Listen to Podcast | Special: Common Chinese Surnames in Singapore – Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese?

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Chinese Character Hokkien Teochew Cantonese
Lee Lee Lee
Lim Lim Lam/Lum
Tan Tan Chan
Wee/Oei/Ooi/Ng Ng Wong
Ong Heng Wong

Podcast Transcript | Special: Common Chinese Surnames in Singapore – Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese?

Hello! I’m Eugene from LearnDialect.sg and thank you for tuning into our How Do You Say Podcast. Oh wait, did you notice that for the first time, we did not specify if this podcast is focused on Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese? Well, that’s because, to conclude year 2019, we have a very special finale episode for you.

Now, have you ever wondered why the surnames or last names of Singaporean Chinese are spelt differently in English, even though the Chinese character used is the same? Through the English spelling of the surname, are you then able to make a good guess of someone’s dialect group?

So yes, today’s topic is about the common Chinese surnames in Singapore. Whether you are learning Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese, we think that this post will be equally helpful. In fact, the aim of this episode is to help you make an educated guess of a person’s dialect group and more importantly, get a conversation going. It is a simple guide and by no means exhaustive as there are always exceptions, so let’s get going!

Why do we have different English spellings for the same Chinese surnames? In short, this is due to our unique ancestry as well as the pronunciation differences by each dialect group. To illustrate, we have identified some common Chinese surnames in Singapore. We will use these as examples to point out their similarities and differences across Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese.

First, we recognize that there are some surnames which are spelt the same in English across all three languages. For example, my surname in Chinese is pronounced as li (李) and spelt in English as L-E-E (Lee). This is a common way to spell, no matter whether you are a Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese or even Hakka, as per Singapore’s first prime minister, the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.

Notwithstanding the above, Hokkien and Teochew belong to the same language group. So if you are a Cantonese, there is a high possibility that your English surname is spelt differently from your Hokkien or Teochew friends with the same Chinese surname. I can give you two examples here – 林 and 陈. 林 is pronounced in Cantonese as lum while in Hokkien and Teochew, it is pronounced as lim. As such, in English, Cantonese speakers will spell their surname as L-A-M or L-U-M, whereas Hokkiens and Teochews will spell it as L-I-M. Similarly, Cantonese pronounce the Chinese surname – 陈 – as chan (陳). Hokkiens and Teochews pronounced it as tan. Hence, can you guess what will be the English equivalent? Yes, Cantonese will spell it as C-H-A-N, while Hokkiens and Teochews will spell it as T-A-N. You get the drift now?

The next Chinese surname – 黄 – is an interesting one. It can either be different across Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese or similar between just Hokkien and Teochew. Here’s a quick hack for you! If the surname is spelt in English as W-E-E (Wee), O-E-I (Oei) or O-O-I (Ooi), the person will be of Hokkien descent. If it is spelt as N-G (Ng), then he or she may be a Hokkien or Teochew. In contrast, the Cantonese tend to spell it as W-O-N-G (Wong), a rather clear distinction from the rest.

Last but not least, 王 is one of the Chinese surnames that has a unique spelling across all 3 languages. Traditionally, 王 is spelt as O-N-G (Ong) by Hokkiens, H-E-N-G (Heng) by Teochews, and W-O-N-G (Wong) by the Cantonese.

Oh wait, did you notice that Cantonese spell both Chinese surnames 黄 and 王 as W-O-N-G in English? Again, this is because the pronunciation of these Chinese characters in Cantonese are similar – namely, wong.

So there you go! In this short How Do You Say Podcast, we have covered some common Chinese surnames in Singapore. We highlighted how some are spelt the same in English across Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese as well as how some surnames are spelt entirely different.

Here’s a tongue-in-cheek summary for you: Meet a Lee, ask him or her directly. Meet a Wee, Oei or Ooi, Hokkiens fit the name nicely. Meet a Wong, a Cantonese possibly won’t go wrong. But if you meet the rest, it’s time for an educated guess!

Well, did we cover your surname? If not, leave a comment and share with us your dialect group as well as your surname in both Chinese and in English. We love to find out more about different spellings across Chinese dialects in Singapore. My name is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg and hope to hear from you soon!


Love what you are reading? We’ve got lots more to share during our Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese express workshops. Join us to pick up words and phrases for everyday use in Singapore. More importantly, you can help to keep these languages alive!