The Auspicious Englishisation of Chinese Singaporean Names 
Top image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

In 2019, I realised my full name might seem odd to anyone outside of Singapore. This was when I was face to face with an American customs agent who was glowering at my passport. 

“So ‘Lim’ is your last name?” he asked. “Then what’s that after it?”

It took me a second to respond because I’d just gotten off a long ass flight. And no one in Singapore had ever questioned me about my name before. Thanks, Chinese privilege. 

“Lu-Jin is my Chinese name. It comes after the surname,” I tried explaining to the unsmiling bald man. His frown only deepened. 

“So Lu-Jin is your middle name?”

“No. Anne is my middle name,” I said, silently panicking. Would my unnecessarily long name— Kimberly Anne Lim Lu-Jin—be the reason the New York trip I’d long dreamt of fell through? All my other friends with more ‘normal’ monikers (sans middle name) had already cleared customs and were waiting for me on the other side. 

We went in circles a couple more times—he didn’t seem to grasp that some cultures have Chinese names and middle names. Just when I thought we would be stuck in an infinite loop, he let out a harrumph and let me through. Legend has it that he’s still confounded by my name.

Ask any Singaporean, though, and they’ll tell you that the English-name-Chinese-surname-Chinese name format is pretty much the de facto naming convention for most in the local Chinese community. If you were raised Catholic like me, then you might have a bonus middle name thrown in the mix. Or maybe your parents watched too many Hollywood flicks, leaving you with a name like Anakin Optimus Maverick Tan.

I’d argue that it’s only gotten more common in recent years. Singaporean names aren’t archived on public records, so there aren’t any recent statistics to speak of. But judging from all the baby announcements I’ve seen on social media this past year, every single newborn has an English name.

Image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo

The Jayden Epidemic, Explained

Dr Peter Tan, a senior lecturer in the National University of Singapore’s Department of English Language and Literature, wrote a fascinating paper back in 2001 called Englishised names? Naming patterns amongst ethnic-Chinese Singaporeans. He also has more sources than just my personal Instagram feed, which is why I approached him to shed some light on this naming phenomenon. 

Over 20 years ago, he’d already observed that more and more of his students were turning up to class with English names. Some were born with them. Others gave themselves English monikers. 

Singapore doesn’t have any public name registries, so Dr Tan’s research over the years has been based on secondary sources like school magazines and local universities’ lists of graduates. 

Even so, he says that in his experience, Singapore largely follows global naming trends. 

“Around the 1990s, a lot of people were called Chloe. And I know also because my daughter was born in that period. And so we didn’t use Chloe.”

Several of Dr Tan’s observations still ring true today. One is that English names (even if unofficial) often eclipse Chinese names. When one is born with an English name—or chooses one later in life—the Chinese name falls into disuse. 

Dr Tan also noted a small number of “fanciful or invented names” in his research, such as Lavon, Wagen, and Xhann. As he explained in the paper: “The motivation must be the desire to have given names that are unique and distinguishing.” 

He tells me it’s a similar driving force to the one behind all the babies today named Jayden or Kayden. Back then, he concluded that this Englishisation of Chinese names he’d observed was brought upon by a mix of factors, including an increase in Christians here, rising English literacy, and more people choosing to speak English at home. 

Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

English is now the most common language spoken at home for more than half of Singaporeans, so it’s only natural that it almost seems every Chinese baby has an English name. 

Gone are the days when the teacher would call for a Hui Ling and have multiple kids raise their hands. These days, classrooms are more likely to be filled with Sophias, Charlottes, and Keiras.  

It’s a natural progression, yet it seems poignant that purely Chinese names might be a thing of the past. The name Tan Boon Heng might immediately scream boomer to us. Likewise, it’s not a stretch to imagine that simply having a Chinese name might indicate one’s age in the future. 

It should be noted, however, that it’s not just Chinese people who are gravitating to English-sounding names. Dr Tan tells me that he’s also observed local Malays choosing names that are quite ambiguous. 

“We see names like Adam, Sarah. These are Malay names, but also English names.”

Names that easily cross cultures are likely to become more popular as people feel like they have “the best of both worlds,” he posits. 

Image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo

When Your Name Becomes The Ice-Breaker

Part of this Englishisation of names also probably has to do with our preference for speaking English over our mother tongues. 

Lim Zhi Xuan, 29, admits he has a name that’s hard to pronounce, even for some Chinese people. ‘Zhi’ is pronounced similarly to ‘Zhrrr’ (it rhymes with ‘Brrr’). ‘Xuan’ sounds like ‘shoo-an’ (just say it fast). 

More often than not, those who don’t speak Chinese can’t wrap their tongues around these tricky consonants. 

“One year, I had a Malay form teacher who called me everything from ‘Gee Chuan’ to ‘Zee Shuan’. I stopped correcting her.”

A side effect: he found himself overlooked in school. Teachers calling on students would pick those with easier names, like Josh and Shawn. During university orientation games, those with more ‘palatable’ English names would also be called on first, he recalls. 

He was content to fly under the radar—happy even—until 2022, when he joined the bicycle industry and started building a roster of international clients. Now, he wanted people to remember him. 

