Originally published in The Huffington Post.
When state Senate candidate Dan Squadron went to Chinatown to accept an endorsement from the Lin Sing community group, he got a second gift: a Chinese name.
Squadron was tagged as Si Cot Ching, an approximation of the name “Squadron,” modified into Cantonese sounds and spelled with three Asian characters. He went on to defeat Senator Martin Connor, a 30-year incumbent, in the Democratic primary.
“If you want a good Chinese name, you have got to come here,” said Eddie Chiu, 60, director of the Lin Sing, a non-profit group based on Mott Street.
Oh Ba Mah’s Advantage
Part of Chiu’s job is to makes the names of politicians easier to pronounce and understand for Cantonese-speakers – particularly the senior citizens who represent Chinatown’s strongest voting bloc.
Chiu, who was born in Hong Kong, said election boards often botch translations of names like “Squadron,” rendering them incomprehensible to Chinese-language speakers on ballots. “A lousy translation confuses elders,” said Chiu.
He writes the Board of Elections and calls newspapers, alerting them to the “official” name he’s designated for each candidate. “They use a different name and a lot will think it’s a different person,” he said.
With Chinatown voters, Barak Obama’s name doesn’t pose as much controversy as it has with some Americans. Oh Ba Mah is easy to sound out and translate, even to the ears of those who don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Chiu said that for the Chinese American seniors, a name that is easy to pronounce and remember is enough to get their votes.
But with John McCain’s Cantonese name – Mak Hoi Yan– problems existed with his campaign’s palm-sized flyer showing his name written with an amount of characters not customary in Chinese. “It needs to be three, said Chiu. “If you bring a palm card, with five characters, it confuses [voters].” Chiu said that such a mistake can cost a candidate votes.
Sound Over Meaning
Eliot Spitzer was dubbed Xi Bi Cha in Cantonese. Xi is a popular family name in China, roughly translating into one who thinks. “Every time you give a name, you give a meaning and a sound,” said Chiu, adding that a Chinese name is sometimes selected more for its sound than its meaning.
Most names, though, are selected for phonetic similarity instead of meaning. Ke Lin Dun is the phonetic pronunciation of Clinton and Co Al An for Councilman Alan Gerson.
Mayor Bloomberg’s Chinese name is Pang Bok. Pang is common name in Chinese. Bok means educated.
Chiu’s attire of loose jeans, long-sleeved navy T-shirt and sneakers belie his prominence in Chinatown. The candidates Chiu endorses often win political races.
Candidates that haven’t sought help from the Chinese-language speakers have no way of knowing how their name is portrayed. “It can be a funny name,” said Chiu. “Then you know that they never came to the community.”