Hong Kong Culture

Naming

Names in Hong Kong generally follow Chinese naming conventions. However, there may be some variation in international and English-speaking contexts (see below). 

 

Chinese Naming Conventions

  • Chinese naming conventions arrange names as follows: [FAMILY NAME] [given name]. For example, CHENG Kwong Ming (male) and CHIU Sin Wing (female).
  • The family name (or ‘surname’) is inherited from one’s parents and shared with other members of the individual’s . It always comes before the given name and is usually a single syllable/Chinese character. However, two syllable last names also exist.
  • The given name (or ‘personal name’) is chosen at birth as the individual’s personal identifier. It may contain one or two syllables/Chinese characters. 
  • Given names with two syllables/Chinese characters may be written together, hyphenated or divided into two. For example, 光明 could be written Kwongming, Kwong-Ming or Kwong Ming. However, it is most common for people to write their given name as two separate words in Hong Kong (e.g. Kwong Ming).
  • There are no spaces between a person’s family name and given name when written in Chinese characters, e.g. 趙善穎 (CHIU Sin Wing).
  • Many Chinese characters can be used as both family names and given/personal names. Therefore, it is common practice to write family names in capitals or underlined to avoid confusion.1
  • Chinese names are traditionally patrilineal, whereby children are given their father’s family name at birth. 
  • Women do not change their legal names at marriage. Some government officials may choose to place their husband’s family name before their full name. For example, if CHIU Sin Wing married CHENG Kwong Ming, she may be known as CHENG CHIU Sin Wing. However, this is not reflected in formal Chinese documentation, which always displays a woman’s maiden name.

 

Romanisation

  • Be aware that Chinese names written in the Roman alphabet have all been transcribed from original Chinese characters. There are many different ways to represent these characters in English, which can result in the same Chinese name being written with many different spelling variations depending on the dialect of Chinese and the transcription system used. For example, LIU may also be spelt LIOU, LAU and LIEW.
  • The transcription system widely used in the People’s Republic of China is called Hanyu Pinyin and is based on Mandarin Chinese. However, the main Chinese dialect spoken in Hong Kong is Cantonese, which alters spellings. 
  • Cantonese speakers have their own version of Pinyin that is different from the mainland Chinese Mandarin spellings. For example, WANG is transcribed as WONG in Cantonese, LIU is LAU, and so on.
  • Some international students from Hong Kong may change their name into the Mandarin Pinyin spelling.

 

Westernising Chinese Names

  • Many people use a ‘westernised’ version of their original Chinese name to adapt to international and English-speaking contexts.
  • This may involve changing the arrangement of their given name and family name to suit English-Western naming conventions: [personal name] [FAMILY NAME]. For example, CHIU Sin Wing may be known as Sin Wing CHIU.
  • Most Hong Kongers have an English name (also known as a ‘Christian name’) that they use on a regular basis, as well as in international and English-speaking contexts. For example, CHIU Sin Wing may be known as “Cathy”.
  • This English name may be chosen by a family member while they are an adolescent, or by the individual themselves.2 A person may also change their English name throughout stages of their life (e.g. one name during highschool, another during university, etc).
  • It is common for Hong Kongers to put the English name as their first name in international or English-speaking contexts. For example, CHIU Sin Wing may be known as Cathy CHIU, Cathy CHIU Sin Wing or Cathy Sin Wing CHIU.
  • One of the most common ways to format a Westernised name is as follows: [English name] [Cantonese FAMILY NAME] [Cantonese given name].
  • However, one’s English name is often not recorded on official Chinese documentation. 
  • Most people will revert to using their original Chinese name whenever writing in Chinese. The family name always comes first in the Chinese language.

 

Names

  • It is a cultural custom for parents to choose a name that symbolises their hopes and expectations for a child. Therefore, given names often have a literal meaning that represents a positive value, attribute or characteristic that is desired for the person, e.g. Kang (healthy), Ling (wise).
  • The aspirational meanings of names tend to vary between genders. For example, female names tend to signify beauty, flora or feminine-associated qualities, e.g. Mei (beautiful). Male names commonly signify strength, bravery, success or male-associated qualities, e.g. Yong (brave).
  • While many Chinese characters have a gender-specific meaning, it may be hard to assume a person’s gender from their name alone once translated into the Roman alphabet.
  • Parents generally avoid giving their children names that have a similar pronunciation to words with negative, embarrassing or unflattering connotations.
  • In some cases, parents may consult a fortune teller to find the luckiest name for a child may be chosen in accordance with their birth date and time. However, this is becoming less common.
  • It is not customary or appropriate to name a child after their elder or family member.3
  • In some families, immediate siblings may share the same character in their personal name – known as a generation name. For example, two siblings may be called HO Sai Wing and HO Sai-iu, in which case ‘Sai’ is the generation name.
  • Some of the most common family names in Hong Kong are CHAN (陈), LEUNG (梁), CHEUNG (张), LAU (刘), LI (卢).4

 

Addressing Others

  • Be aware many Hong Kongers have several names that they may use interchangeably to identify themselves across different circumstances. For example, they may have a social name, married name, business name, school name or an English name (see above). A Hong Konger will generally tell you which name to refer to them as.
  • One’s given/personal name is seen as the most intimate way to refer to someone, reserved for family members, in-laws and couples. Therefore, it is generally seen as awkward or disrespectful to address a normal friend or acquaintance this way.
  • Many Hong Kongers prefer to use their English name to introduce themselves and address one another on a casual basis. This is often seen as the most convenient name to use in educational and commercial settings, as it is neither overly formal or too personal.5
  • People may use titles if wishing to convey respect, e.g. ‘Xiansheng’ (Mr), ‘Nüshi’ (Mrs/Ms), ‘Xiaojie’ (Miss). This is common practice amongst strangers, in professional/formal settings and when addressing those superior to one’s self.
  • The family name comes before the title in Chinese: [family name] [title]. For example, CHENG Xiansheng (Mr. Cheng).
  • It is common to use a person’s title based on their occupation, e.g. Jiaoshou (Professor), Laoshi (Teacher), Laoban (Boss).
  • People may generally address those of a lower status to themselves by their full name without a title. However, it is uncommon to address someone by their given/personal name alone.
  • Close friends and relatives may address each other by their social status or relationship to one another, e.g. ‘big sister’, ‘second brother’. Such terms often indicate closeness and endearment.
  • For example, someone may refer to friends around the same age or younger than themselves as ‘Xiao’ (small), e.g. Xiao CHENG. A person from an older generation may be called ‘Lao’ (old) – e.g. Lao CHENG.
  • Close friends may form nicknames for one another by using the second half of a person’s given name and repeating it twice. For example CHIU Sin Wing may be referred to as “Wing Wing” or “Ah-Wing”. However, it is not acceptable to shorten a person’s given name without their permission.

 

_____________________
1 United Kingdom Government, 2006
2 Vantid, 2018
3 Wei, 2015
4 Forebears, 2021
5 Baresova & Pikhart, 2020

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