A Sandwich by any other name

07Apr08

If you’ve never quite liked the name your parents gave you, you’d love being a kid in Hong Kong. You get to pick your own name. Actually, you sort of have to. Adopting an English name in addition to your own Chinese name isn’t quite mandatory, but it’s very strongly encouraged.

Some of the names picked seem a little odd to Western eyes. My girlfriend Candace teaches English to schoolchildren, and here’s a sampling of names I saw on attendance sheets when visiting her classroom: Coco, Elmo, Jedidiah, Jojo, Mable, Moon, Nobby, Noddy, Percy, Pinky, Season, Taxi. She’s also had several students and a headmistress named Apple, which indicates that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin might not have been completely out of their tree when they named their daughter.

If the name choices themselves seem a little random, so are the pronunciations. For example, many of Candace’s students have the relatively ordinary name Joan; however, they pronounce it as Jo-Anne. She’s given up the fight on this one, but this wasn’t the case with a boy named Kyrus, who defied the rules of phonetics by pronouncing his name as though it were Cyrus, with a soft C. Candace persistently called him Kyrus with a hard K, sending the boy into tantrums until she finally told him to spell it with an S, a C, or a Psy-, but to pick one or continue being called Kyrus with a hard K. Eventually, he gave up and began responding to the hard K without complaint after the other children started calling him that too.

Another pitfall is that they might not recognize variants of the same name as being such. Candace had a student named Thomas with an elder brother named Tommy. When she pointed out to their parents that they were in danger of following the George Foreman model of giving all their children the same name, they were slightly aghast. But this situation is common enough that the decision was to let the status quo stand.

For the most part, though, parents take a fairly whimsical attitude toward the choice of a child’s name. After all, if the kids tire of the names the parents initially select, they’re free to pick new ones when they get a little older, and the parents take an indulgent attitude.

Often, kids are named after a favorite cartoon character. Kitty is a common choice, thanks to the popularity of Hello Kitty. Yoyo is also popular; I’m told this is because of another cartoon character, and not cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The phenomenon isn’t limited to Asian cartoon characters; Candace taught a girl named Snow White, and her friend Jolee had a student who went by the name Buzz Lightyear Kwok (pronounced “cock”).

Celebrities are another source of inspiration. Candace has a student named Giggs, after the surname of a famous footballer. Benson is also known, surely thanks to the enduring popularity of the lightning-witted butler portrayed by Robert Guillaume on the sitcom Soap and his own spinoff of the same name. (Or maybe it’s after the cigarette. Who knows?) Fanny is also a popular name, with one prominent politician named Fanny Law, even though it’s a dirty word referring to the anterior of the female midsection instead of to the posterior, as North American speakers might expect.

I should say that Fanny was a popular name. It used to be huge (although it’s not polite to speak of huge fannies), but has diminished as of late. As I mentioned, young Chinese people tend to change their English names as often as they would their hairstyles, and the waxing and waning of celebrities’ fortunes can greatly affect this. For example, Bobo and Edison are two popular names, thanks to pop stars Bobo Chan and Edison Chen; however, Candace predicts that the two stars’ involvement in a current sex scandal will lead to name changes for many children in the near future. Perhaps some former Edisons will borrow their new name from fellow pop idol Justin Lo, whose name, oddly, doesn’t seem to have really caught on yet. (Incidentally, Justin Lo’s trademark is that he always wears a cap; this is because of his receding hairline, which makes him something of a Cantopop version of Beach Boys singer Mike Love.)

For similar reasons, Candace actually forced the parents of one student named Creamy Chow to change her name, simply saying it was inappropriate, and declining to explain exactly why it would sound dirty for a teenage girl to introduce herself as Creamy in a few years. Personally, I simply think Creamy Chow sounds like the most deliciously soupy name since Soupy Sales himself. In fact, she might have made an excellent soup-and-sandwich combo with Sandwich Tong, an employee at Candace’s local McCafe, McDonald’s version of an upscale cafe. That name is no coincidence; Sandwich Tong chose his name because he loved his job and was enthusiastic about making sandwiches. On a similar note, Candace’s co-worker Gerry once taught a student who chose the name Pizza Hut, because pizza was his favorite food.

Creamy may seem like an odd name choice, but white skin is associated with beauty here. (I refer you back to the girl named Snow White, who killed two birds with one stone by selecting a name with cartoon and Caucasian inspiration.) Tanned skin is associated with the working class, which is why skin-whitening products are popular and people walk around with umbrellas on sunny days. (“Rain or shine, every day is an umbrella day in Hong Kong,” says Candace.) However, one gets the idea that instead of selecting a normal name with pale connotations, such as Blanche, some women simply throw open a thesaurus to the word “white” and select a synonym without consideration of the associated meanings. Candace has encountered both a bank teller and a Clinique lady named Milk, and on the Avenue of Stars, I noticed the name of a female star named Pasty Kar Ling. That last one is actually supposed to be “Patsy”, but it was spelled “Pasty” on her star, and it says a lot that whoever carved that on there did so without giving a second thought as to whether or not it could actually be a name.

Of course, beauty isn’t everything. I’ve previously run across a Chinese guy named Clever, and Candace teaches a girl named Genius. Ironically, Genius is actually one of the slower students, but, as Candace says, Genius is really more of a boy’s name anyway. (She said it, not me.)

Speaking of females with male names, I noticed the following one in this sentence from an article about the local Vegemite shortage on the cover of yesterday’s Sunday Morning Post: “Candy Man, manager of Chicken on the Run, an Australian take-away food store in SoHo, said she had been bombarded with customers wanting information on where all the Vegemite had gone.”

I was going to make a joke here about the Sammy Davis Jr. song, or about how if you say this woman’s name five times while looking into a mirror, she appears and kills you with a giant hook. But quite frankly, I’m just amazed no Chinese kid has thought to name himself Vegemite yet.



4 Responses to “A Sandwich by any other name”

  1. 1 james

    Honestly, its phenomena like this that make me thing that a comprehensive history of even one single year of human history would have to be like 100,000 pages long. There are certainly phenomena like this in every country and town in the world, and it would be ridiculously difficult to record or even understand most of them.
    I really like the name Taxi, and I’m not sure why.

  2. 2 Adrienne

    Happy Birthday, Peter — I’m pretty sure it’s the right day in Hong Kong! May adult beverages be consumed in your honour — whatever disgusting flavour you’ve discovered this week will be fine.

  3. 3 Jolee

    Hahaha. How about Princess Consuela Bananahammock? or Crap bag.. sorry I watched this rerun of friends last night. Some names I have come across other than Buzz Light Year are as follows:

    Buzz Light Year’s mother, Woody Kwok
    Grenade
    Nody
    Wicky (not Ricky)
    Creamy
    Delicate
    Purple

    A co-worker wanted my advice on English names for her kids….her ideas were Mars, Venus and Uranus. I thought that was a good idea.

    Thats all for now!

  4. 4 Sarah B

    I’ve come across a Fanny Pong, Elmo, Fish, Winky ( a british childs word for penis), Strawberry and Bevis. And these are just off the top of my head.
    Names are often concocted to sound similar to their chinese name or meaning of the chinese name, hence why MIlky and Winky are so common.


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