HONG KONG DIARY
Confessions of a Global Traveler: They Call Me ‘Mister’ Professor
I raised my sons to act with civility in this increasingly boorish world, and the bedrock of that behavior was the tenet: Never — ever — poke fun at someone’s name. Unless, of course, it’s really funny, in which case let the linguistic brutality begin. In private company, of course. After all, who among us not named after body parts, sex acts, animals or food hasn’t taken such liberties?
You linguistic libertines out there are well prepared for travel to Hong Kong and China, where it is common for professionals to “take” a western name to ease business interactions. This is especially so in Hong Kong, where over 120 high schools taught in the King’s English prior to the 1997 hand-over to the mainland. There are far fewer such schools today, but several generations of Hong Kong people were thus educated and most took western names as a matter of course.
The first order of a professional interaction throughout Asia is the business card exchange. Our eastern counterparts have their cards printed on both sides, with vital statistics in western alphabet on one side and Chinese characters on the other. On front and back there is a dizzying array of numbers (office and mobile phones, fax and telex) and addresses (sales offices, factories, web sites, emails) crammed around company logos, personal names, and job titles. One would expect the information to be the same on both sides of the card, but who the heck knows? In fact, there is one bit of data that always differs: the name itself.
And that name on the western side represents a personal choice. It can be based on alliteration and aspiration, on admiration and affinity. It can be a nod to tradition or a rejection of old ways. Hollywood has made its mark here, and the golden era of film looms large in the name game. My colleagues Clark, Claudia, Marlon, Orson, Rhonda, Vivian, and Yvonne must have had stars in their eyes when it was their turn to choose. Stars, yes, and stiffs too, like a certain Philly club fighter who influenced both Rocky Liou and Rocky Xu.
For those with their feet planted more firmly on the ground — like production schedulers Clifford Chung and Florence Fok — there are sensible handles that scan well to boot. Some feel the need to split the difference between fantasy and reality, like Mr. Seah Sen Khai, a sales manager who chose to honor his Chinese name with a westernized metonym that has no apparent meaning, as such.
If deliberate religious obscurity is your game, take a seat in the pew next to Kester K.H. Mak, a shipping agent who, for all I know, is a Bhuddist anyway.
Not sure what you’re going for, but just want to keep up? You’d probably love to hang with Mr. Jones Kwok, wouldn’t you, Mr. Jones? And I have spent many happy hours with my friends Beatus, Bobo, Canny, Cicy, Eldy, Fanny, Nandy, and Tanny (separately of course, they’re all female — oops, sorry Nandy), without a clue about what they were thinking when they so named themselves.
My Hong Kong contact Dennis K.P. Mok waxes nostalgic over his graduation from his English-speaking junior high school when, as a reward for outstanding attendance, his father granted him the right to choose his western surname. He thought long and hard, and finally settled on a name that symbolized his achievement: Dennis is the UK’s leading bus, lorry, and fire truck producer, ubiquitous in Hong Kong and a symbol of strength and reliability. Every morning, regular as habit, a Dennis bus came to his stop and got him to school on time. I know what you’re thinking — What a colossal blunder, what opportunity lost to call himself Mr. Mack Mok. No matter — I won’t hear of it. Dennis is a perfectly respectable choice, so no making fun.
That said, what in the name of Mike was Anthony K.K. Ho thinking (or was it Ho Ho K?), especially given his weakness for working girls? And let’s raise a flagon of rum to the immortal Mr. Captain Huang, of Hung-Ou Bent Wood Co., Ltd. O Mr. Captain, My Captain, A Toast-Ho: That your ship comes in with Bent Wood Well Hung-Ou.
Enough with the sea shanties, today it is gigantic container ships that ply the China trade. They do so silently, and without song. And they already carry enough burden — of buyers’ and sellers’ deals, of profiteers’ schemes. Of workers and their aspirations for a better life, the product of their sweat-soaked toil packed in cardboard and encased in steel boxes in the bellies and on the decks of these mammoth vessels. Enough burden without having to shoulder some bad karaoke, too.
It is tempting to view all this moniker mayhem as a failure of logic or some linguistic weakness. In fact, it is an exercise in deference to Western visitors too haughty or lazy to learn even a smattering of Chinese, be it Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, or any of the fifty-plus dialects currently in use in China. Westerners would be lost without such earnest name applications and meticulous translations of even the most rudimentary correspondence, a gift presented with grace and humility.
Global travel plays all sorts of tricks on the mind; jet lag can induce culture shock, homesickness and that round-the bend gone-native feeling, sometimes all during the same trip. It pays to have a firm grip on one’s own identity when traveling thousands of miles from home, and to maintain a sense of one’s place on the great global wheel of fortune. My Asian counterparts’ own awareness is so keen that they can “take” another name just to jolly a guest and foster a deal.
So, while they assume a seemingly frivolous diminutive for themselves, they address us with genuine honorifics, as in Mister Don and Miss Joan. Or, if you’re lucky, Mister Professor. Meanwhile, we Americans kill each other on the street for “disrespecting” a name, so unsure are we of ourselves. Yes, I have a nomme de guerre and wield it for fun and profit. Don’t you go disrespecting it neither, but make no mistake: Ambiguity and obscurity are fools’ trappings on the road. Just ask K.K. Ho.
Or was it Ho Ho K?
AUTHOR’S NOTE: None of the names in this article have been changed to protect the innocent reader, except that of the author.
The Professor, as he is known to legions of business contacts throughout Asia, has been traveling to Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region since late in the last millennium. He is a native of Philadelphia, PA and maintains his permanent residence there. His poetry, fiction, interviews, and articles have been published by Philadelphia-area newspapers, magazines and anthologies, and he is currently planning another trip abroad. He is shown here at left, about to join the Maclehose Trail in Sai Kung.
Articles by the Professor
Column: Hong Kong Diary