Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, July 1, 2001


Artist Zong Chen Liu specializes in calligraphy and other Chinese
arts at his stall in the old Wo Fat building on King Street. He
scripted the characters for common Chinese names
shown on this page.

‘The name is

A harmonious choice
reflects genealogy
and sets goals

By Gary C.W. Chun

The "C.W." stands for Cheung Wei, a Cantonese name given to me by my father. He, unfortunately, doesn't really remember who suggested the name to him. "Probably an uncle," he says.

This is not the proper way a Chinese child should be named! That's according to Douglas D.L. Chong, local Chinese cultural historian, lecturer and author of the sociological history "Ancestral Reflections: Hawaii's Early Chinese of Waipahu - An Ethnic Community Exploration, 1885-1935." (He also teaches cultural classes annually to Narcissus Queen contestants.)


Mauka Makai cover

In a conversation with him in his Kailua home, surrounded by both old and recently framed pictures of his family both here and his homeland, China, and the smell of burning incense wafting from an altar in the living room to honor the memory of his grandparents, Chong was amiable but insistent in his convictions.

"The giving of names is something that's not being treated as the time-honored tradition as it should," he said. "Names are important, to males especially.

"Chinese men can have up to five different names during their lifetime. Besides teaching the genealogy of his familial line, the name is forever in Chinese society."

Chong listed the kinds of names that can be given in a man's lifetime. "First, there's the 'milk name,' or baby name. It's like a casual name that acts like a camouflage to bad spirits. It could be something derogatory-sounding to fool them. Parents would even put earrings on their baby sons!

Chinese calligraphyChinese calligraphyChinese calligraphy

"The reason for all this is that infant mortality was so high back then, it was hard to keep a baby son alive, even if the family were blessed with more than one male child.

"Later, as he grew, he would get a given name, a school name, then his nickname or professional name - whether he becomes an artist, scholar, potter, painter, anything with a fine skill, even a military general - and the married name, where the generational name is the most important, where the prefix or affix comes from."

It's the family surname that becomes part of every Chinese family's poem, an oral tradition, a common stanza handed down from generation from generation, documenting their own ancestral lineage.

Through his own interest and dogged efforts, Chong was able to trace his family lineage more than 2,000 years. On one of his first visits more than 20 years ago to his ancestral village, Chong, the youngest of 34 grandchildren, met his third cousin, "brothers" of the same 23rd-generation line. And it was only when his cousin began to recite in tandem the same family poem as Chong started did they tearfully realize they were truly blood relatives. Chong was the first relative from Hawaii in nearly a century to return.

But his story didn't end there. With the ancestral home destroyed due to the Cultural Revolution, he would return to "hound my uncles for information, and I was lucky enough to find a set of ancestral tablets passed on to one of them that were originally going to be thrown out because nobody in the family could read them!"

Chinese calligraphyChinese calligraphyChinese calligraphy

Chong's personal crusade also includes work he does for other local families in tracing their genealogy, especially Chinese families with mixed Hawaiian blood.

"When the Chinese left the plantation, they went into rice farming as well as growing taro, using the patches abandoned by Hawaiian families. The Chinese were familiar with taro, since they grew it, plus sugar cane and pineapple, back in the Canton area of China. The Hawaiian people came to realize that having a Chinese relation meant steady cash income and a well-fed family. The term 'pake' is originally a term of endearment, meaning a beloved uncle."

Through his own research, he found that a community like Waipahu had a large number of Chinese and Hawaiian interracial households. Chinese family names became "Hawaiianized," said Chong, with mixed names like Akaka, Akana, Apo and names prefaced by "Ah," like Ah Sam, Ah Sing, Ah Yat and Ah You.

"I think it's important for the younger generation to take back their original surnames before they get lost," he said. "I help these families, who show an active interest and have done some of their homework, and point them in the right direction.

"I look through and research marriage and death records, obituaries, land titles. I try to attach the name with when their grandparents first came to the islands, where they came from - were they either Hakka or Punti? - and from there, hopefully, we can narrow it down to a particular village in China."

To lose track of a family name is to have lost part of your genealogy, said Chong, adding, "You don't feel it until you lose it."

Chinese calligraphyChinese calligraphy

A good Chinese name is one not that easy to give, he said. "A good name is (bestowed) in accordance to the elements listed in a Chinese almanac. The five elements are metal, wood, water, fire and earth. The name's proper characters are determined by the predominant element of a baby's birth date, the year, month, day and hour you were born. In order to balance out those elements, the right characters must be selected.

"Whoever you consult to get a 'correct' name, whether you ask an elder relative or go to a Buddhist temple, it's not just a matter of getting something that sounds good," he said. "It takes a lot of work and research to get a good name.

"It's a name that should be in harmony with your natural environment, spiritual well-being and the elements of the universe, as well as providing you with a goal to aspire to."

The worst offense, Chong said, is for a Chinese family to name a child after parents or grandparents. "It's like the younger generation sitting on top of, or suppressing, the older generation. This is unlike Western society, where it's considered a compliment to give a name of a predecessor."

Zong Chen Liu holds a stamp of his name: The cube on
the left is marked with the characters for Zong Chen,
the other with Liu.

Things can be righted, however, with a simple change of a character in a name.

"With girls, I think it's only in the last century where they have any input with their own names," he said. "They used to be trite or relatively insignificant-sounding, like 'lotus,' 'orchid,' 'jade' or 'precious.' It was because with marriage their names go into obscurity, being part of the husband's family. With the communist takeover of China in 1949, women had the right to retain their names, no longer subservient to their husbands and his property rights."

As to the parts of my own Cantonese given name, Cheung refers to ancestors, tradition and family heritage, and Wei (although Chong said it looked more Mandarin and should be spelled "Wai") means handsome and strength.

Chun Cheung Wei. A good name to try to live up to.

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin