Vivian's Chinese Name


(Be sure to view my father’s comments to this post as he sets some details straight)

It will probably surprise many of you to learn that I am a third-generation Chinese-Canadian. Actually, it surprises everybody who finds out, because except for one student who said, after I told the story, that I had “Chinese eyes”, to everybody else I look as white as they come.

But my father’s father is (was) Chinese, born as best we can tell, in Canton in 1896. My father and I both have Chinese names alongside our Latin ones. My name (pictured right) is Chin Maang Gwong. I have relatives from all over the British Isles (except for Wales) and I have a great-grandmother from Geneva, but my grandfather provided me with my alternate name, my love for Chinese food, and a piece of family mythology that stood out among my classmates at school. One such family story is the explanation of how a young man named Chin Bow Chung, essentially founded the Bow family.

This is the story as I’ve heard it.

My grandfather immigrated alone to Canada either in 1906 or 1908; certainly when he was under the age of twelve, and during a time when he would have to have paid a $500 head tax in order to be allowed into the country. His parents were well off, and the family owned a shipping company in Shanghai with about seven boats operating in the South China Sea until the Japanese invasion of 1937 when they lost everything. We also discovered that my grandfather’s parents were Freemasons — an organization that was supposedly involved in the last emperor of China’s downfall — which leads us to theorize that my great-grandparents knew that major instability was coming, and so sent their son away to safety in Canada, where he moved in with an “uncle” in Montreal. Although my grandfather kept in touch with family members in China, I don’t believe he ever saw his parents again.

My grandfather lived in Montreal, London and Toronto, starting as a busboy and then a cook for various Chinese restaurants, and then moving on to owner. He loved to gamble. My father tells me that his father owned three restaurants at one point, but lost them all at cards, at which point he went off gambling. Sometimes my grandfather appears to my father in his dreams, admonishing my father’s habit of playing the Ontario lotteries saying, “You should no gamble! If me no gamble, me be rich man now!”

My grandfather’s name was Chin Bow Chung, which means that the family name was “Chin”. But Canada being Canada, at the time unfamiliar with the Chinese custom of putting the family name first, non-Chinese Canadians always called my grandfather “Mr. Chung”. To combat this my grandfather, for whatever reason, had his name legally changed to “James Bow”, and had his friends refer to him as “Jim Bow”, which we believe to be an anglicization of “Chin Bow”

In 1941, my grandfather met my grandmother Gloria Rose Marsden (1922-1983). She was a waitress at a restaurant he cooked at, and they married. They both lived in downtown Toronto and were decidedly lower-middle class. I don’t believe there were any racial issues with their marriage, although my grandmother’s mother was unaware enough of Chinese customs and practices that, when my father was born (1943), there was an accident with his birth certificate.

He should have been named Eric Chin, but my great-grandmother was responsible for filling out the paperwork, and inadvertently named him Eric Chin-Bow, and he went through his days as Eric Chin Bow — last name Bow, middle name Chin. Actually, officially he remained Mr. Chin-Bow for over fifty years until he realized that the discrepancy might complicate picking up his civil service pension, and he had his name legally changed to Eric Chin Bow.

My father’s Chinese name was Chin At Lik, which is clearly a phonetic translation of Eric. And while my parents provided me with an Latin name (James Edward Bow, neatly placating both grandfathers), my grandfather gave me the Chinese name of Chin Maang Gwong two years before he died. And though I took Cantonese classes in grades two and three at Orde Street Public School, located just north of Toronto’s Chinatown, the only Cantonese I know is my name (courtesy of my grandfather), how to count to nineteen (courtesy of those classes) and how to swear (courtesy of my Chinese friends).

I don’t even know how to cook Chinese (I really ought to take lessons from my father, who learned from his father; but perhaps Vivian will learn instead), but I know how to eat Chinese, and my family heritage is something that I’ve always cherished. Vivian deserves to share in that family history. Which is why, as Vivian was about a month away from being born, I decided that she would have her own Chinese name.

I contacted Dr. Vincent Shen of the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto and told him my story. I also sent him a scan of my name so he could be sure about Vivian’s family name. I wasn’t sure at the time whether I should go with a phonetic translation (as in Eric and At Lik) or choose something different (Maang Gwong is obviously not a phonetic translation of James; It means — I think Strong Light).

I had briefly toyed with the idea of naming her Chin Mulan. Despite the taint of Disney, I thought it would be neat to have her named after a Chinese heroine, a neat little echo of her Latin name’s connection to the mythical Vivian. But I wanted to hear if this was either culturally sensitive, or if better alternatives existed. Dr. Shen said that Chin Mulan was all right, but a phonetic translation of Vivian came out to Wei An. Says Dr. Shen:

“Wei An” has two words: “Wei” and “An”. “An” means peace, peaceful. As to “Wei”, there are a lot of Chinese words pronounce as “Wei”, among them the most interesting for a girl is the one that means “rose” (the flower).

Chin Weian: Rose of Peace. I like it.

And it’s also a nice tip of the hat to my paternal grandmother, Gloria Rose, and my mother-in-law Rosemarie. That settled it. A name that not only paid homage to Vivian’s Chinese heritage, but also a non-Chinese grandparent and a great-grandparent. This name connects Vivian to large parts of her family, and I hope that she will be all the richer for it.

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