Comparing cities through surnames

The last names of individuals in a metro area or a country can be surprising. Until today I never knew the most common last name in Canada is Li. Not Smith, as it is in the USA. Smith is number two in Canada.

The USA-Canada contrast is interesting: Looking down the top ten list of Canadian surnames, two are usually of Chinese origin (Li and Lam – #1 and #3 incidentally), three are English, three are French, and two are more ambiguous — Martin is both a French and English last name, and Lee can be English or Chinese or Korean. The USA’s top ten list are all English names — however in some individual states such as Florida and New Mexico hispanic names are frequent in the top ten list, as would be expected from the history of settlement in what is now the USA. The multi-lingual Canadian surnames arguably reflects a more multi-lingual and multi-cultural heritage in Canada. But Canada today is a very urban nation, and each major city is quite different in its heritage.

Taking a look at cities across Canada, there are some contrasts.

The top ten names in Metro Vancouver, according to the Vancouver Sun, are primarily Chinese and Asian:

  1. LEE
  2. WONG
  3. SMITH
  4. CHAN
  5. BROWN
  6. KIM
  7. CHEN
  10. GILL

Given Vancouver’s Pacific Rim location, this is not surprising. I should add, that in Metro Vancouver people of European descent still outnumber people of Chinese origin (the latter representing about 17% of the population), however there are fewer dominant European last names, perhaps reflecting origins among many non-English European countries as well as the frequency in China and Korea of certain surnames. Looking at last names is just one lens through which to view a city and it doesn’t reveal everything, we should note. Yet contrasting this list with other cities does reflect differences.

Here are Toronto’s top ten surnames, taken from a different source:

  1. Lee
  2. Smith
  3. Wong
  4. Chan
  5. Brown
  6. Patel
  7. Li
  8. Chen
  9. Kim
  10. Williams

Toronto’s list is similar to Vancouver’s. Gill (which is common in India and #10 in Metro Vancouver) doesn’t appear, but Patel, another Indian name does on the Toronto list. Otherwise, the two are quite similar.

For a contrast, look at Calgary:

  1. Smith
  2. Brown
  3. Lee
  4. Anderson
  5. Johnson
  6. Wong
  7. Wilson
  8. Jones
  9. Taylor
  10. Miller

The only non-anglo name here, Wong, doesn’t show up until the sixth position (edit to add that the name Lee in third place likely contains people of both European and Asian decentthanks MA for spotting this). From this list one could (correctly) conclude that Calgary’s heritage is less international and more anglo-Canadian.

For the United States I searched via Google for the common surnames in a variety of cities, but could not find similar lists. They do exist at the state level if you follow the instructions here.

What would be really interesting, would be to see the same lists 10, 20, and 50 years ago, but I couldn’t find any. Some cities have changed a lot. Indeed in the United States, a survey of the surnames of home buyers in various states changed dramatically between 2000 and 2005.

In California, New York, New Jersey, and Florida, 20 percent of home buyers last year were new to this country. The top five surnames of home buyers in 2000 were: Smith, Johnson, Brown, Williams, and Miller. Five years later, Smith, Johnson, and Williams were still in the top five, joined by Garcia and Rodriguez. In California, in 2005, the top five surnames among home buyers were all Latino….In Nebraska, the fourth most common surname of home buyers is Nguyen.

While this doesn’t tell us about cities, per se, it does show the way examining surnames can offer an intriguing snap shot of what is happening in a region, or even an activity like home buying within it.


  1. Mark Allerton says:

    I know you mention “Lee” as being both an anglo and asian name, but I suspect it is much more popular amongst asians than it is amongst anglos – and so pretty much counts as an asian name. I honestly cannot think of a single anglo person I know called “Lee”, and I can think of quite a few asians. OK, I do live in Vancouver – but I think this changes your Calgary picture (but only a little.)

    BTW, regarding “Gill” vs. “Patel” – “Gill” is normally a Punjabi/sikh name, whereas “Patel” is normally Gujerati/hindu, so that is an interesting data point.

  2. Wendy Waters says:

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the comments, particularly the background on Gill and Patel. And it fits what people who spend time in Vancouver and Toronto would guess from personal observation about the geographic origins of indo-Canadians in each city.

    On Lee – The Vancouver Sun yesterday had an interesting story about a Chilean immigrant who works in the planning department with the last name Lee, from his Irish heritage. That said, I suspect you’re right about most Lee’s being Asian.

  3. Payton says:

    US cities’ surname data can usually be derived pretty easily from phone books, which might not be as clean as census data but will usually suffice.

    Two cautions about Asian surnames:
    1. Surnames became common in China (in particular) long before they were adopted in Europe. Hence, there’s been more time for natural selection to filter out names, leaving a few surnames that dominate the population. Over half of China (a population greater than the whole of Europe!) shares just 19 surnames; there are as many Lees in the world as Mexicans! This super-weighting of Chinese surnames means that a city’s “most common surnames” list will likely be more heavily Chinese than the population at large.

    2. The diversity of languages, dialects, and romanization schemes mean that the same Asian surname can be spelled many different ways in English. This is perhaps akin to Miller, Muller, and Mueller all being the same name — but you might note that many of the Germans switched to the Anglo spelling back in the 1940s.

  4. [...] Place Gets Boring… »by Richard FloridaWed Nov 7th 2007 at 3:11pm ESTThe Name Game Wendy Waters’ gets us started with her post on the top 10 surnames in Toronto and Vancouver. [...]

  5. Fana says:

    why are there more people with the surname Jones then there is Smith?

  6. Wendy Waters says:

    There are more Smith’s than Jones’s, I believe.

  7. Carl Morris says:

    The name Jones usually originates in Wales, rather than England.

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