Monthly Archives: April 2012

What’s in a Chinese Name?


The above is my Chinese name. They were the first, and for a long time, the only, Chinese characters I knew how to write. The character on the left means ‘Pure’, while the one on the right means ‘Jade’. Together, they make Pure Jade, the meaning of my Chinese name.

Jade is a type of precious stone. I’m sure you’ve seen it on rings, or in Asia, carved into images of deities, dragons and other mythical creatures. I loved the idea of Pure Jade. When I was a child, the sight of pieces of emerald-coloured stone on fingers always evoked a special feeling in my heart.

Until last year, I thought jade only came in green. Then, when we were in Shanghai, we saw Pi Xiu, a mythical creature with the head of a dragon, the paws of a lion and an apparently voracious appetite for silver and gold.

Pi Xiu only eats treasure; he never releases any, since he lacks an anus (such a wonderful creation, so characteristically Chinese…). Our Pi Xiu is in solid jade, brown from head to his non-existent bottom, and extremely heavy. He gives new meaning to the word ‘lug’. Finally, I knew what it felt like to lift Pure Jade in my hands.

Now for the trickier bit: how to say Pure Jade in Chinese. How you say my name depends on whether you’re speaking Mandarin or one of the many Chinese dialects. The same written character can be said many different ways. Because my father is Cantonese, my name was officially transliterated using the Cantonese form. In Cantonese, Pure Jade is more or less said as ‘Chin Yoke’, which is how my name appears on my birth certificate. But because transliteration is only approximate, my name could also have been written ‘Ching Yoke’, ‘Cheng Yoke’, or even ‘Chin Yook’.

You can just imagine the fun our British rulers had with our names before Malaysia’s independence. Some people ended up with official names which were nothing like what they should have been. Fortunately, this didn’t happen to me, as I was born after independence and my Chinese name was properly spelt.

The point to note though is that there are two parts to my Chinese name. My name is Chin Yoke, not Chin on its own, or Yoke on its own. If you called me just Chin, it would be like having Yin without the Yang – one half would be missing. That is true for all traditional Chinese names. (Though there seems to be a recent fad among the mainland Chinese of giving their children just one name, so that their surnames have to be tagged on. For example, the tennis player Li Na. Li is her surname, Na is her name. But having just one ‘particle’ is bizarre for a Chinese name, which I assume is why she’s known as Li Na. Otherwise the yin-yang principle would break down).

The example of Li Na illustrates perfectly where our surnames should be placed: before our names. This may seem strange, but once I explain the principle, you’ll understand why we do it this way. As a rule, we Chinese try to ‘home’ in on details gradually, starting with the bigger picture. The result is a logic all of our own and which generally confounds everyone else.

Take for example, the writing of an address on an envelope. If you were to hand the envelope to a courier for delivery, the first thing the person would want to know is: to which country? Therefore in a Chinese address, the country is written first. After the country, the courier will ask about the province, then the town, followed by the street, and finally the house or building number and if relevant, the apartment number. (Actually, if you look at it this way, conventional Western practice appears quite odd.)

The same principle of ‘homing’ in applies also to our surnames and names: your surname is far more important – it identifies the clan to which you belong; therefore, your surname comes first. Your name only identifies you. Let’s face it, we’re not that significant in the large scheme of the world. This is why our names follow our surnames.

In my case, my surname is the character for ‘Stone’ (see below), pronounced ‘Sek’ in Cantonese and transliterated into English either as ‘Sek’ or ‘Siak’.

My surname happens to appear on my birth certificate as Siak, therefore my full Chinese name is Siak Chin Yoke.

I’ve never been called by my Chinese name, which is a pity, since I like the sound of Chin Yoke. The trouble with using it where I live in Europe is that people wouldn’t have a clue what to do if I told them my name was Siak Chin Yoke. The first question they’d ask is, er, which one is your surname? And then, they’d start calling me Chin.

It always makes me wonder whenever anyone does that. I know there are many Western names for which such abbreviation is possible, but shortening is by no means a universal rule. For example, if someone told you her name was Pauline – which has two syllables – you wouldn’t immediately ask whether you could call her Paul, would you? Why do it just because my name happens to sound Oriental?

The path of least resistance being easier, for the moment I stick to the Western name I was also given at birth, Selina, for daily use. Because it’s a Western name, it’s written in the order Westerners are used to, with the name before the surname. Therefore, if we combine my English and Chinese names together, you get the full name on my birth certificate – Selina Siak Chin Yoke.

This giving of English names to Chinese children is a relatively recent fashion. The characters in my Malayan novel – set between 1878 and 1941 – certainly wouldn’t have had English names. And I haven’t given them artificially simple names to make reading supposedly ‘easier’ for a Western audience. I think Chinese names are already straight-forward, since they tend to be short. Chin Yoke, for example. Hardly difficult, is it?

Where it gets trickier is that the Chinese liked being able to identify the generation to which a person belonged. Therefore in Chinese families, the children have names which may sound very similar, but aren’t. For example, if I had a sister, a possible name for her could have been Chin Fah. The first parts of our names would then be Chin, so that everyone would know we were related and of the same generation.

That’s all very well if there are just the two of you. But in the old days, people had large families. We’re talking ten or more children. That’s what we have in my novel. Which explains why, when my partner read the first draft, she wondered aloud whether I was deliberately trying to confuse my readers. “Why do you have names that all sound alike?” she asked. Then, in despair, she added, “Your names are so hard to remember!”

