Hong Kong Name Culture Explained
Why Hong Kongers seem like they're hiding their Chinese name
Many people know that Hong Kongers like to refer to each other with “English names” instead of their birth name in Cantonese, and it is not what I want to tackle here, rather the question many people unfamiliar with Hong Kong have asked, “Why don’t you tell me your Chinese name?”, or “Why do Hong Kongers only use their English names?” The confusion stems from the fundamentally different understanding of what the Chinese and English names mean to the person. This is especially true in Hong Kong, which I don’t see much of in Taiwan or China. A little note to begin with, I will use the term “Chinese name” below without specifying which Chinese variety, because Chinese names exist as characters, and there isn’t really an official way you should pronounce them. You could use whatever Chinese variety you know as long as you’re speaking in that variety. But the transcriptions for names I’ll use below are the Hong Kong Government Cantonese Romanisation scheme, which is the agreed upon scheme to transliterate names of people and places in Hong Kong based on Cantonese pronunciation.
The Chinese name to Hong Kongers is more like something we use with extremely close people. Actually, more like those who are close to you are more likely to know your Chinese name, when they have spent a lot of time around you. Otherwise, when you introduce yourself to another person, you’d use your English names, which in most cases are not part of their legal name.
An exception is kindergarten and primary school, where most people will refer to one another with their full Chinese name because they appear on name lists and that’s what you write on your homework. Note that this is the full name, not just the given name, because calling someone only using the given name is either for an older person, or your romantic partner as a term of endearment. When used by a normal friend, it would feel at best weird and at worst disgusting. Another reason why Chinese names are usually used is because most people at this point in life do not have an English name, or at least have not decided on one they want to use for the rest of their life. A common ritual in primary school English classes is letting the teacher know your English name, or to let them come up with one for you if you don’t have one. What sometimes happens is two people having the same English name, and at this stage in life, usually one of them changes theirs into another name to avoid confusion. This might be weird for foreigners but you have to realize at this point the English name hasn’t stuck with them for a long time for them to consider it a part of their identity so a lot people will gladly change it.
In secondary school and university, people are more likely to refer to each other with their English name, though in secondary school the situation is a bit more mixed. You’ve still got name lists and everyone knows each other’s full names. English names at this point are more stable and they rarely change anymore, although you’ve still got some exceptions here and there. That said, not everyone likes using the English name. Some people might be more comfortable of their Chinese name and introduce themselves with it which is not uncommon. Some might not even have an English name which is not strange at all. A common way they will introduce themselves in English is to use the given name or one syllable of it (usually the last). For example, some one named Chan Siu Ming 陳小明 might be known as Siuming or Ming in English if he doesn’t have an English name.
In the workplace, it’s also very useful because people of different ages work together. You can use English names to address your colleagues to avoid problems associated with using the wrong affixes when addressing someone in a Chinese language. Let’s say you have a 40-year-old colleage called Wong Wai Chuen 黃偉全. What should you call him? Ah Chuen 阿全? That seems a bit too informal. Brother Chuen 全哥 or Uncle Chuen 全叔? He might not like being referred to as “Uncle”. Ugh, this is a lot of trouble. But wait! Now you remember his name is also Ben. Crisis averted, awkwardness avoided.
All in all, to a Hong Konger (at least a young one), there are three levels of intimacy. First, the Chinese name (which is the legal name) is something certain kinds of strangers might know (e.g. a government or medical staff calling your name on the PA system). Second, the English name which you introduce yourself with, and finally the Chinese name again which you let the other person know once you’re close enough.
Another way I would put this is that Chinese names are kind of like the core of your identity because you’ve been using it since birth with your family, whereas the English name is like a veil you put on by yourself since it’s usually chosen by yourself later in life (with exceptions). If a person is comfortable enough to lift that veil and let you touch their exposed soul, it’s a sign that they are close to you. However, I’m sure a lot of people would be happy to tell them their Chinese name if they ask them nicely, but most of the time it is not what they use to introduce themselves.
So good luck to everyone who are making friends with Hong Kongers, because you have showed that you care about Hong Kong culture enough to finish this little passage! :)