25 October 2012

Violante, Chlorophyll and Treacle

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 [...]

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 [...]

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."

- Joyce Man, Hong Kong Loves Weird English Names, The Atlantic, 1 October 2012

See also:
Travel: A foreign devil in Macau
Travel: Anticipating the auspicious pig
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