SF politicians and Chinese names

Wednesday’s San Francisco Standard has a good (and nicely referenced and illustrated) piece by Han Li on politicians in SF/Jiujinshan choosing Chinese names as a way to appeal to the significant slice of those in the community who can read them. Such names are now receiving a lot more attention from politicians than before.

The article notes the important distinction between Western names that have simply been transcribed approximately into Chinese characters, which tend to sound a bit weird and run on too long, and “authentic” names (quote marks in the original), which sound like something an actual Chinese person might have (e.g., three characters, with the “family” name coming first).

Li credits now vice president Kamala Harris with starting the trend of local politicians seeking authentic- and favorable-sounding names when she first ran for San Francisco district attorney in 2003.

Harris ditched the transliteration-based name 哈里斯 (“ha lay si”) and chose 賀錦麗 (“ho gum lai”) instead. To Cantonese speakers’ ears, the new appellation had a more celebratory and positive ring (the surname Ho, 賀, means “celebrate”), while Gum-Lai has a feminine quality (錦麗 means “beautiful”).

One of the things I especially like about the piece is how it gives primacy to Cantonese for most names, reflecting the situation on the ground.

Some rules govern the selection of names.

  • Candidates who do not already have a Chinese name can have the Department of Elections provide one.
  • The submitted names have to be in traditional Chinese characters.
  • The names cannot be the same as those of historic figures or celebrities, and they cannot lead to ambiguity or become too promotional. (So I guess 高富帥/Gāo Fùshuài wouldn’t pass muster.)

And additional rules may be coming into place.

In 2019, Assemblymember Evan Low authored legislation to regulate Chinese translations on California’s statewide ballots. The law mandates that candidates use transliteration-based names unless they can prove that they were born with a character-based name or have been using such an “authentic” style Chinese name for at least two years.

San Francisco’s Department of Elections has rules that slightly differ from Low’s legislation and has insisted his law doesn’t apply to local races, which means candidates do not need to prove that two-year usage. The City Attorney’s Office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Supervisor Connie Chan, an immigrant from Hong Kong, said she’s considering actions on the board to implement Low’s bill at the local level.

Han Li. “To Court SF Voters, Politicians Give Themselves Flowery Chinese Names.” San Francisco Standard, May 10, 2023.

cover of a book about Kamala Harris, giving her Chinese name (as discussed in the post)

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