One Person, Two Names: A Study of Naming Practices in Hong Kong and the Use of English and Chinese Names

By Wibke Eickmann
2020, Vol. 12 No. 11 | pg. 1/1


The practice of using an English name is widespread among native Chinese speakers. Especially in Hong Kong many use an English name in their everyday life. Using qualitative interviews, this study examines the thoughts and feelings about this practice among students who grew up in Hong Kong after the 1997 handover. Due to the high importance of English in education and commerce, English names have become symbolic capital and an expression of Hong Kongese identity. A good English name should be recognizable but at the same time not too common. The two names are used in distinct social settings: The Chinese one is reserved for close friends and family, while the English name is used in casual, everyday interactions. This paper contributes to the understanding of cultural, linguistic and symbolic capital as expressed through names and to identity negotiation theory and identity management theory and their implications on naming practices.


The practice of using an English name is a widespread one among native Chinese speakers. Research about this topic has been done not only in Mainland China but also in Hong Kong and Singapore and with Chinese minorities elsewhere. The case of Hong Kong is especially interesting due to its colonial history, which only ended in 1997 with the handover to China. However, under the policy of “one country, two systems” Hong Kong maintained a certain degree of autonomy in managing affairs including education (Evans, 2013). Until today, Hong Kong remains different from Mainland China, and many people do preserve a distinct Hong Kongese identity (Chan, 2002; Morrison & Lui, 2000; Ng, 2007). Multiple pieces of research show, how names are closely connected to identity and switching names from one situation to another is a form of switching between these identities (Cheang, 2008; Li, 1997; Thompson, 2006).

Using qualitative interviews, I explore the practice of English naming as it is perceived by local students in Hong Kong. First, I will provide some background information on naming traditions in China, I will discuss Bourdieu’s concepts of linguistic and cultural capital in relation to Hong Kong as well as the link between language and identity among settings before moving on to existing research on the topic of English (nick)names in a Chinese context. In the data analysis, I aim to explain the acquisition and use of the English and Chinese name, provide a link between English names and status and lastly turn to the feelings my participants have about each of the names.

Theoretical Background

Definitions and Naming Culture in China

A name is, according to John Stuart Mill “an unmeaning mark which we connect in our minds with the idea of the object” (as cited in Henry, 2012). However, there is more to a name than just a social convention of agreeing to name a certain object in a certain way; names include relational aspects and are an expression of expectations and hopes as well (Henry, 2012; Li, 1997; Wang, 2009). This applies to an even greater extent to naming in China, where the actual meaning of the words which form a name is much more important than in the Western world, where names “have generally been considered, if not semantically empty, at least of minimal semantic significance” (Adams, 2009, p. 82). Additional to a good meaning a Chinese name should sound good (Henry, 2012; Zhu & Millward, 1987). In Chinese one does not talk about “giving a name” but about “creating a name” (Wang, 2009). A given name reveals a lot about parents’ wishes for their child (e.g. names including “achievement,” “wisdom” or “wealth”), about the family’s social or economic background or the current political situation (Tan, 2001; Zhu & Millward, 1987). Until today, religious masters or fortune tellers are sought out for advice for a lucky name. In his research on the use of English names in Singapore, Tan (2001) points out, that Chinese people can easily distinguish names coming from Mainland China, Singapore, Hong Kong or Taiwan.

Furthermore, China has a long tradition of using multiple names in different contexts. The small or milk name is only used by the family for a child, “hao” was often picked by the person her/himself at a later stage in life and pen names or epithet names are quite common as well (Wang, 2009; Zhu & Millward, 1987). Wang (2009) argues that creating and using hao was an important part of self-identification. However, after 1911 the practice of hao declined.

Language and Names as Capital

Linguistic Capital is the ability to communicate successfully in a required language. As a part of cultural capital, it offers access to educational capital. This then facilitates the accumulation of economic capital. English in Hong Kong can be seen as linguistic capital (Morrison & Lui, 2000). The policy of biliteracy and trilingualism adopted by the government after the handover gives English high importance in the educational system. English is used as the medium of instruction (MOI)1 in many secondary schools and at universities (Evans, 2013; Morrison & Lui, 2000). Hong Kong as an “international commercial centre” (Chan, 2002, p. 279) requires a high level of English proficiency to successfully conduct business, transforming linguistic into economic capital (Evans, 2013). The role of English in Hong Kong is one of functional nativeness, as laid out by Kachru (1998), with its high sociolinguistic status, wide field of functional domains and acculturation into everyday life. Hong Kong has become “Asia’s World City, which demonstrates its willingness to embrace the challenges posed by economic globalization and therefore the need for its workforce to be proficient in the global lingua franca.” (Evans, 2013, p. 315). Today, Hong Kongese identity can be described as “modern, Western-influenced, materialistic and predominantly urban” (Lai, 2011, p. 250).