So he gave himself an English name: Shane. 

“Quite a few of my clients are Indian or ang moh, so it’s just easier for them to say and remember.”

Run-of-the-mill English names like Shane do the job when you’re trying to brand yourself. But when it comes to having a truly unique name, there’s no one better placed to offer input than Solskjaer Thio. I mean, just look at his name. 

The 21-year-old university student first entered the public consciousness when he appeared on an online dating show by Titan Digital Media. Unsurprisingly, his name was quite the icebreaker. It had his date questioning if he was Singaporean.

“My parents were football fans, and they were huge fans of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Prior to my birth, he scored a legendary and unforgettable last-minute goal in the UEFA Champions League,” he tells RICE. 

It’s no surprise that a Chinese Singaporean with a Norwegian last name as his first name stirs up confusion.

“Some common questions are ‘Are you mixed?’, ‘How do I pronounce your name?’, ‘How do you spell your name?’, ‘Are you and your parents local?’”

Nevertheless, he’s taken everything in his stride. The man even jokes that he might name his future kid after basketball star Steph Curry. Which might be a wee bit awkward, I feel, if he has a daughter.  

“I guess it’s better to have a unique and unconventional name rather than to have a boring and mainstream name. It is a good conversation starter, too!”

Finding A Huat English Name

Even though Zhi Xuan now goes by Shane, he still feels an affinity for his Chinese name. ‘Zhi’ is a generational name meaning wisdom—his brother has the same character in his name as well. ‘Xuan’ means noble. 

Besides generational names, which are less and less common these days, another common Chinese practice is consulting feng shui masters for an auspicious name. 

I wonder if this shift towards English names would mean that feng shui masters would go out of business soon, but a chat with Master Kevin Foong reveals that my concerns are unfounded. 

Master Kevin started offering his auspicious Chinese naming services in 2011. A year later, he expanded his services to include English names as well. He and his team have attended to over 6,000 cases, he says. 

“Just from your name alone, we can ‘read’ what’s going to happen to you,” he confidently tells me. 

I resist asking him for a reading because I’m not sure I want to hear it. 

Image: Tey Liang Jin / RICE File Photo

The study of Chinese metaphysics prescribes that names have the power to influence how each individual’s life turns out, he says.

This is true for English names as well. Together with your Chinese name, they can influence multiple aspects of your life, from how healthy you are to whether you meet the right mentors in school, he says. 

Even so, it’s not that common to find a feng shui master who can devise an auspicious English name. 

“If you do your research, you’ll realise that there’s not many people in the market that do English name selection,” Master Kevin says.  

“The key reason is that Chinese metaphysics doesn’t have the mechanics that teach you how to do proper name selection for English alphabets.”

But Master Kevin delved deep into numerology, Vedic astrology, and Western astrology to come up with a system to choose English names that are “supportive to the individual”. 

Lucky English names can vary from person to person depending on their birth timings, he says. This is because the letters in the English alphabet take up different planet positions. 

Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

Say you want to change your name to something like Adam. Master Kevin says you’d have to read your natal chart to find out which planet the letter ‘A’ corresponds to. Other things to consider include the sounds making up the name (these also correspond to different planets) and the person’s stage of life. A retiree might benefit from a name that is more auspicious in the health department, while a child might need a name that bodes well for his studies.

“So there’s many different things we’ve got to understand in totality. It is not just, ‘Oh, I think this name sounds good for him, and I feel it’s good for him.”

In the last six years, he’s seen an uptick in demand for his English name services. Many of his clients are Chinese Christians or Filipinos, he says. 

It’s tempting to think that we’re losing something when we shift from Chinese to English names, but maybe we’re gaining new aspects of our culture. Who’s to say auspicious English names aren’t going to take off in the future? 

Names Aren’t The Only Way To Show Your Culture

As we become globalised citizens of the world, are we losing part of our precious heritage when we leave our cultural names behind? 

After all, most of us with English names probably haven’t used our Chinese names since our schooling days. Dr Tan has also observed a small number of Chinese students over the years with no official Chinese name. 

After speaking to Dr Tan and Master Kevin, I’m inclined to say no. After all, culture isn’t static. Generations ago, Chinese people chose Chinese characters with good meanings for their kids. Now millennial parents give our kids names that’ll sound good when they become the prime minister, a world-class footballer, or a CEO. 

Image: Stephanie Lee / Rice file photo

We aren’t losing anything—we’re merely choosing a different way to express our Chinese identity, says Dr Tan. 

“For some people, the name is important to show their Chineseness. For others, the name is not important. Speaking the language is important for some. For others, it’s not.”

By making choices and not being shackled to generational or cultural traditions, people are carving out their sense of identity. 

Who’s to say a Singaporean Chinese guy named Solskjaer is any less Chinese than any of his peers? Maybe one sure marker for our shared cultural identity is that our names—regardless of race, language, or religion—have a tendency to stump ang mohs at customs.

If you haven’t already, follow RICE on InstagramTikTokFacebook, and Telegram. While you’re at it, subscribe to Takeaways, our weekly newsletter.
If you have a lead for a story, feedback on our work, or just want to say hi, you can get in touch with the writer at or email us at
Loading next article...