What’s in a Chinese Name? For Politicians, Plenty

(Photo by Eric Yao, Creative Commons license)

Bill de Blasio’s Chinese name roughly translates as “white,” “thinking” and “strong.” (Photo by Eric Yao, Creative Commons license)

Bill de Blasio’s Chinese name is Bai Si Hao. It has three characters that, roughly translated, mean “white,” “thinking” and “strong.” These same three characters are used for de Blasio’s name in all Chinese newspapers, and will appear on the ballot on Election Day November 5.

But the mayoral candidate didn’t always have a single, uniform Chinese name.

At the beginning of de Blasio’s 2009 campaign for New York City public advocate, Chinese newspapers created their own phonetic transliterations of “de Blasio.” From paper to paper, there were slight variations in the characters used to represent his name in Mandarin.

To ward off confusion, de Blasio enlisted the help of City Comptroller John Liu to create his “official” Chinese name.

“It’s important to have what’s considered a good Chinese name as opposed to simply a phoneticized name,” said Liu, who was born in Taiwan.

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The Democratic mayoral candidate’s Chinese name as it appears on the official Board of Elections ballot.

Bai Si Hao, with its three meaningful characters, mirrors the structure of typical Chinese names. Chinese names normally have two or three characters, with the surname written first. Each character, in addition to representing a phonetic sound, has its own meaning.

The practice of choosing a Chinese name has become standard for New York City politicians. Under the Language Assistance Provisions (Section 203) of the federal Voting Rights Act, ballots in elections for certain jurisdictions determined by the U.S. Census Bureau, including all five boroughs of New York, must include transliterations of politicians’ names in Mandarin.

If a politician does not choose his or her own Chinese name, the Board of Elections supplies its own transliteration for the ballot, which can lead to confusion. The Board of Elections’ choice is often different from spellings of candidates’ names in the Chinese press. In some cases, the Board of Elections’ transliterations are more than three characters long, and can be hard to understand.

As a result, more and more politicians are realizing the importance of choosing a single, uniform Chinese name to represent themselves to Mandarin-speaking voters.

According to the most recent Census Bureau data, there are 150,572 registered Chinese voters in New York City with an average turnout of 39 percent for a general election.

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The Republican candidate’s Chinese name is Luo De, which has no meaning but sounds like Lhota.

“It’s obvious the Chinese-speaking community is much more significant in elections now than it had been several years ago,” said Liu, who said he also helped Christine Quinn and Letitia James craft a Chinese name. “For politicians running for citywide offices, choosing a Chinese name is important – although I have to admit I had no choice in my own Chinese name.”

Eddie Chiu, leader of the Lin Sing Association, a Chinese American political organization based in Manhattan’s Chinatown, echoed Liu’s sentiments on the importance of politicians choosing Chinese names. When the Board of Elections generates a Chinese name for a candidate, he said, the result can be confusing.

“Some politicians get Chinese names that are very lousy,” he said “Sometimes they have names on the ballot that have five or six Chinese characters. That’s too long.”

The Independence Party candidate Chinese name is long ("A Dao Fu" "Ka Rui An") and lacks specific meaning.

The Independence Party candidate’s Chinese name is long (“A Dao Fu” “Ka Rui An”) and lacks specific meaning.

The names for Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota and Independence Party nominee Adolfo Carrión in tomorrow’s ballot are translations based on what they sound like in Chinese. They don’t have specific meanings.

Like Liu, Chiu has created Chinese names for multiple New York City politicians, including state Sen. Daniel Squadron. Earlier this year, he said, City Council candidate Carlos Menchaca approached Chiu for help choosing a Chinese name. Chiu said he was proud of the name he came up with, which both mimics the sound of Menchaca’s name and has a positive meaning.

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The Brooklyn City Council candidate got himself a “good Chinese name.”

“I gave him a good Chinese name. I came up with Man Chi Gia,” he said. “It’s a very close translation. It sounds similar and is very meaningful in Chinese.” In English, Menchaca’s name translates to roughly “10,000,” “together” and “home.” 

Glenn Magpantay, director of the democracy program of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that having a Chinese name won’t necessarily help politicians win votes.

“I think it helps Chinese voters recognize who they’re voting for,” he said. “But it’s not as though Chinese people are stupid. They don’t attribute the meaning or strength of a name to a candidate,” he said.

But Joe Wei, editor-in-chief of the World Journal, a Chinese newspaper, said that he thinks the trend of politicians choosing Chinese names is a positive development.

“It’s very nice. It’s become the fashion,” he said “In the last 10 to 15 years, I think politicians have recognized that if they have a Chinese name they’re more successful.”

Wei said that it’s much easier for voters to understand and remember a politician’s name if it has been elegantly transliterated into Chinese.

“If you have a beautiful Chinese name given to you by Chinese advisors or friends, it’s an easy way to be recognized in the community.”

(With Amanda Dingyuan Hou)


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