During colonial times, English names used to be an expression of the possession of the linguistic capital English and thus became symbolic capital. As Kachru (1998) argues the former colonial language may develop to a part of the “local pluralistic linguistic heritage” (p. 91). Gradually, English has become linguistic habitus of the Hong Kong society (Chan, 2002) and so has English naming. Habitus is connected to the concept of Cultural Capital. It “inclines agents to act and react in certain ways. The disposition generates practice, perceptions and attitudes which are ‘regular’ without being consciously coordinated or governed by any ‘rule’” (Bourdieu, 1991:12 as cited in Wang (2009)). It describes a practice common in a social group, in this case, determined by a common culture, history and shared space (Hong Kong).

Identity Management and Cultural Identity

Identity is a concept closely linked to culture, language and naming. Different aspects of the self are made salient dependent on the context, which can be determined by language, culture and setting, making identity a multifaceted concept (Imahori & Cupach, 2005; Kanno, 2003; Ting-Toomey, 2005; Ting‐Toomey, 2015). In his research on nicknaming Adams (2009) points out that “different names may belong to different worlds” (p. 83). Social identity theory explains how identity is negotiated not only on an individual but also on a communal level, as one defines oneself through the groups one belongs to (Kanno, 2003; Ting‐Toomey, 2015). Identity Negotiation Theory (INT)2 (Ting‐Toomey, 2015) uses the multiple level concept of identity outlined above as a basis to explain the management of identities through communication. The choice of language in a specific context and the name one introduces oneself with are as well an expression of individual identity as markers of group affiliation (Adams, 2009). Identity management theory (IMT)3 (Imahori & Cupach, 2005) understands the ability to successfully negotiate between different (cultural) identities as a competence, which is necessary for maintaining relationships both within one’s own cultural background and outside of it.

This is especially true for bi- or multicultural societies, where the different languages and names are related to different cultural and social contexts (Mathews, 1996, 2002; Ng, 2007; Thompson, 2006; Ting‐Toomey, 2015). Cultural identity can be defined “as identification with and perceived acceptance into a group that has shared systems of symbols and meanings as well as norms/rules for conduct” (Collier & Thomas, 1988, p.113 as cited in Imahori & Cupach, 2005, p. 197).

Hong Kong as a melting pot of different cultural backgrounds offers the freedom to choose from a rather “Western,” “Chinese” or “Hong Kongese” identity and many people express to have more than one (Mathews, 1996; Ng, 2007). Identity management becomes necessary to successfully negotiate available identities and language is clearly a tool to express those (Chan, 2002; Lai, 2011).

Empirical Background

English Naming Practice in the Research

Multiple pieces of research show that the practice of adopting an English name is a widespread one among native Chinese speakers, let it be in Singapore (Tan, 2001), Hong Kong (Duthie, 2007; Mathews, 1996), Macao (Cheang, 2008) or Mainland China (Duthie, 2007; Henry, 2012; Wang, 2009).

These studies identify school context and the beginning of the acquisition of English as the situation in which a Western name is chosen for the first time. The practice is often suggested and facilitated by the teacher, either a native Chinese or English speaker. Names are either assigned by him or picked by the students themselves, relying on their limited knowledge of English and Western names. This leads, on the one hand, to an abundance of very common names picked from the English textbook, such as Mary or Peter and, on the other hand, to rather unusual choices such as Jade, Pony or Dragon (Duthie, 2007; Henry, 2012; Wang, 2009). Until university age, the use of the English name is limited to the classroom.

Several different explanations are suggested for the practice of using a Western name.

