Call Me Durian

A couple of weeks ago, I signed up again with NOW Broadband TV. For you out-of-towners, I should explain that NOW is one of the two big Hong Kong pay TV services. Here in Asia’s high-tech capital we get our cable TV through broadband internet connections. It would be great if it actually worked all the time, and even better if the company offering the service (PCCW) wasn’t part of a communications monopoly owned by the son of Li Ka Shing.

I’m not much of a television watcher, but Ah Go and David are big football fans, and they are both locked into long contracts with the other Hong Kong cable tv service, which recently lost its deal to show games from the English Premier League. When the EPL season is over in May, the league games will shift to NOW and Ah Go and David face a football watching crisis.

One thing you learn in Cantonese Hong Kong is the importance of being a good friend. Friendship is serious business here, and it involves grave responsibilities. Like enabling your good buddies’ football-watching addiction. Since I didn’t have a cable contract, I can sign up with NOW broadband without incurring thousands in penalty fees. So, now I have HBO, and Ah Go and David have access to the next match season. Yat Geui Leung Dak! One act, two accomplishments. Two birds with one stone.

How do you sign on with this marvel of modern high-technology information delivery? Email? A phone call for service? Wrong! As everyone in Hong Kong knows, unless you want to pay top dollar, the way to sign up for cable tv is to head out into the street at evening rush hour. Walk around until you find a young, chubby guy with a skin problem wearing a garish vest or windbreaker in the TV company’s colors. This eager fellow will either be holding a thick ringed notebook, or standing by a folding table. Approach him. He is your connection.

You have come to this meeting armed, of course, with a small flashlight and a magnifying glass. This is so you can examine the details of the six or seven different contracts that the cable representative will offer for your confused perusal as hundreds of pedestrians rush by. The deals and their particulars change weekly, so be clear about what you want (the cheapest rate and the shortest term, with no decoder fees or deposits).

Although they will urge you to do autopay, insist on paying in cash–if the company’s accounting screws up and takes too much money out of your account, you will have to do heavy kung fu with PCCW’s offshore customer service phone center in Guangdong to get your money back.

When you hand over the cash, the company rep will walk you to the nearest 7-11 to get a receipt (the chain store that never sleeps serves as NOW tv’s billing agent). Transaction concluded, he will hand you your contract, tell you to call him if there’s any problem, then give you his business card:

Piaget Chan

Piaget?! Your name is Pi-a-ZHAY? Like the watch?

“Pi-AH-jet”, corrects the salesman. “Like the watch, yes.”

Yat geui leung dak! I’ve just signed a good deal for cable–and scored killer points in the ongoing competition my friends call: “Find The Most Outrageous Over-the-Top Real Life Hong Kong English Language Name”.

“Piaget” is good, but it is still not enough to knock my friend Francis from his lead position in this contest. It’s going to take some work, because he has gems on his list like “Sincerely Hu”, “Intel Lau” and the chart topper, which was printed on the nameplate of the cheerful young woman who used to serve him coffee and egg McMuffins every morning at the McDonald’s in Hung Hom:


You can pretty much divide Hong Kongers into generations, based on the English language names they use. Anybody over 45 will probably sport a common and somewhat archaic British name like Margaret, Grace, Gordon, Alan, Alice or, perhaps, Donald. But under 45, things start to get looser. Among 35 to 40 year olds you’ll find Tiffanys, Jennys, Jackys and Eddies. Then, below the age of 35, the dam breaks open in the Chinese-to-English name game: Serendipity, Durian, Ecstasy, Napoleon. 

Francis thinks these off the wall names are great, as do I (someone with a given name like mine has to!). Sure, they risk sounding goofy, but the names of this generation show creativity and self-expression, sometimes inspiration (there’s a journalist named “Mandela Yip”). Most importantly, through names you can track a fascinating evolution in Hong Kong’s bilingual culture.

Many of those Empire-approved English names tacked onto members of the older generation, as you might guess, were put there either by aspirational parents, or by British schoolteachers. The first day of class, you come in, and Miss Peabody points at you, Chan Wah Ming, and says, “You are Robert Chan.” And, for the rest of your school career, and possibly your life in the Anglophone sphere, that’s that.

Occasionally, more tuned-in parents who didn’t want to trust a teacher’s random choice would equip their child with an English language name before they entered school. Some of these names, like Hong Kong’s Canto-English signs and place names, cleverly worked both sides of the linguistic street. For instance, my friend Wilson’s Chinese name is Wai San. A “Siu Lan” could be Susan, a “Mei Lai” a Mary.

