If you’re Chinese, don’t give your progeny full dialect names

I recently had a chat with a friend about baby names. She’s asking for opinions because, well, she’s carrying a baby girl (congratulations!) and she wanted to know what her/my friends and I thought of her choice.

The name’s not important to this story. The point is, her husband and her had decided to use only an English name and the surname (or last name if you come from those western countries). I’m using the term “English name” as opposed to “Christian name” because it’s more generic.

Now, the typical Chinese name has 2 “English” equivalents, phonetically speaking (other than a direct English name). One is the Hanyu Pinyin version. For example, my name in Hanyu Pinyin is Chen Weilie (or Wei Lie in 2 characters, but it’s sort of understood when they’re lumped together).

The other equivalent is the dialect name. My Chinese dialect group is Hokkien, which means my ancestors came from Fu Jian in China. And my dialect name is Tan Wai Lip.

Now, my preferred name is “Vincent”. Or “Vincent Tan”. “Vincent Chen” is fine too. I just think that last one sounds funny to me…

Which gives an interesting problem, because my full “English name” is Vincent Tan Wai Lip. “Tan” is my last name. It doesn’t look very “last” to me…

According to the western naming convention, I should be “Wai Lip Vincent Tan”, which means in my culture’s convention, I’m “Tan Wai Lip Vincent”. The “Wai Lip” part is not a middle name, it is my first name according to western culture, and my given name in Chinese culture.

I’m bringing this up because, many of the online transactions I’ve made requires a “first name” and “last name” field. What do I fill in for those? I usually use “Vincent” and “Tan” respectively.

This worked fine till I got to PayPal. For withdrawal purposes, they required my name, after fully resolving the “first name” and “last name” part, to be exactly the same as that in my Singapore bank account. I’ll leave you to imagine all the hassle this gave me…

I’m sure Chinese aren’t the only ones with this problem.

So, back to that pregnant friend of mine. Even though she and her husband are both Chinese, they’ve decided that their daughter shall only have the “English name” and the surname part. Their daughter will still have a full Chinese name, only that she won’t have a full dialect name.

Their main reason?

Because the nurse at the hospital is prone to giving terrible sounding dialect names…

  1. Leong Hean Hong

    Interesting article. I have also been thinking about the “English name”.

    Christian Name
    It seems that _almost_ everyone around me have an Christian name. Some have it registered (appears in NIRC), some just have a Christian name without registering. Why is having an Christian name so common here? Is there a survey on why so many people choose to adopt a Christian name? I think there may be some interesting reasons why many local-non-Christian people want to adopt an Christian name.

    (English form of) Chinese Name
    In China, most people use PinYin for name field when they have to fill in forms in English. It seems like Chinese people outside of China use “dialect name” instead. Many oversea Chinese (like us) are decedents of early immigrants. During our Ah Gong’s time, PinYin was not standardize yet, and our Ah Gong was poor and uneducated. In British Colony, people need to have an English name, so our Ah Gong start to have dialect name.

    Today “Tan”, “Cheng”, “Chen”, “Chan” may refer to then same surname. Such ambiguity can be reduced if we all start to use PinYin. Would it be better if every Chinese people use PinYin name instead of dialect name?

    From ??? aka Leong Hean Hong aka Ah-Hong aka Hong-Ah aka Hongster.

  2. Vincent Tan

    Hi uh, Ah-Hong 🙂

    “Why is having an Christian name so common here?”
    Perhaps the ease of communicating with western countries?

    I’m probably ignorant in this area, because I think Singaporean Chinese use the dialect name more often than the Pinyin name. Maybe because our dialect culture features more prominently during our childhood.

    My full name is “Vincent Tan Wai Lip”. It’s in my NRIC, so it’s legitimately registered. I’m not Christian, so I prefer to think of “Vincent” as my English name. For more info, check out:


    “Would it be better if every Chinese people use PinYin name instead of dialect name?”
    There would be less Ah-Lian’s, Ah-Beng’s and Ah-Gow’s though…

  3. Will Dwinnell

    This is interesting. I am an American of European descent, who works with many people from other countries. I’ve noticed that (for a variety of reasons) many Indians and Chinese acquire new names when living or working here, or when simply dealing with Westerners.

    Here, such immigrants frequently refer to such names as “English” names, despite the fact that many such names do not originate in, nor are especially common in England. Personally, I believe that the term “Western” is more accurate, which would include cultures which originated in Europe.

  4. Vincent

    Yes Will, I believe Indians also have this name “problem”.

    I think some non-Westerners find it easier to adopt an English name so Westerners find it easier to relate to them. For example, Westerners might find it more convenient to call me as “Vincent”, rather than “Wai Lip” or “Weilie”. Maybe it’s because it’s more familiar.

    American immigrants adopt an English name, not because the name originates from England, but simply because the name’s English-ish.

    For example, “Ivan” is fine (Russian origin?). As is “Phillipe” (French?).

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