Sep 8, 2012

A Bunga by Any Other Name

An article about how Peranakans got their names, using the creative Peranakan naming convention!
Category: Articles
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A Bunga by Any Other Name…

Baba Norman Cho explores the conventions – and creativity – behind Peranakan names.

In many cultures, the name is thought to have a strong influence over the future of a child. Adhering to this Chinese belief, the Peranakans took great care in choosing auspicious names for their children. Traditional Peranakan names followed the Chinese convention which comprises the surname (seh), followed by the generational name and finally the elementary given name. Take my name – Cho Beng Huat for example; my surname is Cho, generational name is Beng and the elementary given name is Huat. This means that all my brothers and male first-cousins will share the common “Beng” generational name (middle name). Although, both male (Baba) and female (Nyonya) names followed similar convention, the generational names for the females would differ from those of their brothers or male cousins of the same generation. A feminine generational name would be chosen instead (ie) Seok Choo, Seok Kim, Seok Chin. Generational name would sometimes be omitted eventually for various reasons – to improve one’s fortune, for convenience or due to the absence of male siblings or first-cousins. My paternal great-grandfather was born Cho Boon Poo but became commonly known as Cho Poo.

The “Neo” Factor

A common peculiarity in names amongst the Nyonyas was the presence of “Neo” at the end of their names. This would distinguish the Nyonyas from their Chinese counterparts who were not locally born in the Straits Settlements. An example would be Tan Seok Choo Neo. The additional name “Neo” could be officially registered at birth or posthumously added. My maternal great great-grandmother was known throughout her life as Chan Geng Ean. However, in her obituary in 1935, the newspaper reported the death of Chan Geng Ean Neo. Another variation to Nyonya names that incorporated the name “Neo” is the exclusion of the generational name. My paternal grandmother is simply known as Koon Neo and her sisters – Say Neo, Bock Neo and Cheng Neo. This variation is more commonly found amongst many Nyonyas names.

The word “Neo” in Hokkien means lady and it is often used to address the courtly ladies in the imperial household in ancient China. I am inclined to think that the legend of Hang Li Poh could have contributed to the preferential use of “Neo” in Nyonya names. The Malay Annals recorded the marriage of a certain Chinese princess called Hang Li Poh to Sultan Mansur Shah of Malacca in 15th century. She arrived with an entourage of several hundred ministers and handmaidens who eventually settled down in Malacca. Some people believed that the Peranakans are the descendants of Hang Li Poh and her entourage. “Neo” was probably introduced in Nyonya names to refer to their courtly origins.

How I Got My Name

Being the first-born child in the family, my parents were clueless as to what Chinese name I should be given. Decidedly, they seek the advice of my maternal great-grandfather who gave her a list of 3 names – Beng Hock, Beng Huat, Beng Seng, in that order. Thinking that it was a multiple-choice selection, my mother picked the name Beng Huat and gleefully had it registered. She got an earful from her grandfather soon after… The names were supposed to be in chronological order and she had upset the order of things. It should have been Hock (fortune), then Huat (prosper), and finally Seng (rise). Great-grandfather reasoned that one will need to build his fortune first, in order to prosper and eventually rise in status. By naming me Beng Huat, my mother had totally ruined the intended meaning. So, due to an unforeseen misunderstanding, my younger brother now has the name that is meant for the eldest son. Incidentally, I have a friend by the name of Beng Hock who also happens to be the eldest son in the family. Therefore, such a sequence in naming one’s children might be similar across families. In case you were wondering how I got the name, Norman, my mother picked it from her favorite television character from an American drama series called “Peyton Place”. She was captivated by the Norman Harrington character played by Ryan O’Neil.

Malay-Inspired Names

Being greatly influenced by the local Malay culture, some Peranakans had even officially registered their children names that originated from the Malay words. A grandaunt was given the name Yeo Bulat (circle) while another Lim Bong Soo (youngest child) and Tan Nyonya. Other common Malay-inspired names include Bah Chik (BaBa Kechik – youngest Baba) and Nya Chik (Nyonya Kechik – youngest Nyonya). A granduncle was given the name Anggor (grapes) Lim Soon Thye while his brothers – Apple and Tonek (tonic). His parents had probably been fascinated by western beverages – grape juice, apple cider, tonic water.

Nicknames in Malay were sometimes used. However, these names were unofficial and were known only within the families and amongst friends. Such nicknames normally described the person’s physical attributes (ie) si katek (short), si puteh (fair) or si gemok (plump). The Peranakans were also fond of using nicknames to refer to people whose names they do not know. These names were referred to as nama-gelair.

English Names

From the turn of the 20th century, the English-educated Peranakans adopted English names along with their given Chinese names. One reason being the ease with which the British could address them as they interacted closely with the British. Another reason was to be seen to be privileged to have received an English-education (which was a positive status symbol). Yet another reason was the religious conversion to Christianity when they acquired English baptismal names. Biblical names like John, Peter and Mary were very popular amongst the Peranakan Christian converts. The name Charlie was a hot favorite, owing the popularity of Charlie Chaplin in the cinemas. Names of British Kings like George, Henry, Richard and William were also very common. Popular Nyonya names included Molly, Nellie, Lily, Sally, Dolly … Names ending with “-ly” were deemed more feminine. Of course, names that were popularized by songs of the era were also common – Irene from “Goodnight, Irene”, Rose from “Rose, Rose I Love You” and Daisy from “Daisy”. Short and easily pronounced names were chosen for the convenience of non-English speakers in the family.

My paternal grandfather, an anglophile, gave only English names to his sons. My father was given the name, Charlie, while his younger brother, George. I felt that he was losing his Peranakan Chinese identity, even as he was religiously observing important Peranakan occasions like the Chinese New Year and the Ancestral Death Anniversaries. The siblings grew up to be ridiculed by the non-Peranakan Chinese as being faux Chinese for not having Chinese names. Eventually, both brothers selected Chinese names and had them officially registered in the local court.

Hanyu Pinyin Names

In the 1980s, Singapore introduced the registration of Hanyu Pinyin names at birth. A Peranakan father by the name of Tan Kim Tian would have to grapple with having a son by the name of Chen Wenqing, instead on Tan Boon Keng. Not only do the surnames sound different, the flavour of the Hokkien dialect in the name has been totally eradicated. One would no longer be able to distinguish if a person is a Hokkien or a Cantonese. You would often hear fathers lamenting that he is a Tan but his children are Chens.

Fortunately, the regulation has since changed to allow hanyu pinyin names to be included in addition to the Chinese dialect names.

Present-Day Names

While the present-day Peranakan families continue to give their children Chinese names, the Malay-inspired names have ceased while the English names have evolved. Less common English names are chosen for their uniqueness (ie) Reginald or Coco. Internationally inspired names like Kenji or Bjorn were selected for a touch of exclusivity. Sometimes, unusual new names were even coined.

With so much diversity in names, it is little wonder that the Peranakans have always encountered an identity crisis of sort. Our culture has always been a melting-pot of things Chinese, Malay and English amongst others!