Tag Archives: Chinese Names

In Search of Great-Grandmother’s Name

I don’t know my great-grandmother’s name.

When I began writing my novel, I tried to find out what it was. I didn’t need her name to write my story, but I was curious. I knew she was a devout Buddhist who prayed at the Siamese Temple in Tambun Road, Ipoh, so my first stop was the temple, where I hoped to find Great-Grandmother’s ashes. As a Buddhist, she would have been cremated, and I reasoned that if I could find the urn containing her ashes, I would learn what her name was.

The picture below shows what the Siamese Temple on Tambun Road looks like today: a set of beautiful buildings with elaborate roofs built around a serene courtyard.  Its architecture is typical of a temple, with a large airy central room serving as the main shrine hall and adjacent buildings housing the wooden tablets set up in memory of the deceased. (In case you’ve never seen a Buddhist tablet, here are examples below. They are the red oblong objects standing vertically side by side, some adorned with photographs of the deceased. Like Christian tombstones, the tablets can be elaborate.)

I visited the Siamese Temple with my aunt and uncle, and it remains thankfully smaller than other temples, which meant fewer tablets to examine. Nonetheless we spent a good half hour making sure we hadn’t missed Great-Grandmother.

To no avail, for it turned out her ashes lay elsewhere.

My search took us next to the Sam Poh Tong (Temple), the second oldest Chinese temple built inside the famous limestone caves surrounding Ipoh (see my blog-post My Ipoh). One of my aunts told me Great-Grandmother had been cremated there, so my uncle and I went straight to see the temple caretaker. He was a middle-aged man who sat all day in his cave office with a notebook, cooled by a whirring table fan which stirred the air from the hills.

The caretaker’s first question was what Great-Grandmother’s name was. When we told him we didn’t know, he looked at us through narrowed eyes.

“Hmmm…then, very hard,” he said.

When our faces fell, the caretaker added, “But, maybe possible from the year of her birth.”

Unfortunately we didn’t know the year of her birth, just the exact date of her death. I proudly passed this information on, and was surprised when it didn’t impress the caretaker.

“That, no use,” he declared.

How could the date of her death not help? I wondered aloud. Didn’t they keep records?

The caretaker looked at me as if I were mad. There were records, but not dating as far back as 1941. Didn’t I know how many cremations there had been since? “Come”, he said, “I show you.”

He led us down steps, past a murky green pond at the front in which turtles floated languidly, half dead from the Malaysian heat. On we went, towards a brick shelter which stood on its own in the middle of nowhere.

“In there-lah”, the caretaker said, pointing to the windowless hut. It wasn’t lit, so the man kindly brought an electric lamp which he hooked up. Then, wishing us luck, he left.

We went inside a dark musky room crammed eerily full of the ashes of the long-dead. It was clearly the room for the untended, and I felt the goose-bumps rise on my skin even though I’m not superstitious. The room was cold and damp and stacked from floor to ceiling with clay urns which glared at us from atop the wooden shelves. Amid the shadows cast by our dim yellow light, the urns looked identical. They were dusty, fusty, as decayed and faded as the building which held them, but some of the vessels still retained a haunting beauty; the Chinese writing on their bodies stood out, as if they could never be erased despite the evident lack of care. We searched for an hour, but my uncle and I failed to find Great-Grandmother. It was obviously not to be, at least not that time.


How is it that I don’t know Great-Grandmother’s name?

In previous generations, people didn’t address anyone older by her or his name. This is a bit like ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ in Western culture, except that the Chinese had forms of address for many other relatives (at one time, probably for every relative).

For example, the woman who inspired my novel was actually my mother’s grandmother, or in Chinese, my Big Maternal Grandmother. In Chinese, it is important whether a person is related to you maternally or paternally; traditional forms of address are as specific as that. They were intended not only as public demonstrations of respect – from the young towards the old – but were also a means of conveying the exact blood relationships between parties, so that any listener would understand the ties at once and have no need to ask embarrassing questions.

To give another example, my mother has five brothers, one half-brother and one half-sister. Her second brother is therefore my Second Maternal Uncle. When I was a child therefore, I always addressed him as ‘Yee Kow’ in Cantonese: ‘yee’ meaning ‘second’, while ‘kow’ is the word for ‘Maternal Uncle’. Anyone who heard me would then have known exactly how we were related. It’s like hearing an echo: you open your mouth to speak and what bounces back are your exact blood relationship, which family generation you belong to and your status within the family.

Similarly to ‘maternal uncle’, there are Chinese words for maternal great-grandfathers, maternal great-grandmothers, maternal grandfathers, and so on…everyone down the line, all the way to maternal uncles and maternal aunts. And then, there is a whole other set of words – for your father’s relations. I don’t know when this strict hierarchical custom began. (If you do, please write and tell me.) I suspect Confucius, though I can’t be sure. Such hierarchy must have served a useful purpose at some point, but by the time I came along, the downsides were only too obvious.

One of these is that no one can tell me my great grandmother’s name. There are still people alive today who remember her, but none of them ever heard her called by her name. She came from a generation which expected to be addressed as ‘Big Madam’ or ‘Big Sir’, even by strangers. And Big Maternal Grandmother, in her role as a leading female entrepreneur in her town, demanded and received, justifiably, the respect that was her due. As a result, her real name remains a mystery.


For a Western reader, the traditional Chinese form of address may actually be a saving grace. All of the characters in my novel address their older relatives according to their familial relationship, such as ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Second Sister’. This relieves the reader of the need to remember a great many Chinese names (see my blog-post What’s in a Chinese Name?). Alas, traditional forms of address were used only for people who were older; those who were peers or younger were called by name (which still means a healthy dose of Chinese names in my story).


How did my great grandmother end up in the room for the untended dead? This, sadly, is one of the results of our cultural loss. Big Maternal Grandmother sent her sons to a leading mission school, where they learnt to speak English and adopted Western culture. Her sons also took on the religion of the West, Christianity, or alternatively, became non-religious. Only the wife of her third son – my Third Maternal Grandaunt – remained a Buddhist, and it therefore fell on this good woman to look after Great-Grandmother’s urn and ashes. When Third Maternal Grandaunt passed away, Great-Grandmother’s urn stopped being tended. It has since lain at the Sam Poh Temple, cast into a dark room with other unloved urns. 

Of course, our story isn’t just about cultural loss; my family bears responsibility too. One of her sons could have taken the trouble to re-learn Buddhist rituals and to look after Great-Grandmother’s ashes, as she would no doubt have wanted. This isn’t as straight-forward as it sounds; unless you’re exposed to Buddhist rituals, you wouldn’t know what to do. In any event, no one took the trouble, and I feel sad when I think of it. It’s enough to spur me to continue trying to discover her name. Is there a Malaysian equivalent to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? If so, I would like to hire this formidable detective.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Research

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