A reason frequently given by students for choosing an English name, apart from the request by the teacher, is “for fun” (Duthie, 2007; Wang, 2009). Another explanation is convenience. This applies as well to the classroom, where teachers are sometimes English native speakers or simply do not want to switch between two language codes, as to a university context, where professors frequently come from a different country (Wang, 2009), and even more to professional life, where English names are used with international business partners and in online communication (Duthie, 2007). But it is not as simple as that. As Duthie (2007) points out, many Chinese growing up in other countries do not acquire a Western name and some Chinese people who studied and worked abroad only decide to pick up one upon their return to their home country.

Considerations about the choice of an English name follow Chinese naming traditions, by emphasizing the importance of literal meaning and sound of the name. Wang (2009) identifies five main aspects considered when choosing an English name:

  1. Sound: Often, the first English name has a sound similar to the Chinese name, examples are Lily, Sam or Helen for the Chinese names Li, Sen and Hai-yan respectively. The sound itself can also play an important role, as the name should “sound good” or be easy to pronounce for native Chinese speakers.

  2. Meaning: English names are picked either for their similarity in literal meaning to the Chinese name (e.g. Pony for the surname Ma or Jasmine as a typical Chinese given name) or for their literal meaning in itself (e.g. Sunny, Grace, Victor). Some names are references to other people, such as Bill (Gates) or John (Lennon) (Duthie, 2007).

  3. Uniqueness: As Chinese naming culture enables parents to choose not from a fixed set of names, but to create a name from a much wider range of possible words, names in China are considerably more unique then in western countries. Singularity also becomes a feature strived for in the choice of a Western name, sometimes leading to a change in name, if the own name is perceived as too common (Duthie, 2007).

  4. Memorability

  5. Simplicity: As one reason for choosing an English name is, to make it easier to be addressed by non-Chinese speakers, a name easy to remember and to pronounce is desirable.

These criteria are very close to the ones identified by Zhu and Millward (1987) and Duthie (2007) as criteria to choose Chinese given names. The choice for a particular English name thus follows a Chinese naming tradition rather than a Western one (Henry, 2012; Wang, 2009).

With a higher level of English proficiency and an arising need of using the name in a university or working context, the first Western name is often re-evaluated. As Duthie (2007) explains in her study on Chinese business professionals, in this sector the English name is commonly used not only by foreign colleagues but also by other native Chinese speakers and even with the partner at home. It, therefore, moves from being a fun-to-use-nickname to a much more serious level of identification.

English Names as Expression of Lifestyle

Use of English and English names is considered to indicate a certain mentality and way of life. To the professionals interviewed by Duthie (2007), the use of English names manifests their belonging to the group of successful business people and is thus a status symbol.

In the same way, Wang (2009) argues, that choosing an English name, much like acquiring English language skills, is an investment in the future. The author reasons that the acquisition of a Western name represents a commitment to a certain lifestyle and the hope for particular prospects. Even those, who do not use their English name in everyday life, plan on doing so if an appropriate situation, such as working in a foreign company, arises. It can thus be seen as an “investment in imagined communities.” Similarly, the acquisition of English names may be an involvement strategy to feel more connected and accepted by this community.

Another vital aspect leading to this practice lies in the nature of Chinese naming traditions and understanding: The mode of address always suggests a specific relation between the interlocutors. Addressing someone by his given name implies a very intimate relationship or a downward communication while using the family name is perceived as quite formal. This hierarchical way of addressing is avoided by the use of English names, which creates a more equal relation among friends or business partners (Duthie, 2007; Li, 1997).

In her work Wang (2009) treats the collectivist mentality promoted in Chinese culture as another reason to pick up an English name, in order not to be a burden for the foreign people one interacts with. Furthermore, in university and working contexts it is essential, to realize when one is addressed, which might be difficult if the Chinese name is constantly pronounced wrong and to be remembered by teachers or colleagues to avoid awkwardness when talking to or about someone (Duthie, 2007; Wang, 2009).

A Gap in the Research

English nicknaming in a Chinese speaking context has been researched on a student (Wang, 2009) and a professional (Duthie, 2007) level, however, Mainland China has mostly been the focus of study. The last piece of research highlighting the importance of English names in Hong Kong dates from 1997 (Li, 1997), which was just after the handover to China. I believe since then, perception of English and English names as well as of the Hong Kongese identity have changed, making a new investigation focusing on the link between these two relevant.