In Chinese medium schools, though, a lot of kids never got tagged with English names–Long Hair is Leung Kwok Hung, and has never been known as John or William or Fred Leung. And when most of Hong Kong’s schools shifted away from English to Cantonese-language instruction after the handover in 1997, the old practice of the teacher handing a child an English name on the first day of school sputtered out. And that’s when the fun began.

All over the world, names zip in and out of fashion. Nowadays, in the U.S., people tend to give their children the names of celebrities. And so, in the 90s, America spawned a generation of Heathers and Jennifers and Ashleys, and now we are experiencing a wave of Angelinas and Chloes and Brittanys.

But there aren’t any celebrities, in Hong Kong or otherwise, named Sincerity or Flourish. So what gives?

It is the marvelous logic of Cantonese-English bilingualism at work here. Now that English naming has been freed from its colonial-era constraints, choosing an English name has become more like the process of choosing a Chinese one.

Chinese given names, as most of you probably know, are suffused with meaning and tradition, even a bit of superstition. In English we say “give the child a name” or “name the child.” But in Cantonese, you don’t use either of those constructions, you say goi meng, which literally means to replace the child’s existing name with another. The implication being (at least as I understand it) that all little spirits are born with the perfect spirit name that can’t be known. Our responsibility, as parents, is to come up with an earthly name to equal the spirit one, a name that harmonizes with the child’s qualities, and balances out any bad luck baggage the child might be dragging into the world.

Grandparents used to be the family members in charge of the serious business of child-naming, although nowadays the process is more of a family collaboration. Still, when my (Korean-American) friend Leslie gave birth to her son, her Cantonese mother-in-law immediately had the child’s horoscope drawn, and then strongly advised the parents the baby needed to have a Chinese character with fire radicals in its name, to balance its excess of Earth elements.

Go ahead and chuckle, you skeptics and rationalists. But it is uncanny how often Chinese given names hold the seeds of the future adult’s personality and destiny. The “Kwok Hung” in Long Hair’s name stands for “Hero of the Nation.” The “Yam Kuen” in Donald Tsang Yam Kuen translates as “Under the shelter and blessing of the authority”.

Anyway, the predilection of contemporar
y Hong Kong kids to pick themselves names like “Destiny”, “Forever” or “Harmony” makes sense, when you look at it from a Chinese naming point of view. They are looking for names which, like Chinese character names, convey positive qualities and good fortune. And names like “Gucci”, “Diamond” and “Piaget” are the English language equivalents of Chinese names like, say, Wing Faat–forever prosperous.

I have a naming story that goes in the other direction, from English to Chinese. When I arrived at Chinese University for my first Cantonese language classes in the summer of 2002, the program registrar asked me for my Chinese name. Of course I didn’t have one. And so, a teacher in the program was assigned to come up with a suitable and harmonious Gwong Dung Wah moniker for me. I wasn’t completely happy about this arrangement–like contemporary Hong Kong kids, I wanted to pick my own. But my teachers just shook their heads. “You must let us choose it. It will sound better.”

So, like a generation of Hong Kong Margarets, Winstons and Emilys before me, I just nodded like a good student and said, “Okay.”

The following day, my excited teacher came to class with my new Chinese identity. She was thrilled at how she’d been able to come up with three characters that worked both in Chinese AND matched the sound of my name in English. But when she unveiled the name by which henceforth I would be known in the New Yale in Asia Chinese University of Hong Kong Cantonese Language Center, my heart sank:


Mak Laan Yan. The “Mak” is a common Cantonese surname that’s often given to Westerners with a Mc or Mac last name. No problem with that. But the “Laan Yan”–roughly, “Graceful Orchid”–was way too girly and frilly for my taste. It sounded to me like a flower vase, or maybe what you’d call an elderly ex-Amah in a Wong Kar Wai film. Naming girls after flowers, or using characters like “Mei”, beautiful, is a Chinese cliche. Enlightened and intellectual parents no longer saddle their female children with sugary, flowery Chinese characters. The cooler trend is to give females more gender-ambigous Chinese names with literary or intellectual allusions.

In English, my given name is unique, an invention of my mother’s that I’ve never heard or seen elsewhere. But in Cantonese, I am but a flowerpot, a Mary, a Suzie, a Plain Jane. I think, sometimes, that I should ditch the graceful orchid business and goi meng–that is, re-christen myself with some Chinese characters that have more distinction, that more closely match my own personality and character. (Or at least my idea of it!)

But my Chinese naming skills are still not up to this complex task. Also, I’m afraid I’ll faux pas it as badly as the poor girl at the McDonald’s in Hung Hom did with her English name.

And who wants to risk turning herself into an Alien Durian?


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