What’s in a name?
For centuries, the Philippines has been home to many Chinese immigrants, having welcomed long ago entire communities who mostly came from the southern provinces of China–Fujian, Guangdong, and the like. It isn’t surprising that with such a long history of trade, settlement, and communication, Chinese-Filipinos — or Chinoys, as many of us are called — roughly comprise 1.5 million people or 1.8% of the total Filipino population.
In the past, however, the process of immigrating wasn’t easy. For many, integrating into a new country meant picking up a “new” name — after all, Filipinos aren’t familiar with the character-based writing system that the Chinese use. As a result, Chinese surnames had to be transliterated, based often on their Hokkien pronunciations. This is why we see names such as Tan, Ang, and Sy instead of 陈, 洪, 施.
Interestingly enough, you may have probably noticed that many Chinoys also have multi-syllable surnames despite the fact that their actual Chinese surnames only have one. This is because many Chinese immigrants often had their full names transliterated to use as a single surname, taking up a new Filipino-Spanish given name to begin their new lives. It was an especially popular practice for immigrants who had come from before 1898, resulting in surnames such as Gokongwei, Ongpin, and Pempengco, among many others.
That said, you might have noticed that despite the multi-syllable exceptions, several Chinese-Filipinos often share the same surname even though they aren’t related. Maybe you’ve even thought to ask, “Why are there so many Chinoys with the last name Tan? Is it the most common Chinese surname?”
Well, yes. While 陈 (Mandarin: Chén, Hokkien: Tan) is the 5th most common surname in China, it is the most common Chinese surname here in the Philippines, according to genealogy portal Forebears. Take a look at our list below to check out what else are the top 10 common Chinoy surnames:
1. Tan (陈)
Meaning “ancient” or “to exhibit,” this surname is known to be the most common in the southern provinces of China. Since the majority of the Filipino-Chinese population has its roots in those regions, it makes sense for 陈 to take the top spot in this list.
2. Dizon (二孙)
Literally meaning “second grandson,” 二孙 (Mandarin: èrsūn), in its entirety, is not actually a legitimate surname in China. However, the character 孙 has long been listed in the ancient Chinese genealogy record Bai Jia Xing and is ranked as the 12th most common family name in China. It has also been used as a Hokkien surname suffix by Chinese-Filipino immigrants who arrived during the Spanish colonial period.
3. Lim (林)
林 (Mandarin: lín) is also considered to be the 18th most common surname in China. Composed of two adjoining radicals which symbolize wood (木), the character also means “forest.”
4. Samson (三孙)
If Dizon means “second grandson,” then Samson means “third grandson.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Chinoy who took the name is actually a third grandson, though.
5. Sison (四孙)
There seems to be a lot of grandchildren here, yes? Following this naming scheme, Sison literally means “fourth grandson.”
6. Chua (蔡)
In 2021, 蔡 (Mandarin: Cài) ranked 38th in China’s annual list of most common surnames. Though the character does not have any concrete meaning, it was once used to refer to an ancient state of the same name in the Zhou dynasty.
7. Uy (黄)
黄 (Mandarin: Huáng) actually refers to the color yellow, which the Chinese hold in high regard. Not only is it the color of the emperor, but it is also associated with the life-giving Yellow River. As a surname, it is ranked seventh in the list of China’s most common family names.
8. Ong (王)
Although Ong is only eighth in this list, 王 (Mandarin: Wáng) is actually the most common surname in the world, with over 92.8 million people sharing this name in Mainland China alone. Isn’t it fitting that the surname taking the crown for the global list also means “king?”
9. Yap (叶)
Ranked 43rd in China’s own list, 叶 (Mandarin: Yè) means “leaf” in modern Chinese. However, its actual origins as a lineage name come from the city of Ye, which was once located in the state of Chu during the Spring and Autumn period of ancient China.
10. Go (吴)
This surname traces its roots back to the ancient state of Wu in what is now the present-day province of Jiangsu. 吴 (Mandarin: Wú) is also the ninth most common surname shared in China.
Enjoyed this article? Why not take a look at the most popular Chinese baby names of 2020!
About the author:
There is nothing that Jodie enjoys more than writing about food, language, and the intricacies of a Chinoy life. A sales manager by day and a CHiNOY TV producer (read: East Asian culture fangirl) by night, she spends her free time diving into a world of Asian dramas and literature. Occasionally, she screams about figure skating.