With my research, I would like to explore the importance given to English names by local university students, as they are the first generation to be raised after the handover. During the interviews, on the individual level, I focus on the acquisition of the Chinese and English names, the situations in which both are used and feelings about the names. On a more general level, I want to know what makes a “good name” and to what extent participants see a difference between English naming practice in Hong Kong and Mainland China.

Names as markers of identity have been discussed in existing research (Chan, 2002; Li, 1997; Thompson, 2006), however with the prevalence of the unofficial English names as the mode of address the questions of identity and identification is particularly interesting.

This paper adds to the concept of cultural, linguistic and symbolic capital regarding the use of names and contributes to existing theories such as the INT and the IMT by applying parts of the concepts to names and their significance to identity, negotiation of intimacy and cultural context.


I used qualitative interviews to gather data about the use and perception of English and Chinese names. Interviews were conducted in April 2019 in an informal setting; they lasted 40 to 70 minutes. The conversation took place in English and was recorded for later analysis.

My six participants were recruited through convenience sampling by personal acquaintance. All of them are undergraduate students at the University of Hong Kong studying in the Faculty of Science, Arts or Social Science. Five of the participants learn an additional language (German) as a major, minor or in their free time. Four participants are female, two are male, the age ranged from 18 to 22, hence all of them were raised after the handover. All participants grew up in Hong Kong and were educated at public schools.

After the interview, participants were asked to fill out a short questionnaire about their names and how they would introduce themselves. The results and some additional information on the participants can be obtained from the appendix.

Data Analysis

Acquisition and Use of Names

In contrast to previous research, it has become common in Hong Kong that parents choose an English name for their kids at birth. The name might already be used in a family context or kindergarten, but for the latest in English lessons in primary school. If one does not have an English name, this is the place to get one. It will either be chosen by oneself or even given by the teacher. Participant 3 said that teachers would suggest “or, I can call it ‘force’ those students to adopt an English name.”

The use of the English name as a mode of address increases with the increasing use of English as a MOI in school. In many cases, the English name is used for lessons conducted in English and the Chinese name for Chinese speaking context. During secondary school, both names are used, while all participants claimed that at university, they only use their English name and often do not even know the Chinese name of their friends.

The English name is the one, people introduce themselves with in almost all occasions. Especially with new acquaintances or not very close friends, only the English name is considered relevant.

“You can’t go wrong if you call people by their English name. It won’t be too rude. And it’s more appropriate if you meet for the first time.” (Participant 5)

“English nicknames are… how should I say?... a good way to address others.” (Participant 2)

The Chinese name, on the other hand, is reserved for more private settings. It is used with family and close friends. In search of a good Chinese name for their children many parents consult feng shui masters or fortune teller for advice. Participants explained that the meaning, the number of strokes and the balance of the elements from the Chinese ontology are important. Parents often receive a list of possible names from which they choose one for their child. Chinese naming in Hong Kong is in line with the findings from other researches. Participants usually know the literal meaning of their names and the hopes their parents wanted to express through the name.

“Parents can give their children a lot of wishes or hopes. […] for 100 [people with the same Chinese name], there can be 100 meanings.” (Participant 2)

“Your name is about your destiny, about your life, your whole life, so they [parents] are really serious in picking.” (Participant 5)

As the Chinese name is the official name printed on the ID card it is also used in formal settings. Only Participant 3 decided to add her English name on her ID card because: “I want it to, like, be a legal name for me. […] One of the reasons I add my English name because I don’t want people to call me my Chinese name [and] don’t want to get any confusion.” The others decided not to add it because they felt that the English name is less serious. Participants described how they feel more directly addressed when the Chinese name is used. In serious situations or if someone is angry, the Chinese name may be used to express it:

“ […] but sometimes, when, in a sort of serious situation, maybe you didn’t do your homework or, yeah, so the teacher was a bit angry, so she wanted to show that it is serious, she’d use Chinese name ‘why didn’t you…?!’” (Participant 4)

The Chinese and English name are therefore used in different settings. The practice is rarely doubted and not perceived as inconvenient:

“No, because we used to have it. It’s almost like a habit or tradition for Hong Kong people. Because no matter which family you’re from or which school you’re from, we already have two names or, I would say, even three names: the Chinese full name, the English full name, the English nickname or even a nickname of the Chinese one. So, we’re already familiar with: ‘there are a lot of names for myself’ and change it very quickly.” (Participant 6)

Use of English names in the Hong Kongese society can be described using Bourdieu’s concept of habitus: it is generally accepted and not questioned in everyday life. Even though students are asked to adopt an English name in primary school, most already have one before. Even those who only choose one at this age don’t say that they feel forced, but that they “want to have an English name” (Participant 4). Moreover, all my participants found it “weird” (Participant 3 and 5) if a Hong Kongese person does not have an English name. Two even mentioned, that generally, they find Chinese names harder to remember.