I looked at her in astonishment. To put this in context, my partner is Russian. Let me repeat: she’s Russian. Question: have you ever tried to pronounce an entire Russian name from start to finish including the part in the middle they call the patronymic? And our names are hard to remember?? Please. I reminded her of what I’d had to do while ploughing through War & Peace, how I was forced to flip backwards constantly to see who was who. Even that didn’t always work, since Russians often use pet names. This means that a man can appear as Alexandr somewhere, mutate paragraphs later into Sacha and you’re supposed to know that it’s the same person. (No offence to the Russians and Russian speakers reading this blog. Except that you’re not allowed to complain about our names being hard to remember. At least ours are short and don’t mysteriously mutate.)

Back to my novel. I promise I’m not deliberately trying to confuse anyone. And I do try to help my readers to the extent possible. But there’s no avoiding Chinese and Malay names, and for this I make no apology.

The increasing attempts at ‘Westernising’ Chinese names has also had unintended consequences. When I was growing up, everyone used the traditional format for writing their names, placing surname first, and then their name. So we could tell at once what someone’s surname was. Now, many people of Chinese descent have adopted the Western convention when writing their Chinese names. This has sometimes been through necessity (as for Twitter handles) and sometimes through choice – to make it easier for everyone else. The trouble is that it makes it harder now, even for us Chinese, to tell which the surname is and which the name is. For instance, the name Lai Weng Yip could be parsed in one of two ways, with either Lai being the surname, or Yip being the surname. Which is it, my partner asks? I shrug. Could be either, I tell her, since Lai is a Chinese surname, as is Yip. Indeed, Weng Yip could be a name, and so could Lai Weng. With globalisation, it looks like we’ve all become confused. Aren’t Chinese names fun?


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Novel

How to be a Good Daughter-in-Law

I had the good fortune of speaking to Malaysian writer Lee Su Kim during my recent trip. What that has to do with being a good daughter-in-law will be revealed in good time…

With Lee Su Kim, I share a fascination of things Nyonya and a love of reading and writing. She started writing long before I did, and has had several books published. Su Kim also happens to be a founder member of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, and its first woman President. Demonstrating true grit, Su Kim very kindly called me up despite being on her way to see a doctor!

Being a Nyonya herself, it’s not surprising that Malaysian as well as Nyonya themes run through her work. The fact that I heard about Su Kim at all was purely down to luck. My aunt happened to attend the launch last year of her latest book – a lovely collection of short stories entitled Kebaya Tales, published by Marshall Cavendish.

As I worked my way through the book, I realised how much I enjoyed reading it, which was why I set out to contact her. I could see how much of herself Su Kim has put into Kebaya Tales – the book comes across as a labour of love. In addition to stories, she has included personal mementoes: family photographs, shots of the vintage kebayas – the beautifully embroidered blouses in diaphanous material worn by Malay women and Nyonyas – which she inherited from her mother, as well as pictures of the beaded slippers for which Nyonyas are famous. All of these help make her culture come alive to a reader with no previous knowledge of what Nyonya means.

On the subject of beaded slippers, when I was last in Malacca, I bought two pairs of these. (As an aside, Malacca was at one point an important port; see map below to understand its strategic position.


Which also explains why it is one of Malaysia’s most historical towns and has a large Nyonya population). 

To get back to the famous beaded slippers, here’s a photograph of the pair which I gave my partner.

You may not be able to see them, but the top of the shoe comprises tiny beads in many colours. The beads are patiently threaded together to create the flowers and butterflies which adorn the black background, itself made up of the same tiny beads. The smaller the beads (which this shoe happens to have), the greater the expertise required, and the greater the patience demanded. At one time, beading was considered a required skill for a Nyonya, one on which a potential daughter-in-law could expect to be severely judged.

As for the stories in Kebaya Tales, Lee Su Kim succeeded in drawing me in and sometimes, in shocking me. Her tales contain unexpected and occasionally disturbing twists, but she invariably managed to weave in some or other aspect of Malaysia. A few stories touch on folklore, others on parts of our history which remain unresolved, such as what happened during the war years, yet others contain unspoken beliefs which permeate our culture.

However, you don’t need to be a Malaysia expert, because the stories provide easy reading. The collection is also totally self-contained; Su Kim even included brief notes about the Nyonyas as well as ample commentary about their kebayas and sarongs.

What, you may ask, does any of this have to do with being a good daughter-in-law? The answer is that in addition to the mementoes I mentioned above, Kebaya Tales is interspersed with fragments of idioms and poetry. The following ditty, itself taken from a book by another Malaysian writer, caught my eye:


Dried bean curd, sweetened buns,

To be a good daughter-in-law, know your manners,

Go to bed late, get up early,

Comb your hair, powder your face, dab on rouge,

Enter a room holding a needle,

Go to the main hall and wash the crockery,

Praise your elder and younger brothers-in-law,

Your parents in turn will be praised for your good upbringing.

Hokkien ditty, reprinted in Kebaya Tales, taken from the book Of Comb, Powder and Rouge by Yeap Joo Kim 1992, published in Singapore by Lee Teng Lay Pte Ltd

I re-read the ditty above many times, always laughing. It amused me to see how miserably I would have failed! Based on the above criteria, I make a lousy daughter-in-law. Praise be to the Heavens.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Nyonya, Writing