March 2001

Chinese names for Chinese Singaporeans




Periodically, there is much angst about how Singapore Chinese are losing their "culture". The latest manifestation of this erupted over the trend of Singapore parents giving western names to their children. Weíre seeing more and more Virginia Wongs, Patrick Teos, or Michelle Quahs, fewer and fewer Lee Zhizhongs or Hong Gewus, or the dialect versions like Tan Kim Hock. Itís a sad day, they say, when Chinese parents donít give Chinese names to their children.

When asked by reporters, parents gave a few common reasons as to why their children had western names: convenience, easy pronounceability and peer pressure. Unsurprisingly these were dismissed as silly excuses by the traditionalists. How, they ask, can one sacrifice oneís sense of roots for mere convenience?

If you know me, youíll know I have no time for the traditionalists. Convenience is a very good reason for all sorts of things. It has fostered great inventions for the progress of mankind: the remote control, the microwave, credit cards and the flush toilet. Whatís a name compared to these essentials of life?

But my argument goes deeper than that. The main thing I find myself up against is the implicit assumption of Chineseness. The whole argument in favour of Chinese names, you see, rests on the idea of being Chinese.

Sure, we are of Chinese descent. Our genes are the same as those presently living in the parts of China from where our grandparents or great grandparents came. There has hardly been any intermarriage since migration.

But going forward from this fact about genes or race, there is often an undetected sleight of hand in the argument. Just because we are genetically Chinese, we are assumed to be culturally Chinese, or at least obliged to be so.

I have never liked such an argument. To me, itís a form of racism: the idea that we should be determined by our race. Why must I be culturally Chinese? Does that mean that certain pursuits that require a high degree of absorption into another culture, e.g. creative writing in French, is necessarily closed to me or to anyone of Chinese ancestry? Does that mean that people of a different race can never be culturally Chinese?

Both are clearly not true. People of Korean, Mongolian or Turkish descent have for centuries been admixing with the Han Chinese, and become indistinguishably Chinese over a few generations. On the other hand, people of Chinese descent have migrated to places as far away as Trinidad or Costa Rica, and have at least partially assimilated.

Right here in Southeast Asia, we have examples in the Thai Chinese and the Filipino Chinese. They have taken Thai or Filipino names. They hardly speak Chinese anymore, and we accept that culturally, they arenít today as Chinese as the first migrants arriving in Bangkok, Manila or Cebu. Not by a long shot.

So why must Singaporean Chinese remain wholly Chinese? To insist so is to deny that there is any such thing as being Singaporean: you have to be Chinese, or Malay, or Indian. Youíre only Singaporean with respect to where you live, not what you are.

Once again, this is clearly not true. Our Singaporeanness is more than just location. In ways which the diehards may refuse to recognise, we arenít as Chinese as the Chinese. Weíve absorbed from the West and from the region, and weíve remade ourselves in our own country. And we continue to evolve.

We are reaching the point where calling our kids Terence or Marjorie feels a lot more natural to us than Wenqing or Meixun. Letís not wring our hands in despair over such a trend. Itís just an indicator that weíre becoming more Singaporean. Whatís so terrible about that?

© Yawning Bread