Alyssa Bentz is a Corporate Historian for Wells Fargo.
Chinese-speaking customers have conducted business with Wells Fargo since its early days in the 1850s — initially through deposits, checking, and gold shipping services — but they have not always seen a Chinese name for the company. In 1971, Wells Fargo Bank Manager Lyman Jang decided that his customers might not feel comfortable at a bank whose name they couldn’t easily read or pronounce, so he created the bank’s Chinese name, 富國銀行, which translates to “rich, country, bank,” and continues to be used today.
Jang started working at American Trust Company in the 1950s. The company had offered specialized Chinese-language services to customers in four of its California branches — Oakland, Sacramento, Stockton, and San Francisco — since the 1940s. The bank even translated its name on signs to the Chinese characters for “America, trust, and bank.”
When Wells Fargo merged with American Trust Company in 1960, taking the name Wells Fargo Bank American Trust Company, there was no exact Chinese translation for the names Wells and Fargo. Wanting to continue to represent their Chinese-speaking customers, Jang and others chose four characters that roughly spelled out “Wells Fargo” phonetically, but had no significant meaning.
In 1971, Jang was appointed manager of the Broadway-Grant branch in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He took the opportunity to update the bank’s Chinese name, and then put it in the front window as a welcoming gesture to customers.
Simplifying the name to four characters, Jang replaced the phonetic characters with a clever play on words. Wells Fargo was commonly known as “the Fargo Bank,” and he realized that the characters “rich” and “country” had the pronunciation “FuGuo” in the commonly spoken Cantonese dialect of his customers. The characters sounded similar to “Fargo” and added an extra meaning that represented the hopes and aspirations of customers.
The characters Jang chose struck a chord with the Chinese-speaking communities the bank served and they continue today as Wells Fargo’s Chinese name, appearing in Chinese-language papers and websites. They also still appear in the window of the Broadway-Grant branch that Jang managed.