Phat, Chocolate, Remember—When Chinese employees pick their English names

Maybe the next September, October, November, December.
Maybe the next September, October, November, December.
Image: Getty Images/China Photos
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I remember with great detail the moment I was given a Chinese name. It was more than 20 years ago, I had just arrived in Asia, and the first thing my Taiwanese staff did was to give me a moniker that would represent me in China. I was named Ke Ing De, 柯颖德, which loosely translates as “clever and of good moral character.” I immediately sent a note to everyone I knew back in the West introducing my new self.

Walking tall with my new distinction, I was convinced I was one step closer to the Chinese world. I sought to understand everything about the Chinese and became fixated on the English names the Chinese gave themselves. I wondered why a colleague in our advertising office would call himself “Billboard” Kwok. Or why my slightly heavyweight boss called himself “Beef” Chen. Or why the advertising creative team donned such names as “Jesus” Yeh and ”Devil” Zhou, and in case you had a question, you could ask for the Creative Director, “If” Chen. I was fascinated by the fact the Chinese selected names from almost every month and season of the year. Quite literally in my company we have or have had an “Autumn” Guo, “Spring” Cui, “Summer” Sun, “Winter” Xia, as well as a “February” Lee, “March” Chung, “April” Fan, “May” Liu, “June” Dong, “July” Guo, “September” Li and in case we forgot anything, a “Remember” Zhu. We have a “Phat” Song, who is a bit overweight but as cool as anyone I have met in China. We have a former colleague (who is a client), very smart and quick, by the name of “Running” Xie.  And we even had staff and clients with such rhyming names as Lili Li and Didi Di.

One particular difficulty I had involved working for a client with our team composed of “May,” “June,” and “Spring.” I remember working on one campaign that was due in the spring, around May or June, that required detailed follow-up actions by the team of May, June and Spring.  By the end of the planning meeting we were so confused and dizzy that it became a source of great comedy for future meetings.

Understanding the naming process became an obsession for me. Thirty years ago, standing out in a crowd was not recommended in China, and maybe even scorned. However, with China’s opening up in the 80s, people were beginning to express individualism in greater numbers and worked to find their point of difference. Marketers say that the exponential growth of luxury items in China is a result of the Chinese associating with brands that say something about themselves. Self-identity is a familiar topic now and this can be seen in many corners of modern China.

For those who wonder where these names come from, there are a variety of influences. One staffer told me he chose “Autumn” because that is when he was born, and is generally a “fruitful and successful” time of the year. “Winter” told me that his English name is a direct translation of his first name, Dong. “Phat” got his name from chatting with a bunch of laowai 12 years earlier in a bar, who explained “Phat” was slang for being cool. “I loved the double meaning because I am really fat,” he explained. “Running” chose her name because she liked the “running mode. I like to keep the pace. No need to be fast. Just be steady.” Yet, overwhelmingly, many of our staff with descriptive or different names told me that they had an English teacher in their youth, who had suggested they consider a name of a different nature.

All I can say is that there are many creative English teachers out there. I would like to meet the folks who gave our knowledge manager her name, “Shooting” Li. (Fortunately she has a lot of patience.) Or the teachers who named our talent manager “Psyche” Tian, and our finance staffer, “Cookie” Wang. This makes dealing with our HR department a bit scary, but working with our finance folks much more palatable.

In looking deeper into the English names of my colleagues, I was particularly curious about our creative team, as this department is usually the wackiest in our company. I was delighted to find a “Chocolate” Huang, “Popeye” Li  and “Rocky” Ren. I have visions of both delight and terror in having to work with these folks. In PR, I often call on our team member “Mars” Li when we want a big idea, and “Ice” Liang to bring her back down to earth. We have our share of staff who have acquired names of fantasy characters as well. Among my favorites are the beautiful “Ariel” Zhang, and our talented digital creative team member “Robin Hu.

If you want a tasty campaign, you can ask for “Apple” Guo and “Elvis” Xu in our consulting team to serve you. If you have trouble counting, don’t worry, we have our folks “Eleven” Li and “Twelve” Tang to help you. Ironically, our fastest-growing business is run by “Pope” Li, who has “Morning” Cao, “Chairs” Chen and even a “Shakira” Huang working in his office. After studying their business model, I am told they sit down with clients in the AM, pray and perform.

My favorite, though, and I am not making this up, came when I was trying to get some money out of our Finance department recently. As finance departments go, we have a very good team at Ogilvy that protects the company from abuse. This makes getting quick cash advances and other money often difficult and at times slow. In a rush I put in a request and was told that I would need to reach out to the new assistant to our CFO, “Pray” Chen.* Need I say more?

*For those that don’t speak Chinese, Chen sounds like the 钱 (qian), the word for money.