What's in a name?
Updated: Jun 1
“Why do so many Hongkongers adopt western names? Why aren’t you guys embracing your roots?”, a Caucasian friend of mine asked.
As a Hongkonger with a western name, I felt somewhat ashamed and embarrassed by the question. Well, I was given it, I thought, rather defensively. But the question lingered on for the next few days like a cloying scent. Why is it that I don’t use my Chinese name? And why do none of my friends even know what it is? The three characters of my Chinese name are spoken by no one, except my parents – and only when they feel the need to don their authoritarian Chinese tiger-parent hats.
The “western name phenomenon” is most widespread in Hong Kong, and Chinese names are more readily embraced by our peers in other parts of Asia. Before Hong Kong became a British colony in 1841, the territory was nothing more than a fishing village. Over the next century and a half, this little bud of a city has flourished, morphed and blossomed into a full-blown global metropolis.
British influence was ubiquitous. The best schools in the city were English-speaking, and often linked to Catholic or Anglican churches. Back in the day, students were often given English names by their teachers (or requested by their teachers to adopt one). The English name projected an air of prestige – it hinted at better prospects, a better chance of studying abroad (or at least working for a higher-paid western corporation). It was social capital and a status symbol – a mark of someone who could speak English, afford good education, socialise with the ‘right’ communities. With the influx of Hollywood movies and western music, many Hongkongers also adopted English names to stay on trend.
Growing up in Hong Kong in the early 90s, I accepted it as normal to see positions of authority in government and corporations being taken up by westerners. Hong Kong is a society which, to date – a quarter of a century after it ceased to be a colony - is still tainted by the remnants of a racial hierarchy rooted in its colonial past.
Hongkongers needed to fit in to the British influenced society and make the most out of the cards that they were dealt. Unfortunately, at the time, the better cards were not dealt to those who stubbornly stuck to their Chinese traditions. It was the steadfast resilience and raw grit of Hongkongers that saw them through, and enabled them to thrive in, the colonial days. They made the most out of the infrastructure, the education system, the legal system, the business prospects and arts opportunities – and if they needed to maximise their chances by adopting an English name, then so be it. In the 70s and 80s, as Hong Kong skyrocketed towards its throne as Asia’s world city – nobody wanted anything to stand between them and the burgeoning opportunities, let alone the perceived clumsiness of a transliterated Chinese name. And so, over the decades, Chinese names were swept aside in favour of more fashionable Pauls, Jennifers and Christophers. This mentality became entrenched and infiltrated through to the next three generations.
But let’s not forget that Hongkongers all still have Chinese names. It’s not an either/or situation – we can have an English name and a Chinese name. These may have meanings that relate to each other, but often have nothing at all to do with one another.
A Chinese name is usually two to four characters in length. It is made up of the surname first. This is usually one character (e.g. Chan 陳, Lam 林, Cheung 張), with a few rare and unique two-character surnames – such as Szeto (司徒) and Au Yeung (歐陽). The surname is then followed by one or two characters for your given name. Confusion can often arise when deciphering the English transliteration, as the surname can easily be confused with the given name and vice versa. When in doubt, it’s always safer to ask.
Chinese names are unique in that they are an open playground of poetic references; they are also a reflection of the parents’ wishes for a child. A name can be a physical or intellectual attribute (e.g. Tak 德 – “virtue”, Chi 智 – “intellect”, Yan 恩 – “grace”), a beautiful place, or even a reference to a historical fable. With endless permutations of the 20,000+ Chinese characters in the modern dictionary, Chinese names can often be one of a kind. To date, in over three decades of living, I have yet to come across another person with my Chinese given name.
What complicates it further is that no standard set of rules govern how characters should be transliterated in English. Hence, it is essentially a free for all - open to the whims and preferences of whoever was naming you at the time. By way of example, as written in English my Chinese name is spelt “Chung Hsing”, but could easily have taken on five or six alternative spellings. And what’s more, the way a name is spelt often bears little resemblance to how it is correctly pronounced. My name (仲言 - a pun on "the weight of words"), if pronounced in Cantonese, sounds more like “Jung Yeen”. How anyone could get there from “Chung Hsing” is anyone’s guess. Let’s not forget the tones that make up the backbone of the Chinese language. With 4 tones in Mandarin and a whopping 9 in Cantonese, it really is a pronunciation lottery for non-native speakers. Simply put, tonal nuances are completely lost in transliteration.
Additionally, the transliterated word – e.g. “Yeen” – tells you absolutely nothing about what it means. As a Chinese person, I simply cannot tell what this “Yeen” refers to without seeing the Chinese character – is it 然,言,燕,延 or 賢?
So perhaps a reason why many of us still use our English names is because we don’t want to reduce the subtleties and nuances of our Chinese names to a collection of vaguely accurate sounding syllables. Another is that, frankly, many of us don’t want to spend precious hours of our lives asserting how our names should be pronounced or spelt. Some say that this is a lazy excuse, and that we should educate people to become more familiar with non-western names. This is probably true. But unfortunately, me spending my life insisting that others remember and pronounce my Chinese name correctly isn’t going to make much of a difference on a meaningful scale. The issue lies much deeper in the realms of race, diversity and discrimination. And besides, as a third culture kid - I am proud of my Chinese name but also happy to use my English name as my primary name. Like many Hongkongers, I don’t feel that our unique Hong Kong Chinese identity is any less robust because of that. Hong Kong is a melting pot, and so are our names.
In recent years, we have seen the tides turn and Chinese names regaining popularity in Hong Kong. Some people have made public statements to reclaim their cultural identity, dropping English names in favour of Chinese ones. Others might be entirely content with their western names – they may find that it forms an integral part of their identity. Others have gone even further to choose unconventional names like Rainbow, Water and Sparrow. Whatever it is, your name is whatever you identify with.
The charm and allure of Hong Kong comes from its stunning contrasts. So, in response to the initial question: our dual, bilingual naming practice mirrors a culture that is rich, diverse, often contradictory and one that is laden with subtleties. It is a document of anthropological survival, of resourcefulness and of hope; and a nod to our course of history.