chinese to have a nickname.  To the third syllable in their Chinese names they simply added the “ah” sound.  Therefore, the nickname of Sy Tiong Kii would be Ki Ah.  

According to Tony Pe Sim from Amoy and colleague of Ed dela Cruz, Am Thau still exists.  In a rapidly modernizing China, it is no longer farmland but has been mostly converted into the Xiamen International Airport.  Fortunately, the family temple still stands and includes the tombstone and a formal portrait of the ancestor Xue Ling Zhi (Mandarin) or Sy Ling Chi (Hookien) who lived in 760AD. 

There is a saying in Xiamen Island:  “The South was founded by Tans.  The North was founded by Sy”.  

Andoushan in Mandarin and Am Thau in Hookien 


1 comment

hello,im Tony from xiamen. nice to meet here. i visited Syquia mansion in August, 2011, 10 years ago. thank you.

Tony Pe Sim September 25, 2021

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