iPhone, Cola and Kinky: what’s in a Hongkongers name?

Trend for Hongkongers choosing unusual English names continues as they compete to find most original one

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 10:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 12:43pm

Soufflé, Arial, Focus, Hippo and Kinky. They might sound like the members of an avant-garde electro-pop band, but in fact they are just some of the more unusual names that Hongkongers are going by in 2016.

So why are quirky names so popular in Hong Kong and how do we explain their evolution? Post-colonial British influences mean most Hongkongers have an English name that they commonly use at work or amongst friends, while at home they will often answer to their Chinese name or nickname.

The tradition seems to vary according to a person’s class. Upper-class and Western-educated parents typically give their children English names at birth or soon after. Some Chinese parents pay feng shui masters up to HK$25,000 to come up with an original name for their child based on factors such as the time of their birth and characteristics they want their kids to have later in life. Feng shui dates as far back as 4000 BC in China. It remained popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1960s while being pushed out of China during the Cultural Revolution. It has since regained popularity in Hong Kong. It is sometimes used to choose a new name for a child later in life if a family believes they are suffering from cosmic problems, i.e. bad luck.

READ MORE: ‘Expat brats’ give their take on growing up in Hong Kong as ‘third culture kids’

Sometimes parents have quite different ideas on what to use – such as including the concept of the sky – but we tell them it is not a stable name choice in Chinese culture

Louis Wong, a third generation feng shui practitioner at Sky Fortune in Causeway Bay, says he provides parents with up to 30 names to choose from for their child. He compiles the shortlist by trying to create what he describes as “balanced” names using the five Chinese Taoist elements (fire, earth, metal, water and wood); the number of strokes in a child’s written Chinese name and the pronunciation of each Chinese character. “Most of our customers are quite satisfied with these 30 names because they have a lot to choose from. I also show them the name selection method. Sometimes parents have quite different ideas on what to use – such as including the concept of the sky – but we tell them it is not a stable name choice in Chinese culture. We give them our advice and if they insist on using their own name then that is their decision,” he says.

“People in Hong Kong are trying to assert their individuality. It is a bit like when you choose clothes - you are making a statement of sorts.” Joseph Bosco, associate professor of cultural anthropology at the Chinese University

It is a bit like when you choose clothes. You are making a statement of sorts – but it is not a political one, at least not a conscious one

In contrast, working-class children may be given a name later out of necessity at school. They might choose their own name or be given one by their teacher. This might be one reason why some children have ended up with rather arbitrary names, such as Rainbow.

But there’s no hard and fast rule for how Hongkongers acquire their English name, as SCMP journalist and Hongkonger Laura Ma explains: “I was named after Laura Ingalls Wilder, the American author who wrote ‘Little House on the Prairie’, because I liked it as a child, but I wasn’t given that name until I was eight years old - about six months after I moved to Canada. I’d already been registered as Yan-yi at school, so I continued using this name while I lived in Canada. It wasn’t until I moved back to Hong Kong almost four years ago that by chance ‘Laura’ became my name after I included it as my middle name on my Hong Kong University journalism masters registration.”

Meanwhile, at home, some Hongkongers might go by a name which denotes their position in a family. “In a Chinese household, my parents never used my English or Chinese name anyway since we refer to each other by our relation,” Ma says. “Being the eldest, my parents just called me ‘big sister’ (in Chinese) and only used my full Chinese name when I was in trouble.”

READ MORE: Exam regime for Hong Kong’s primary school children is too oppressive

For some, a less conventional name is undoubtedly a way of marking themselves out from the crowd. Young Hongkongers in particular seem to be embracing the freedom to take on a new persona through their adopted English name.

Joseph Bosco at Chinese University thinks these names demonstrate Hongkongers expressing their uniqueness, rather than them making a post-colonial political statement.

“It is a bit like when you choose clothes,” he says. “You are making a statement of sorts – but it is not a political one, at least not a conscious one. People in Hong Kong are trying to assert their individuality. A lot of Chinese people want to make their name sound different – a lot of them have similar surnames too so it becomes more necessary to have a different first name. And many Chinese students do not feel there is a problem with changing certain letters in a name.”

My students sometimes ask me why I have such a boring name
Professor John Carroll

But unlike in the US and UK, where weird and wonderful names are given to children by their often pretentious parents, Hong Kong names are being concocted by the children themselves.

“My students sometimes ask me why I have such a boring name,” says John Carroll, professor of Hong Kong history at Hong Kong University. “I think people want names that are unusual. People want to differentiate themselves. They can be creative with their names – but they’re not often on their Hong Kong ID cards, which can be confusing when they enroll here.”

Some Hongkongers even decide to change their adopted English names later in life, just because they feel like it. Professor Carroll says: “When I arrived here in the 1960s, I noticed people had unusual names and I had friends who would just change them – I knew a Dickie who changed his name to Norbert and a Stephen who substituted the ‘S’ in his name with a ‘Z’.”

READ MORE: The wealth gap widens in Hong Kong education

This somewhat playful approach to the naming process extends to using English nouns which would never traditionally be adopted as names in Western cultures. “Cola”, “Fish” and “Orange” are just some recent examples of this in Hong Kong’s schools. The trend suggests children are simply choosing objects they identify with or words they like the sound of when selecting their name. But again, unlike when Western parents deliberately select alternative names in order to be perceived as “edgy” (Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s decision to call their daughter “Apple” springs to mind), young Hongkongers on the whole seem to choose these names in an unassuming way.

Whilst this desire for uniqueness might not be a new phenomenon, there are certainly some names, such as iPhone, which have only come into usage since the turn of the 21st century.

Bosco further attributes this to Hongkongers striving for individuality.

“This shows the cultural meanings of names can be very different in different cultural contexts. In a sense people here are following Chinese rule, but they want an English name which marks them out as unique,” he says.

Four Hongkongers tell us how they got their names

English name: Money Chin

Chinese name: 錢梓峰

Age: 23

Profession/university: Insurance agent

What’s the story behind your English name?: I chose my name because my surname in Chinese means ‘money’ – so together it translates as ‘Money Money’. I think by using an unusual English name, it’s more likely we’ll be remembered by people when we first meet them. It makes us unique and special - which is how most Hongkongers want to be thought of in their daily life.

English name: Curtis Li

Chinese name: 李政澔

Age: 20

Profession/Education: Student at New York University

What’s the story behind your English name?: Curtis comes from the word ‘courteous’. It is also a soft rhyme with my dad’s name, Ernest.

English name: Hydie Chan

Chinese name: 陳晞

Age: 31

Profession/Education: Primary school teacher

What’s the story behind your English name?: Hydie is originally a French boy’s name. It is pronounced as ‘hei di’, very similar to my Chinese name. My parents felt it was special so they chose it for name. I use it on my Hong Kong ID card.

Name: Josephia Feng Jing

C hinese name: 冯静

Age: 26

Profession: banker at Deutsche Bank

What’s the story behind your English name?: I got my name Josephia from my first English teacher – a 70-year-old from Mississippi, America. He thought it should start with the same letter as my given Chinese name, which is Jing, so he thought of Josephia. I was growing up in Wuxi, eastern China, aged about seven or eight when he gave me my name.