They especially pointed out, how they find it difficult to know how to address this person because the English name is commonly used in an informal setting, where people do not know each other too well, and the Chinese name would be perceived as too intimate.

“English name is more friendly, and more suitable for people who just meet for once. So, if we met for the first time, and we introduce ourselves and all of us call English name. Suddenly one person says her or his Chinese name, I will feel like ‘oh my god, it’s a bit weird’ and I also think whether he or she comes from Mainland China.” (Participant 5)

“I don’t know, what should I call that person. Because I don’t have your English name, but it’s something like a little bit offense, if I directly, like, call your Chinese full name. Because in our society it is offensive to call the Chinese full name if you are not very close with that people. So, at that moment, I don’t know what to call him or her, and maybe instead we will call their given name.” (Participant 6)

Not having an English name to be used in an informal setting violates the social convention of having one. My participants describe, how it made them feel uncomfortable and insecure about the appropriate way to address the other. The collective choice of English naming makes Hong Kong different from the rest of China, and the acceptance of this practice is an expression of the perceived difference and a refusal of Mainland Chinese culture as dominant.

English Names and Status

This high importance of English names in the Hong Kongese society and the practice of everyday use differs from the practice in Mainland China. All my participants believe that it is less common in Mainland China to adopt an English name and that there, it will mostly be chosen by the person her/himself in secondary school or at university. They think this stems from the high importance English has in Hong Kong and believe the English level in Mainland China to be generally lower. Many mentioned that “it’s a very Hong Kongese practice” (Participant 6) and that the use of English names may be a “very subtle way” (Participant 1) of expressing Hong Kongese identity.

With English being a MOI at many secondary schools and at universities, English is an important linguistic capital, as it allows access to educational capital lying in higher education and thus enables students to pursue a better career (Chan, 2002). Many of my participants think that the practice of using English names started during colonial times and was only common among highly educated people, who collaborated with the government or had good business connections. The English name was a way to “show off” and show that one had a “higher social status than common people” (Participant 3). English names became an expression of the possession of linguistic capital and then turned into symbolic capital.

This perception remains the same until today:

“Your status will be lower if you don’t have an English name. […] Those who don’t have an English name will pick themselves one because they don’t want to be discriminated, they don’t want to be, like, looked down. I think, it’s actually essential to have an English name in Hong Kong.” (Participant 5)

However, it is not only important to have an English name, but it needs to be the right one. At the same time, the name should not be too common and “not too stand-out” (Participant 3). Possibilities of uncommon English names are words like Candy or Cherry, non-English names like Yuki (Japanese) or Silvio (Italian), made-up names, parts of the Chinese name (e.g. Nok), the initials of the Chinese name or repetitions of syllables, sometimes coming from the Chinese name (e.g. Yoyo, Bobo).

All but one participant had a common English name. They expressed that they disliked most of the kinds of names mentioned above, with non-English names or only a syllable of the Chinese name being the most acceptable. The reaction to these names ranged from “a bit weird” (Participant 5) over “super strange” (Participant 4) to “I quite dislike those names” (Participant 2). They highlighted the importance of having a good name for a future western context, where a name like Candy might be “embarrassing” (Participant 2). The less “standard” the name of the participant was, the more open the reaction towards uncommon names. The participant using an uncommon name said:

“I do not have any special preference on that. I will think if that name is suitable for that person... Because I know someone called Candy and her smile is really like Candy. So, I think this name is really suitable for her. […] As long as it’s suitable, it is good.” (Participant 6)

Similarly, dislike was expressed towards too common English names. It is important to have a good English name and not one “just picked up on the street” (Participant 3). Very common names were thought to represent a lower status, as people were imagined having a lower English level or education and therefore not the resources, or linguistic capital, to choose a proper name.

