There are 25 million Southeast Asians with Chinese heritage (or Chinese, for brevity’s sake) who account for half of the global overseas Chinese population. Most of them trace their roots to the Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong; their ancestors moved to Southeast Asia during the late Qing Dynasty and the early days of the Republic of China. Most of these Southeast Asian Chinese were either migrant workers or merchants, spread out across all the major cities in the region, mingling with the local ethnicities and other foreign communities.

Compared with China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, which have Han Chinese ethnic majorities, Southeast Asian Chinese communities live in multicultural or indigenous environments. Besides interacting with those in their own communities (including Chinese who speak different dialects), they also communicate with people of local ethnicities, minority groups, and foreigners.

Those multicultural interactions produce a desire to properly differentiate and distinguish between different ethnic identities and heritages. And to understand identity, the best place to start is understanding the mutual exchange of names.


Photo Credit: Depositphotos

What's in a name? It all stems from a mix of diverse heritage, dialetical transliterations, and colonialism.

If we use Singaporean and Malaysian (Sing-Ma) Chinese communities as an example, they usually have two written forms of their names – one in Chinese characters, the other in Latin script. The Chinese characters used in their names are the same as most Han Chinese, but surnames and naming conventions are more similar to those in Southern China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Two-character names are very rare, and characters are usually chosen based on the names of ancestors – for instance, the first character (成, cheng) of my name (彭成毅, Pang Cheng-yi) is inherited from previous generations. Surnames derive from their Fujian and Guangdong roots, where the commonly found surnames Chen, Lin, Li, Huang, Wang, and the most popular, Zhang, are found.

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Breaking down those quirky romanization rules

The Latin name of a Sing-Ma Chinese person is usually the transliteration of the pronunciation of their Chinese name in whichever dialect their family speaks. Let’s use famous Malaysian Chinese leaders as an example: The founder of Kuala Lumpur and its third Kapitan Cina had the romanized name Yap Ah Loy (葉亞來), following Hakka pronunciation. Tan Hiok Nee (陳旭年) and Wong Ah Fook (黃亞福) took their Latin names from Teoswa/Teochew and Cantonese pronunciation, respectively. The name of Penang’s first Kapitan Cina, Koh Lay Huan (辜禮歡), comes from Hokkien.

During the time of British colonial government in Malaysia, the transliteration of Chinese names followed British phonetics – at the time, Malaysia still used Jawi script, the Arabic alphabet for writing Javanese. Yet the romanization of Chinese names in different areas of Sing-Ma worked differently.

The Netherlands, Spain and Portugal were the first to attempt the transliteration of the local languages in Indonesia, the Philippines, and East Timor, so Chinese in those areas had to follow the pronunciation rules of the colonial language.

For example, Kapitan Cina of Medan in Indonesia romanized his name as Tjong A Fie (張阿輝), which came from Hakka. The last Kapitan and Majoor of Batavia (now Jakarta) romanized his Hokkien name as Khou Kim An (許金安). Filipino Catholic Cardinal Jaime Lachica Sin (辛海棉) used Spanish pronunciation for his romanized name, and East Timor politician Francisco Lay (黎發芳) uses a Portugese name and his Hakka surname.

Compared to the transliteration of Chinese names found in Sing-Ma, Indonesia's Tjong (Hakka for Chang) corresponds to Chong, and Khouw (Hokkien for Hsu) is equivalent to Khor or Khaw, such as Singapore Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan.


Photo Credit: Reuters/Edgar Su

Khaw Boon Wan chats with students, probably about something other than his romanized name.

When Sing-Ma Chinese romanize their own names, they follow the conventions of the dialects from their parents of previous generations instead of transliterating Mandarin pronunciation like we do in Taiwan and China. As a result, there are many different ways of spelling the same Chinese character surname.

Let’s take the surname Chen (陳): it is spelt Tan (Hokkien, Teoswa), Ting (Fukien), Chin (Hakka) and Chan (Cantonese).

