What do Potato, Toffee and Pudding have in common? They are not, as you might think, food items.
Where you can do business with Peter Pan?
HONG KONG // What do Potato, Toffee and Pudding have in common? They are not, as you might think, food items, as that would be potato, toffee and pudding. In Hong Kong, a Chinese city that for over 150 years has been adopting some of the more bizarre aspects of western culture, they are the names of its Chinese residents. Mr Potato and Ms Toffee are art teachers (along with their colleague, Ms Ceiling) and Pudding is an angelic-voiced singing teacher.
Here in Hong Kong, choosing an abstract English name is not an artistic statement, like calling your child Saffron or Rainbow. Some say that when the first colonialists arrived and could not pronounce Chinese names, they foisted English ones on those with whom they came in to regular contact; or that the missionaries - and they still have a strong presence in Hong Kong - wanted everyone to have Christian names.
Others say the Chinese did it themselves because they hated hearing their names mangled by English speakers. In recent times, it seems to give one a certain cachet, showing how trendy and westernised you are; and the more outlandish, the greater the kudos. If you're a teenager, how better to rebel than by giving yourself a name that's a rejection of convention? Hence hotel staff called Shaggy and Lupus.
And it is not restricted to the names of people either; buildings, shops and street signs are often a bizarre combination of English and Chinese, thus you have Hop On Bicycle Shop, the Come Profit Seafood Restaurant and the So So hairdresser. But are Hong Kong's English names a barometer of popular culture? There are many 40-somethings called Ringo in Hong Kong, presumably the sons of Beatles fans - but very few younger Ringos are around. Of course there are always fashionable names in English-speaking countries - look at all the Elizabeths born around the time of the Queen's coronation - but Hong Kong has taken this to heart. While these days you're as likely to find a Chardonnay Smith as a Gucci Wong, and there are Apples on both sides of the world, Hong Kong seems to have a far greater concentration of unlikely names.
In a coffee shop where the staff wear badges saying Water and Cola, you might think that was their area of responsibility - until you notice their colleagues' badges say Doris and Winston. Another Winston works in a well-known fast food chain, along with colleagues Marlboro and Kent, despite the no smoking rule. Would you deposit your money with a bank clerk named Candy Man? Or would you dare ask if she had siblings called Gas, Main or TV Repair?
Candy Man is one example of how a perfectly good first name might not always work with the surname - though this is hardly unique to Hong Kong, as Rich Husband and Teresa Green can testify. Swing is an interesting name, but it would be even more memorable if her surname were Wing, Ng or Lo. We might titter at Peter Pan, a businessman, but we won't forget meeting him. For Benni To, a university administrator, her English name was chosen by her teacher.
"Our teacher required us to all to ? come up with English names and we'd be called that way during his classes; if we didn't, he would make one for us which was my case. At first he said I had large doe like eyes ? he said Bambi the baby deer. I objected, then he said Bunny because I have two large front teeth. Again I objected. He then came up with the name I've been using ever since." All well and good, being called Benni To, until a funny foreigner tacks Mussolini on the end.
Ms To also says there is some truth to the notion that this all happened because Hong Kong's colonial masters couldn't pronounce local names, resulting in embarrassed giggles all round. She also points out that it's becoming more common to pick a name that sounds somewhat like your Chinese name, so Polo may not be a fan of that game or clothing brand, but actually called Bo Lo in Chinese - ditto Coffee (Kar Fai), Carmen (Ka Man), not to mention Mono, Fancy and Antie.
Tak Ching Ho never liked the English name she was given at birth and had it legally removed when she was 18: "I don't use an English name now because I don't see why I need to have one. A name is just an identity, and I have already got mine." She might start a new trend. * The National