The importance of a not too common English name is also due to the limited number of Chinese last names:

“I really can’t remember that person after a while. Because I have a lot of Peter, David, Calvin in my mind. And most of the time we use their last name to differentiate between the people. But you know that there are a lot of Wong or Chueng in Chinese society, so there are a lot of Kevin Chueng and Amy Wong and like this. If this person has nothing special for me to remember…” (Participant 6)

All interviewees know someone with the same English name as themselves, though sometimes the spelling may differ. In general, the perception of this is quite positive:

“[It] feels like, I dunno, like, it’s maybe like he [the name] gives me an illusion, that I’ll be familiar with this person more quickly, somehow he has this effect.” (Participant 4)

“I already have the interest to know more about this person. [And we will feel] more close to the people who have a similar name with us.” (Participant 6)

However, if two people in a group of friends have the same English name, one (or both) will get an additional nickname to differentiate between the two and avoid confusion.

The situation for the Chinese name is different. Even though participants know someone with a similar pronunciation, many had never met another person using the same characters. Some people expressed the same positive feelings about meeting a person with the same Chinese name, while others thought it was strange or embarrassing.

Naming Preferences

All participants claimed their Chinese name to be more important to them, even those who like their English name more. The Chinese name is seen as more personal and more unique. One reason why the Chinese name is liked more is its uniqueness.

“I think, I’m okay with both names, because both of them are my names, but I think the Chinese name is more special because usually our English name is taken. Many people have the same name.” (Participant 5)

“I love my English name more, but the Chinese name has a deeper meaning for me.” (Participant 3)

“Hard to say. Very equally rated. Because in different setting all of my names have their purpose, have their unique place.” (Participant 6 to “which name do you prefer?”)

As Chinese represents the Chinese part of the Hong Kongese society, the Chinese name represents the Chinese side of a person’s identity. Stopping to use a Chinese name would be “just like you erase your whole Chinese identity.” (Participant 3).

“Even with the popularity of adopting English names, Chinese names are still more important than English names. […] Hong Kong is still a Chinese society.”
(Participant 3)

As pointed out earlier, the contexts in which the English and Chinese name are used are different. A particular setting implies the use of one or the other and makes some facet of the identity more salient as outlined by Kanno (2003). Sensing which name is appropriate to use in a given situation requires cultural competence and is necessary to establish and maintain close relationships, as explained by IMT (Imahori & Cupach, 2005). People feel addressed more directly when the Chinese name is used, while the English name can be used by anyone.

“If someone I’m not really familiar with and this people call my Chinese name, I will have some uncomfortable feeling. Because in our society, most likely Chinese name is for those who are very close to you and English name is for the normal unbonding relationship. If someone suddenly call my Chinese name and that people is not at that relationship, I will have a little bit uncomfortable feeling.” (Participant 6)

The thoughts about the appropriate mode of address differed among participants. Some felt that “if someone calls me my Chinese name, I still feel more like…, it actually feels better” (Participant 4) making the Chinese name the preferred mode of address across situations, while others limited it: “Closer friends, don’t need to be really close, I will prefer using Chinese name” (Participant 5). However, all of them expressed that the Chinese name “somehow gives me the feeling that we are really, really close” (Participant 4).

The shift from the English to the Chinese name when getting to know others better is gradual. This shift was the only situation where many participants expressed that it is difficult to tell when it starts to be appropriate to use the Chinese name. Because it is not regularly used in the University context, many people do not even know the Chinese name of the people they frequently spent time with. Getting to know another person’s Chinese name by chance means, that one has spent a lot of time with this person, and like this it may become appropriate to use it. The Chinese name will gradually replace the English name as the mode of address.

“I feel weird if we become very close and I use your English name. […] It won’t go back, it’s like an ongoing process.” (Participant 1)

“In the beginning, we introduce ourselves with the English name, it’s just strange to switch at some point.” (Participant 4)

“If I have the right, if you recognize me calling your Chinese name, that means that we have closer bond.” (Participant 3)

Following INT, identity and relationship are expressed through communication, here especially through the use of one name or the other, marking the level of intimacy between the interlocutors.

It is noteworthy, that the Chinese name is considered more important even though the English name is the one more commonly used in everyday life. One reason the English name is perceived as less important is the fact that it is non-official and quite easy to change.