Interestingly, the rapper Namewee (黃明志) composed his stage name by translating the homonym Minzi (名字) of his Chinese given name Ming Chi (明志) – it sounds similar to mingzi, or “first name” – and using Wee from the Hainan dialect of Huang (黃)… which is also written as Wong in Cantonese and Hakka, Ng in Teoswa and Chinchew, and Ooi in Changchew.

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No formal titles, please

If you have seen Sing-Ma movies, you may have heard how Sing-Ma Chinese speak to each other. They are not limited to the traditional use of the respectful Mr. Chen, Ms. Chen, Miss Chen, etc., or the more intimate use of Old Chen and Little Chen, etc. These are rarely used, as they try to avoid saying each other’s surnames directly. Instead, they use given names, but they will add an "a-" to the first or last name to show intimacy.

"A-" is generally not used with Mandarin pronunciations of surnames. For example, little Chen would be a-Tan, little Chang will be a-Chong, little Lin becomes a-Lim, and so on. Even in formal occasions, they often use English instead of Chinese for Mr., Mrs. and Miss. That also goes for professional titles such as Prof. Tan, Dr. Lim, Miss or Madam Chong, etc.

The most defining words of the Sing-Ma society are the affectionate uses of auntie and uncle, which was adopted after British colonialization. Auntie is used for middle-aged women (an actual aunt or a big sister), and Uncle for a middle-aged man (like an uncle or a big brother). They are both used in front of the person’s name or surname – for example, Auntie Amy or Uncle Lim – but just "Auntie" or "Uncle" will also suffice. They are also used for men and women you are unfamiliar with, but use caution – you don't want to offend anyone who does not feel they are middle-aged.


Photo Credit: AP/Dazhi Images

The late Lee Kwan Yew, who scrapped the Western name 'Harry.'

For example, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, after being given the name Harry, wrote his name Harry Lee Kuan Yew (Western name, surname, Chinese name) rather than Harry Kuan Yew Lee (Western name, Chinese name, surname), which you would find in the UK or U.S. But the late Lee expressed his distaste for Western names and dropped the “Harry,” calling himself Lee Kuan Yew.

In Taiwan, many people choose their own Western names – sometimes because of their Christian backgrounds, but usually because they are leftovers from business activities, cross-cultural exchanges, or their English cram school teachers.

When Chinese people do business, they are eager to use simple and memorable foreign names, so that the other party will remember them faster. In international business, they will also introduce themselves with their Western name. This may be because the pronunciation of Chinese names can be complicated for non-native speakers, which makes them difficult to remember.

The Mandarin takeover

In recent years, due to the popularity of Mandarin and the Singaporean government’s Speak Mandarin campaign, many Sing-Ma Chinese have started to use Hanyu-Pinyin to transliterate the names of their children. For example the Malaysian Chinese singing star Joyce Chu, nicknamed "Si Ye Cao" or "four-leaf clover," writes her full name, Joyce Chu Zhu Ai (朱主愛) (foreign name, surname, Chinese name). Her given name, Zhu Ai (主愛), uses Hanyu Pinyin, not the transliteration of a dialect.


Photo Credit: Joyce Chu

Malaysian Chinese singers Joyce Chu (朱主愛), left, and Namewee (黃明志).

However, some artists and singers in Singapore have gone one step further and changed their full names to Hanyu Pinyin. They do this even though they are not new immigrants from China or Taiwan, nor are their hometowns in the greater South China region. For example, Singaporean singer-songwriter Stefanie Sun, who used to go by the Teochew transliterated name of "Sng Ee Tze," now opts for Sun Yanzi (孫燕姿).

The different dialectal transliterations of Chinese names are a major feature of the local Sing-Ma Chinese culture. In the current "five-ethnicity republics" of Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese communities, they are an implicit reminder for those communities to not forget their cultural heritage.

After all, as Confucius said, there is "harmony in diversity," and this reflects the splendor and brilliance of the multicultural Sing-Ma society.

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This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language ASEAN edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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