The last of the Tans, Ongs and Lims

Hokkien Mee

Losing the Hokkien in me(e)

I am in Singapore these two weeks to spend Chinese New Year with our families and to meet up with friends, and right now I’m writing this at 5 am in the morning. I’ve been here a few days already and I’m still jet lagged. It has never been this bad before on my return trips from the UK — so I must put this down to age!

Over dinner with my family the other day, I had a minor shock when my brother told us that his baby son is registered with a Hanyu Pinyin surname. There is no trace at all on his record of the dialect surname the rest of us all share. My instant reaction and question posed to him, perhaps a little too quickly, was “Won’t everyone think he’s from China?”

I didn’t quite catch the reason when my brother said it won’t make much of a difference these days. But he explained further that they weren’t sure how to spell the Chinese given name in Hokkien and that it is kind of weird — which I agree — to have a dialect surname mixed with a Hanyu Pinyin given name as many have done with their kids these days. The decision, as a result, was to ditch the dialect completely. He pointed out that PM Lee’s kids go by the surname Li as well.

I still find it disturbing though. Whither our Hokkien identity if our future generations will be going by a different family name? It also brings to question whether we identify ourselves more with our Chinese character surname or our romanised dialect surname. What do you think?

I do remember that up until a certain time in primary school many years back, I went by with only a Hanyu Pinyin name as well before it was changed to a dialect name. What exactly happened there I can’t recall, but it must had been one of the many social engineering campaigns the government engaged in during our nation building years. The authorities still have my Hanyu Pinyin name in parenthesis on their records in fact. However, at least that was a change that brought me back in line with my father and grandfather.

We may all be Chinese, but I would assume a surname like Tan, Ong or Lim differentiates us from those who hail from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. Already, there is a lot of discussion in parliament this week on the Singaporean identity being under threat from this influx of foreigners. The Tans, Ongs and Lims may become the minority in our country one day, so it certainly doesn’t help when we are exacerbating the situation with the names and surnames we give our children. Integration with foreigners, yes, but not in this way!

Having said that, I wouldn’t know what to do as well if I’m a parent myself. Should I only give a name I can translate into Hokkien? With our diminishing dialect language skills, this could be quite limiting. Perhaps associations such as the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan should set up a naming translation service for clueless parents.

Or am I just making a big deal out of this, since we have always been a confused lot over the years when the same surname can have different kinds of romanised translations?