Devil. Whale. Chlorophyll, Violante, Treacle — you name it, Hong Kong probably has someone who goes by it. The former British colony is obsessed with weird English names.
Unusual appellations have been found on people of all kinds. The secretary for justice is Rimsky Yuen and the previous secretary for food and health was York Chow. Among celebrities, there is a Fanny Sit, Moses Chan, and Dodo Cheng. Models? We have a Vibeke, Bambi, Dada, and Vonnie. But lawyers take the prize. There is a Magnum, John Baptist, Ludwig, Ignatius, Bunny and four — yes, four — Benedicts.
Odd names make for odder situations. Last July, police arrested a woman named Ice Wong with 460 grams of ice — the drug, not frozen water. Months earlier, the law caught up with Devil Law when he was brought before a judge for drug possession and crashing his car into a bus. In 2010, a woman called Cash Leung was jailed for paying cabbies with fake cash.
There are so many examples that one blogger keeps a list titled “HKSAR Name of the Day.” HKSAR Blog, which is in its third year running, has almost 2,000 entries in the list.
Linguistics experts say English names, including unusual ones that would not be found in Western English-speaking countries, are becoming more prevalent, though they cannot pinpoint when the trend began.
“There are no signs of abating,” said David Li, a professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education’s department of linguistics and modern language studies. “There are more and more exotic or unusual names if one cares to collect and document them.”
The immigration department, the government body overseeing identification registration, does not compile statistics on categories of names, but a cursory inspection suggests the experts may be right. In 2005, the author of HKSAR Blog concluded that the names of 2.5 percent of 5,707 lawyers were unusual, uncommon, or unique. When I recently surveyed the current register of 7,367 lawyers myself, I found the proportion of names matching these descriptions had risen to 6 percent.
To unravel why Hong Kongers would choose to be called Whale or Uriah instead of John or Jane, we must explain why they use English names in the first place.
In Hong Kong, where English is an official language and international commerce is the bread and butter, adopting an English name often comes naturally. In the early 1980s, before the government started promoting Chinese as the language of instruction, 90 percent of secondary schools taught in English. Some Hong Kongers are given the names by their parents at birth or by their teachers at school. Some devise them themselves.
The practice goes back to colonial times. “There was a period when it seemed desirable or prestigious to have an English name,” said Stephen Matthews, an associate professor of the linguistics department at the University of Hong Kong’s school of humanities. “Businessmen would take on English names as a mark of sophistication or to show they did business with foreigners.”
In school, it was easier for English-speaking teachers to remember students’ English names than their Chinese ones, Matthews said. And, as Li notes in a 1997 paper, addressing students by their English names was one way to encourage their interest in the language.
Li writes that English first names served as a “lubricant” to speed up the process of getting acquainted. Chinese forms of address, which are either very formal or overly familiar, do not favor quick rapport-building between strangers.
“In North America or the U.K., people transition to the first-name basis quickly,” he said. “We Chinese are not so willing to use given names, which are reserved for people who are really close, like family members.”
Matthews estimates that 90 percent of the institution’s female and 65 percent of its male students have English first names.
As for the unconventional names, he said they initially arose in part due to an “incomplete knowledge” of the English language. Hong Kongers might have not appreciated the connotation of the name Kinky, for example. Februar might have been a misspelling or the result of someone over-generalizing the use of the names of the months like April, May or June, or both.
Over time, however, people have stopped questioning whether such variations are real names and accepted them. “It started as an inadequate knowledge of English, but if you see an unusual name today, it’s because [Hong Kongers] are taking charge of their own language, not because their language abilities are not good,” Matthews said. “People feel they can do what they want with English. If you tell Decemb or Februar that theirs are not English names, they’ll say, ‘I don’t care, it belongs to me.’ In a way, they’re asserting their Hong Kong identity… [The English language in Hong Kong] is no longer a symbol of British influence, but part of people’s identity.”
Li said the younger generation has found conventional names less and less attractive and wants to be unique. “I think most such names are driven by a desire to be different.”
Hong Kongers tend to shop around for a unique name and sometimes take inspiration from sports brands or luxury labels, for example, Chanel and Rolex, he said.
HKSAR Blog’s author said substitution, deletion and the insertion of single letters appeared to be common patterns, which “may indicate a level of ‘creation’ or ‘creativity.'” First names with the -son suffix are common, too. Examples from the lawyers’ list include Samuelson, Winson, Philson and Garson.
Many English names mimic the sound of Chinese given names. A solicitor called Tse Kar-son, for example, has Carson as his English name. Singer Lee Hak-kan’s English name is Hacken. Another singer, Chan Yik-shun, is called Eason.
Fashion designer Amus Leung’s story demonstrates the many forces at work when adopting an English alias. Leung reminded the teacher who named her of the biblical prophet Amos. The teacher cross-bred the name with amuse, which she thought matched Leung’s personality and sounded more feminine. “I love my name English name,” said Leung. “It is unique and easy to remember. So far I am the only Amus Leung in the world!
Ho Wai-leuk, a journalist, got his name another way. “When I was a student, everyone kept saying my Chinese name really fast until it started sounding like ‘hoh lok,'” he said referring to the Cantonese pronunciation for Coca-Cola, “so Cola stuck.”
It’s certainly different from picking a name out of a book. And that’s the difference. As Leung’s and Ho’s stories show, when naming a Hong Konger, a plethora of cultural and linguistic factors are at play. In countries where English is the mother tongue, parents usually choose their children’s names from a limited list. As long as Hong Kongers keep getting their names the way they do, Titarians, Heinzes and Yildizes are going to continue dotting the phone book. It’s probably for the best. Because when you live in a city where you can meet a Raimundo, Psyche or Schubert at any moment, life is more interesting.