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Reflections: identity crisis

Wee Kek Koon

 

According to my Hong Kong ID card, I am “WEE, Kek Koon”. I don’t mind the block capitals: they identify my surname from the line-up of three clusters of letters. What I do mind is the comma after my surname, which implies that I am really “Kek Koon Wee” just as “Smith, John” is ordinarily John Smith.

I am Chinese Singaporean and my surname goes in front; it is not a “last name”. If I were in Europe or America, I’d probably accept the switcharound, because that’s the prevailing convention there. But I’m in Hong Kong, a city where more than 90 per cent of the residents are ethnic Chinese. There’s nothing “cosmopolitan” about a Chinese person calling himself Tai-ming Li by choice; it’s an apeish and rather sad imitation of a Western norm.

The Chinese family name has existed since antiquity and the oldest allude to a matrilineal society as all of them contain the character for “woman” in their written forms. Historically, people could have both a xing (the name shared by all descendants of a common ancestor) and a shi (a name adopted to differentiate between branches of a growing clan). However, by the time of the Qin and Han dynasties (221BC-AD220), the xing and shi had been merged into a single entity – the surname – which all Chinese had, and which was placed firmly in front of their given names.

 

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