Cantonese dictionaries and Romanization of the kid’s Chinese name

It started with a question that came to me to ask my mum if she named herself after Grace Kelly. It’s not a bad thing at all but she flatly denied it, claims not to know or remember the American actress who became a princess. Mum gave herself her English name back in the ’60s (I think) when she was in Hong Kong because that’s what was done. She was miffed I suggested it was a popular and thus common name but she couldn’t put forward that it was a truly unique name either.

We got to talking about how seriously mispelled my Chinese name is on my original birth certificate but it’s not a big deal to me any longer. Mum asked me what E’s Chinese name is – I’m disappointed she doesn’t remember – and for a moment I couldn’t remember and disappointed myself! My mum put my sister’s and my Chinese names on our birth certificates but NPY’s parents did not for all three kids. We went with NPY’s family’s way because Romanizing Chinese (Cantonese) words is icky, not really that standardized.

Mum asked what E’s middle name is and I told her and added that I’m slightly regretful now because it gives him a middle initial of Z and I don’t like what that looks like to me – that he might have a Pinyin Chinese name because of the prevalence of initial letters of “Z” and “X” in Pinyin. It is stupid-silly of me, I know.

Mum didn’t understand why I didn’t just use Pinyin to spell out E’s Chinese name and that’s where I’m staunchly so Cantonese (and I was born in Canada!) while she is hearing the siren call of Mandarin, being Chinese at the core and born in Canton/Guangdong, China. E’s surname is decidedly not Pinyin so I’m not mixing in Pinyin with it. If I’m going to Romanize E’s Chinese name, it’s going to be one of the Cantonese Romanization systems!

What are those Cantonese Romanizations systems? These are the systems I saw mentioned:

  • Wade Giles (WG) (1859) this is the OG system that gives us gems like Peking and Kwangtung is it “out dated” per the online dictionary I found that supports it
    – online dictionary: Chinasage
  • Standard Romanization (1888) created by missionaries in China – not much information on this one
  • Yale (1943) created by scholars and used at the Chinese University of Hong Kong
    – online dictionary: Pleco
  • Sidney Lau (1970s)
  • Jyutping 粵拼 (1993) created by scholars and used at the University of Hong Kong and by Wikipedia. Is it the standard? I don’t know, but Sheik (石) dictionary that exclusively uses Jyutping has really good SEO
    – online dictionaries: Sheik and Pleco

Let’s start with the example Mum knowingly brought about how Peking became Beijing. “Peking” isn’t strictly speaking Wade Giles because I looked it up and it would have been “Pei Ching”. I can see some Caucasian man way back when trying to wrap his head around the pronunciation a Chinese man is telling him, “bāk gīng” and trying to repeat it but it seems like his tongue can’t do it and then he finally says “P King” and the Chinese fellow nods and that’s how it came to be. Like, where did the “k” even come from?

Of course, the current spelling comes straight from Beijing.

Characters: 北京
Jyutping: bak1 ging1
Yale: bāk gīng
WG: pei ching
Pinyin: běi jīng

Now, there’s a story that comes with my name. First off, my father, arriving at a different time from his brothers, was assigned a different spelling to our surname. There was a time when I wanted my surname to reflect me externally and that is to appear Chinese but these days I’m happy that it looks vaguely British. My Chinese name was given to me by my paternal grandfather but when it came to Romanizing it, my parents were obviously feeling through the dark and agreed to “Man Wayn” when Yale captures it best, I think: “màhn waih”. Growing up, I hated the name Wayne and still now think you have to whine a bit to say that name. But at least these days, I’ve come to embrace the name instead.

In my mid-twenties, I was in the throes of diaspora and pressed hard to have our surname change. I really should have tried it on for size for a while, unofficially because when it became official, I hated it. I went from “Lock Man Wayn” to becoming “Lok Man Wai”. I wasn’t ready to have each of my names be so concisely three-letters long! At the time of the name change, although the Internet, Yale and Jyutping existed, I hadn’t consulted with them.

