Hi, my name is Owl, my friends call me that because they say my face looks like an owl. Indeed, her moon shaped face surrounded by feathered hair and disproportionately large round eyes, really gave the effect of an owl. To top it off, despite never having traveled outside of China, she had the perfect valley girl accent.
I would have her say things like “like, oh my Gawd!” and “gag me with a spoon” to my colleagues when we needed a good belly laugh. As English teachers at Renda (Renmin University), we had the awesome responsibility of giving our students their first English name. I went with conventional names like Carol and Fred, while my colleague, the future Mr. Magic, gave his female students saucier names like Roxanne (from the Police song) and Mercedes. Over the years in China since my first stint at Renda, I’ve become acquainted with some Chinese folks with colorful English names you wouldn’t normally encounter in the West.
For starters, you’ve got your standard Chinese, English names like Joy, April, May, Apple, Mary, Grace, Ivy, Snow, Spring for women, while men generally stick with more generic sounding names such as John, David, Tony, Henry, Steven, and Leo. Chinese typically choose an English name for three reasons – first consonant pronunciation similar to their Chinese name, literal translation of their original name, and brevity for ease of pronunciation. This all sounds fine on paper, but sometimes things can sometimes go so wrong.
Cute, Sweet, and Cuddly
Welcome to the land of pink fluffy unicorns dancing on rainbows with names like Bambi, Bunny, Candy, Cherry, Sunny, Happy, Penny, and Winnie. This predilection for sugary names could be a symptom of the Kawaii (Japanese for “cute”) craze that started in Japan and has spread like a pestilence all over Asia. Don’t be surprised to see a Bambi or Bunny hopping down lane posing for selfies with puffy cheeks in an attempt to resemble a chipmunk or other fury forest creature. Names that conjure the reproductive structure of plants such as Daisy, Rose, Iris, Lily, and Flower are also popular.
Blame it on the Rain
Asian celebrities provide an abundant supply of quirky English names in China. If you’ve ever run into a man named Rain, he probably named himself after the hugely popular Korean entertainer. There are also a lot of female Rainies named after Rainie Yang, a Taiwanese singer. There’s still plenty of Cocos out there due to the enduring popularity of Hong Kong-born American singer Coco Lee.
Many popular Mandopop entertainers out there have chosen some downright weird names for themselves and spread the contagion to the general population. If you run into any guys named Alien, thank Taiwanese singer Alien Huang. Met any guys named Yoga? Thank Taiwanese singer Yoga Lin. Show Luo, Barbie Hsu, Jolin Tsai, Kingone Wan and Elva Hsiao are some more examples of funky Taiwanese pop star names. Wonder why there are so many dudes running around named Leo? Thank Leo Ku – Cantopop and Mandopop singer. Tired of running into a lot of Vivian’s? There have been two successive waves, one in the 80’s and 90’s with Hong Kong singer Vivian Chow, and a second wave in the 2000’s with Taiwanese singer, actress, model Vivian Hsu.
There are a fair share of Toms and Jerrys who often name themselves after the ancient MGM cartoon, that for some reason has taken China by storm. There are a lot of Echos out there inspired by the English name of novelist Sanmao (三毛), Echo Chan, who named herself after the Greek nymph.
Oh No Bobo, Say it Ain’t so!
The ultimate in 可爱 (cute) for Chinese is to create a nickname by repeating their first name with names like Beibei, Bobo, Enen, Fangfang, Gege, Huahua, Jiajia, Kaka, Kiki, Lili, Mengmeng, Mimi, Momo, Nannan, Peipei, Shasha, Sisi, Susu, Tingting, Xinxin , and Zhuzhu become English names like Babie, Bobo, Lily, Lulu and Mimi. Sometimes this works out as a passable English name, but other times someone should have sent them a memo to reconsider their choice in name. Zhuzhu sounds like bad juju, Kiki’s kind of kinky. Mimi is an odd choice because in Chinese, depending on the tone, it can mean secret or breasts. For those of you that are not native English speakers, just so you know, Bobo sounds like the name of a clown (Bobo Barnett) or conjures the image of bimbo. Indeed, former Hong Kong singer and actress, Bobo Chan, bungled her way into the center of the Edison Chen photo scandal, never to see the public light again. Despite the clown and the scandal, there are still plenty of ditsy, bozo-brained Bobos running around out there.
Cantonese Surnames Gone Wrong
Due to the frequent use of consonant endings and the numerous conflicting Cantonese romanization systems still in use, familiar Mandarin surnames quickly become quite comical. Here are but a few examples:
Fu = Fook
Wang and Huang = Wong
Ding = Ting
Chen = Tang
Yu = Yew
Zou = Chew
Guo = Kwok
Hao = Kok
He = Ho
Jin = Gum
Pan = Poon
Gu = Goo
Xiong = Hung
You can see with spellings like this how all fun starts to ensue. Work safe examples would be Annie Tang (anything), Harry Thai (hairy thigh), Barbie Kiu (Barbecue) and Never Wong. Take the actor Chow Yun-fat (Zhou Renfa), if you say his name based on the Western convention of first name in front of surname, you get Yun-fat Chow. A hilarious example is the popular Wong Fuk Hing Bookstore meme. Can’t find the book you’re looking for, you’re obviously in the Wong Fuk Hing Bookstore!
If you’re not a native English speaker and you’re unsure of a good name to pick for yourself, it’s generally best to stick with your original name, at least until you’ve got a better feel for naming conventions. In some rare cases like Lina, this works out perfectl in both languages or using Lee as a first or last name. However, there are cases where this can go very wrong in English with names like Long Wang and Shih Ting.
Other fun names:
A friend’s mother-in-law in Shandong is named Rainbow. A colleague spotted a 7-11 clerk in Taipei named Yahoo. Another colleague had college classmates in Guangzhou named Fly, Swallow, and Ashtray. The latter may have been a victim of spell check gone wrong, she thought it was the spelling for Ashley. Another friend met a couple named Fanny and Dick, perhaps fans of the The Faraway Tree series? Up and coming foreign entertainer, Justin Caleb Cooper, was approached by a man on the Taipei Metro to take picture with him named Dandelion.
Funny English names have reached a whole new level on social media. The new real name registration policy may eventually put a dent on this, only time will tell. Here are a couple examples of odd user profiles from popular dating apps:
Momo User Autism
Skout User Weirdo
Actual Coworkers in China
The following is a list of actual Chinese colleagues I’ve had in the past four years in China:
Bobo, Color, Echo, Ewiny, Fansy, Lanyley, Manly, Manning, Massie, Monday, Movie, Nico, Silvana, Simba, Simbory, Sky, Snowy, Twinkle, Yoyo and Zhuzhu.
There was a Kaka (probably named after the Brazilian soccer star), a Dream and a Snory who sat next to each other, and a Seven and an Eleven, in the same office.
The names listed above are in the extreme minority and one could argue that there are many odd Chinese names out that that Westerners have managed to invent for themselves. As a rule, Chinese generally people play it safe and pick common English names. There are also some Chinese people with really cool names such as composer Yoyo Ma, actor Jet Li, designer Ziggy Chen, and architect I.M. Pei.
Personally, I’ve met some Chinese with very memorable names such as Rock Wheeler, Walker, Jackson, Kita, and Kani, or less common but tasteful like Dean, Rico, Jarod, Bianca, Lynn, Luna, and Jasmine.