This is an odd rant.
I spent some time tonight looking at (some are positively unreadable) some local blogs, and I realised why when the younger (under 25) bloggers mention their friends, if they didn’t assign a code name, did not sit well with me.
If the persons described in the blogs, or the blogger themselves didn’t have Christian or first names, they tended to be Pinyinised. All thanks to the government’s policy in the late 70s to pinyinize anything they could lay their hands on. Take the suburb/localities with Chinese names for instance. If I’m not wrong, Bishan was once Peck Sua, Funan was Hock Lam, Hougang was Aw Kang.
I understand this as part of the policy of homogenizing the local Chinese population. They banned dialects other than Mandarin in all broadcasts then, and promoted the use of Mandarin in all walks of Chinese life. Apart from befuddling the non-Chinese population (or perhaps, infuriating some of them, that their tax money was being used to subsidize a language not their own), I can see that it’s had immense success. Parents started giving their children official pinyinised names instead of phonetically translated names based on whichever Chinese dialect group they belonged to. I remember one year in primary school, the teachers suddenly told us we had to change our names on the register. It was all well with me, seeing as my surname started with the same letter whether or not you pinyinised it. But many ‘Chias’ and ‘Cheahs’ were upset they were put at the end of the roll as ‘Xie’, as were ‘Chows’ who became ‘Zhous’.
I couldn’t find any statistics on dialect group breakdown in Singapore though, but for mine, pinyinization takes away the texture that is, that should be, multi-culturalism. I once had an Identity Card that listed my dialect group. A friend tells me that apparently this was to aid the police in a sort of ethnic profiling. E.g. If you were Hokkien, you were likely to be a gang member; a Hainanese, chef; a Hakka, Prime Minister, and so on.
The problem with pinyinization it is extremely difficult for the non-Chinese and those not familiar with the rules of pinyin romanization to actually pronounce the pinyin names. Dialect names are alright, because it was the British colonial civil service that started phonetically translating the many Chinese names. I think several eminent Chinese people would lose a lot of oomph from their names if they were pinyinized: Li Guangyao? Doesn’t matter if the old phonetic translation was inaccurate (Wade-Giles worked only for Mandarin), some names just sound grander and more ‘real’ in their dialect. I like Whampoa, not Huangpu.
When I attended secondary school at ACS (where it wuz cool to suck at Mandarin), the school masters had to ‘officially’ follow ministerial directives to use Pinyin names for the Chinese population, but largely left our names alone apart from school publications and exam booklets. It was ridiculous. The Malay and Indian boys didn’t have to go through this renaming exercise, and neither did the teachers. It didn’t work all that well at ACS because a large number of boys had Anglo-Celtic-Judaic names before their surnames, which were used in place of Chinese names anyway.
Thing is, when you see a dialect name, and are familiar with dialects, you’ll know upon looking which dialect group the person belongs to. Lam and Foong are Cantonese, Hong is Hokkien, Jee is Hainanese. Try it.
Pinyin takes the fun out of this, unless you like struggling with pronounciation. Try this for a spittle-inducing mouthful: Xie Zhongzi, or even Zhang Ziyi. If you don’t know pinyin (or Zhang Ziyi), you’ll get it so wrong.
There was this one classmate who was unfortunate enough to have only a dialect name, and one that sounded funny both in his dialect and in pinyin. Low Ho Ho in Hokkien and on his birth certificate, and Liu Hehe in pinyin. First day of school was a procession of subject teachers chuckling and asking which he’d prefer, Hoho or Hehe?
I also remember this girl whose name was Lily Lee Li Li, pinyinised to Li Lili. Wonder what’s happened to her. Maybe her tongue flapped her to death when she was introducing herself one day.
And of course, there’s this one professor who seems clueless about the hilarity of her name. (It’s a Cantonese name apparently, meaning snow something). Now, that one needs to be pinyinized.
Stay tuned for ‘Funky Hong Kong names’, sometime soon…