“I think, English name is really casual, is really friendly, but it’s a bit, it’s not really serious. Because you can always change it and you can have like, three of them, two of them. It’s not really representing this people, because you can always change it, but the Chinese name is uhm… I mean, if I call you your Chinese name it’s really representing this person, you won’t change it. It’s you. But English name, you can just change it. It’s like… So, Chinese name is more important. It’s like, Chinese name is my phone and English name is my phone case. Can easily change it.” (Participant 5)

Changing the English name is quite common, all participants knew someone who had changed his/her English name at some point, and some of them had considered changing their name as well. Main reasons given for changing a name were that the name was not perceived as “good.”

Statements as “You can change it anytime” (Participant 4) stand against “I feel it’s too complicated to change it because I have to inform a lot of people” (Participant 5). Some people use different English names for different settings. For example, one participant mentioned a friend who studies in the UK, where the Japanese nickname she used in Hong Kong was replaced by an English name, nevertheless, she kept using her old Japanese name with friends in Hong Kong. Another participant (6) described how he chose a more official name for himself when entering university, “because I wanted something new at that time.” He uses this new name in formal written correspondence (e.g. application for internship), but his old English name is still his preferred mode of address. When choosing the new English name, it was important to him, that the two names were connected through similar sounds.

Even though people know of the possibility to change the name, many decide to stick with their first one, either because of the sense of identification connected with it or out of convenience.

“[I] almost identify myself completely with [English name] by now, after all these years. […] It seems to me almost as though I only have this name, [English name], if I give it up, I don’t know what to call myself.” (Participant 4)

“I have deep feelings about this name. Like, it represents me for 18 years, so I don’t want it to be changed” (Participant 3)

Conclusion and Discussion

The young generation of Hong Kong has adopted English and English names into their everyday life. The practice has not only become a habitus but is even highly valued as a way of distancing the own cultural identity from the Chinese Mainland. English is not mainly viewed in terms of linguistic imperialism but as linguistic and symbolic capital. Integration of the language and the practice has taken place, “transforming […] identities, as individuals and societies, and the identities of […] languages” (Kachru, 1998, p. 91). The symbolic capital of English names has become accessible to the general population, and the former colonial practice has gradually been “owned” by Hong Kongese people. However, education and status are still interpreted based on the English name and its appropriateness.

Different levels of intimacy are expressed through the use of names, independent from the language used in the conversation. They are therefore not only a way to express communal Hong Kongese identity, but also of negotiating identity and roles in interaction with local people.

This paper contributes to the understanding of English naming as well as post-colonial history and maintenance of practices introduced during colonial rule. It provides insights to contextual use of names in a multicultural and multilinguistic setting and outlines the functions given to the names in managing identities.

However, my sample is limited, as it only represents a particular group of Hong Kong citizens: All my participants have high English proficiency, study at one of the prestigious universities in Asia and have a rather international outlook. Further research may take groups with lower English proficiency or socio-economic status into consideration to identify possible differences among Hong Kongese people.

Both male participants chose their English name themselves at primary school. However, when I asked my participants about naming practices in their families, all reported that their parents used the Chinese and English names in the same way for them as for their siblings, who have a different gender. Participant 3, who is frequently addressed by her English name at home, said, that her brother is as well and the sister of Participant 6, who chose his English name in primary school, also did not get an English name at birth. This seems to point to different family customs rather than to differences due to gender. Nevertheless, further research could focus on possible gender differences in the use and perception of (English) names.

As Hong Kong is a special case among former colonies, comparing practices of colonial language and naming in other regions may shed light on the adoption of colonial history as part of the cultural capital, as it has happened to a certain extent in Hong Kong.


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Wang, P. (2009). Chinese students' English name practices and their identities. McGill University,

Zhu, B., & Millward, C. (1987). Personal names in Chinese. Names, 35(1), 8-21.


Participant Information








Faculty of Social Science




Faculty of Science




Faculty of Arts




Facutly of Science




Facutly of Arts




Faculty of Social Science



How do you introduce yourself to:

What name do you use with professors?

Picking an English name:


Social Media

local student


person from MC











always had one









always had one









always had one









primary school









always had one







new EN



primary school




1.) In the following, MOI will be used as the abbreviation for medium of instruction

2.) In the following, Identity Negotiation Theory will be abbreviated as INT

3.) In the following, Identity Management Theory will be abbreviated at IMT

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