Let me take you on a journey into the odd but endearing world of invented Chinese names for non-Chinese politicians. With parliament hung, recounts in progress, and no clear resolution in the BC election likely for weeks, what else are you going to do?
Here in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, with nearly half a million Chinese residents, branding a political candidate in Chinese makes a certain amount of sense. While it may seem tacky or exploitative to Anglophones, most Chinese-Canadians I’ve spoken to find it at best endearing and at worst innocuous. I’ve never seen data suggesting it works as a political tactic, but I haven’t heard any protest either.
While the practice of making up a Chinese name for yourself is mostly restricted to Vancouver and Richmond, it’s otherwise quite random. There’s no clear trend by party or region; some candidates just do it, and some don’t. The NDP seem to have more made-up names than the Liberals, but that may be simply because the Liberals ran more Chinese or East Asian candidates in ridings with large Asian populations.
If you’re unfamiliar with Chinese names, here’s how they work. Most are three characters long, but a smaller portion are only two, and a very few have four. The first character is a surname, while the next one or two are given names. Chinese surnames are no more meaningful than Western surnames, but given names sometimes reflect the parents’ wishes for their child (for example, I had professors born in the midst of 1970s Communist patriotic fervour with names like “Red Dawn” and “Advance Forward.”)
There’s a long history of giving Chinese names to foreigners, and even some rough rules for doing so. Even so, there’s a high degree of flexibility and creativity involved, and room for both semantic and phonetic translation.
With that, here are your BC 2017 candidates, ranked by their made-up Chinese names.
(This is likely an incomplete list, since there’s no easy central repository for this information. Get at me with updates or corrections @NikoMBell.)
11. Greg Powell (Green, Richmond South Centre) — 格雷戈里
In a field full of reasonably well standardized candidates, Greg Powell stands out for sheer weirdness. Powell has gone for a slightly odd transliteration of “Gregory” rendered in four characters — the only candidate I can find who has more than three — while still managing to leave out his surname altogether. The resulting phonetic translation (ge-lei-ge-li) is both weird-sounding and outrageously un-Chinese.
10. Melanie Mark (NDP, Vancouver-Mount Pleasant) — 马兰妮
Melanie Mark suffers the opposite problem as Powell; her Chinese name is boring and unmemorable. She also goes with the full given name with no surname, and the result is floppy and un-Chinese. These three characters are so overused in the transliteration of Western names they go in one eye and out the other.
9. Dr. Janet Fraser (Green, Vancouver-Langara) — 傅珍妮
Janet Fraser has picked a nice, neat, normal Chinese name. The only downside is that her given name translates as “Precious Girl”, which sounds exactly as cutesy as it does in English, and belies the dignity of the doctoral title she’s clearly tried so hard to keep behind her English name.
8. Janet Routledge (NDP, Burnaby North) — 罗珍妮
A nice, clean name, but with the same somewhat undignified given name as Janet Fraser. This sounds like someone’s ten-year-old daughter. Also, politicians who have a choice should probably avoid picking the same name as other politicians.
7. David Eby (NDP, Vancouver-Point Grey) — 尹大卫
David Eby’s name is somewhat memorable for the dashing and slightly creative surname 尹 (Yin), but 大卫 (Da Wei) is such an overused transliteration of David as to be cliché. One of the characters in your first year Mandarin textbook is always called 大卫. And he’s always annoying, and American.
6. Suzanne Anton (Liberal, Vancouver-Fraserview) — 苏安彤
Suzanne Anton hits the right balance of what an invented Chinese name probably should be. It could conceivably be a real Chinese name, and is memorable enough to stick in the back of your mind without being unsettling. She’s made good use of a flipped given name and surname, with the surname “Su” prefacing the given name “An Tong.”
5. George Heyman (NDP, Vancouver-Fairview) — 賀佐治
This would be a pretty unremarkable, straight-up-the-line transliteration, except that 佐治 (Zuo Zhi), a common transliteration of George, also means “governs on the left.” And, well…
4. Adrian Dix (NDP, Vancouver-Kingsway) — 狄德安
Adrian Dix’s name is not only a clean, highly Chinese translation, but also a bit clever. His surname 狄 (Di) is an old word for a public official, and his given name 德安 (De An) means “virtuous peace”. This gives his whole name a certain statesmanlike feel, while cleaving closely to the English pronunciation. Unfortunately for Dix, it doesn’t seem to work on Chinese voters.
3. Linda Reid (Liberal, Richmond South Centre) — 列励达
Linda Reid gets extra points for not just an exemplary transliteration, but also a bit of creativity and bravery. She’s put her surname and given name in the Chinese order, surname first, and departed slightly from the most obvious phonetic transliteration 琳达 (Lin Da). Instead she’s gone for 励达 (Li Da), which flows off the tongue more easily, and conveys a sense of power and action (literally meaning “urging to arrive”).
2. Gabe Garfinkel (Liberal, Vancouver-Fairview) — 高峰
Gabe Garfinkel deserves a spot high on this list for sheer guts. This name is brash, memorable, and has a lot going on. First of all, his two-character name is memorable for being short, while remaining plausibly Chinese. Second, it literally means “high peak”, and from what pictures I’ve seen, Garfinkel is actually extremely tall. Third, it’s a plausible transliteration of the first two syllables of “Garfinkel.” And finally, his name is reminiscent of 大山 (“Big Mountain”), aka Mark Rowswell, the white Canadian who became a Chinese comedy superstar.
1. Shane Simpson (NDP, Vancouver-Hastings) — 冼崇山
Shane Simpson’s Chinese name somehow hits the sweet spot for me. He uses the flipped surname and given name form, but manages to vaguely evoke his English name at the beginning and end of “Xian Chong Shan” while mostly inventing an entire new and deeply believable Chinese name. His new given name is simultaneously very Canadian (崇山 means “respects the mountains”) and also statesmanlike (“Chong Shan” evokes “Zhong Shan”, the Mandarin given name of Sun Yat-sen). This one is a beauty; political hopefuls take heed.