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2/15/2009

The ongoing evolution of Singaporean Chinese names

When the southern Chinese migrated to the south seas, many were from the lower social class. Many were farmers, fishermen and workers. They came to eke out a living and nothing else. Their names were simple and nothing flowery, Tan Ah Kow, Lim Tua Tow, Chan Ngau etc etc. Inevitably the names of animals became common as they were seen as good for the children less the gods would punish them or take them away. The illiterates were just not too comfortable with the words Over the years the names started to evolve and adapt to the social and historical changes, including the intervention of govt and the turns of economic fortunes. Our colonial and religious heritage had their first influence on the people. Tan Ah Kow became James Tan. Lim Tua Tow became John Lim. The Tua Tow disappeared or became TT. The next phase of change was the hanyu pinyin campaign. This was another of the unifying efforts of the govt, to do away with dialects and have a common language. It's effects turned out to be a bit of a rojak. Tan Ah Kow became Chen Ya Kou. The father and son had differently written surname in English, From Mr Tan to Mr Chen. Some refused to accept this as it looked funny. So Tan Ah Kow became Tan Ya Kou, retaining the surname in dialect and the same spelling. Another variation is use Chen Ya Kou alias Tan Ah Kow. The next phase of development was economic. With wealth and affluence, Ah Kow, Ah Ngeow and Ah Gu were no longer acceptable. How could it be when pet dogs and cats were called more respectable human names like Tom and Jerry? That ended the phase when humans were called names of animals while animals continues to have human names. Then came a period when we wanted to become international citizens and adapted international norms of writing names. Tan Ah Kow became Ah Kow Tan. It could be because some foreigners could not understand that Chinese family name was written in front and not at the end. To avoid Tan Ah Kow being addressed as Mr Kow instead of Mr Tan, that was the solution. The most colourful phase came in the 80s when originality and being unique were the fad. Uniquely Singapore must have been an offshoot of this truly Singaporean beginning. Glamorison Tan and Feliciality Tan started to appear everywhere, everyone unique and different and only limited by one's imagination and the combination of words. Forgive the ignorants to think that Singapore was invaded by aliens from another planet. Today I read about John and Melissa becoming too common place. Everyone being introduced is either a John or a Melissa. And for that little uniqueness, after all a name is to identify a person and be different one from another, John will now be John Michael and Melissa will be Melissa Margaret. So, how shall John Michael Tan Ah Kow writes his name? Should it be John Michael Ah Kow Tan or could it be Tan Ah Kow John Michael or Tan John Michael Ah Kow? John Michael Tan Ah Kow is not going to be. His family name is right in the centre and will never be discovered. He will never be a Mr Tan. How about John Michael A K Tan? Possible. Sounds better too. Hi, I am Florissian Lantany Lee. Nice to meet you. I am Jamon Honchu Wong.

5 comments:

bbqchickenwings said...

Reminds me of the time when i was young. I could not understand why my surname is different from my Dad's and my Mum had no surname (She's a Indonesian Chinese so they typically use a Muslin name without any Chinese in their identity card). I thought I was an adopted child but I never ask because they might throw me out of the family. LOL

bbqchickenwings said...

Oh, and I actually thought of names for my future kids with my girlfriend. Going Hebrew. They sound nice.

redbean said...

hahaha, poor bbqchickenwings. you must be having a lot of nightmares then.

hebrew names come in various forms. jacob is also yaacob and also james.

isa is esa is yesu is jesus.

abrahim is ibrahim.

as for your children, you can call them james ben bbqchickenwings instead of james bin bbqchickenwings.

you can have your picks.: )

Anonymous said...

Hi Lek Tau Tng

I am Cordon Bleu Blur Tan.

Still remember me?

Thank you.

redbean said...

hi cordon,

the bleu in cordon bleu is not blue but bleu. it is pronounced, yes, as blur. : )