Exposure to Romanization of Hong Kong pop singers made having the unfeminine looking “Man” more acceptable to me. It appears in both Sammi Cheng and Karen Mok’s names. In fact, Karen Mok’s name spelled in Jyutping is Mok Man Wai, only one letter different from my own so I’ve embraced her music. I think this goes all the way back to when my cousin embraced Sandy Lam’s music because that is also her name.

In the examples in this post, I find that Yale Romanization is similar to how I would have spelled out Cantonese pronunciation, more so than Jyutping, more helpful in pronunciation, especially with the accents visible, even if I don’t know what they all mean. The Pinyin (along with the Mandarin pronunciation) is round and soft and not appealing to me. Interestingly, the Wade Giles pronunciation the dictionary provided me with looks suspiciously just like the Pinyin, so I don’t trust it that is the correct Wade Giles at all.

Characters: 駱文慧
Birth certificate: Lock Man Wayn
Legally: Lok Man Wai
Jyutping: lok3 man4 wai6
Yale: lok màhn waih
WG: luo wên hui
Pinyin: luò wén huì

Now we’re on to the star of the show. What are the various Romanizations of E’s Chinese name?

He shares a surname with Tung Chee-hwa, the first Chief Executive of Hong Kong (I don’t even know if that position still exists) when it was handed back to China in 1997 – VIG (very important guy). Interestingly for Tung Chee-hwa, despite being prolific, the Romanization of his name is not from the major systems (correct me if I’m wrong). In WG, he would be “Tung chien hua” and I’m uncertain about the “hua” spelling. In Yale, he would be “Dúng Gin wàh” and in Jyutping it would be “Dung2 Gin3 Waa4“. What system did they use for him?

Nonetheless, NPY and E have good ole Cantonese surnames and its spelling is good old WG.

I didn’t get a complete Romanization in WG for his Chinese names so we can only consider Jyutping and Yale. Oh man, their surname in Jyutping and Yale Romanization is “Dung” – teehee – so I’m glad WG prevailed. He’s going to have some teasing in elementary school regardless because it is homonymous with “tongue”. Once again, I find the Yale Romanization of E’s Chinese name a better indication to how to pronounce his name.

On the other hand, “Zeon sing” is cool in that it starts with “Z” like his middle name does and you know I’m going to claim that part of the reason we went with his middle name is that is it vaguely corresponds to his Chinese name (i.e., starts with the same letter)!

Characters: 董俊*成
Jyutping: dung2 zeon3 sing4
Yale: dúng jeun sìhng
WG: tung (not found) ch’eng
Pinyin: dǒng jùn chéng

Update: I turned my attention to NPY’s name which has never been written out. He waved me off, told me he knew how it would be spelled – Kar Ming, like “that guy” in school who had “the same name”. Dude, (1) your classmate Kar Ming’s parents were not necessarily correct given likely lack of access to resources, (2) you don’t pronounced 家 with an “r” at the end unless you don’t know proper Cantonese, (3) it is unlikely Kar Ming actually had the exact same Chinese name given the numerous possibilities and if there is one character difference, it could translate to a Romanization difference. Granted, he doesn’t care so much about official spelling because, practically speaking, it will never be used. Still, I like to prove a point.

For these characters, it’s a draw for me how close Jyutping and Yale are. WG is off on its own beat with Chinasage not having a translation for something as basic as 家 so I found “chia” from another source. Well, you know how “chia” would be pronounced (e.g., “chia seed”) so the most likely Romanization would be “Ga Ming” or “Gaming”.

Characters: 董家銘
Jyutping: dung2 gaa1 ming4
Yale: dúng gā míhng
WG: tung chia ming
Pinyin: dǒng jiā míng


* I didn’t know this earlier but when I entered the first part of E’s Chinese name in the Pleco dictionary, it returns a couple of characters that looked like they might be the traditional form of the character I thought was already the traditional form. The two more complex characters and the character I knew of all have the same four definitions listed below. 俊 has another entry meaning 1. neat 2. cool. Looks like something worth investigating later!

㑺/儁/俊 all mean 1. smart 2. eminent 3. handsome 4. talented


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