What’s in a Name? Navigating Colonial Intimacies Across Disparate Lands and Time

By: Fiona Cheuk (University of Toronto)       Theme 1

I’m a person with many names. One name is in English, one name is in Chinese that morphs across three dialects: Cantonese, Mandarin, and my paternal language Hokkien. There are literally worlds of meaning contained in my multiple names. They are layered and bleed, between linguistic, cultural, territorialized worlds and temporalities. In this paper, I use autoethnographic tools to reflect on the different uses of my names as grounded sites for theorizing colonial connections across disparate lands. By using my names as a starting point, the relationships of my layered names and the meanings they gain when contextualized to the place I was born in that is currently entangled in the “after”-maths of decolonization; the lands my ancestors traveled from; and the Canadian settler-colonized lands that I currently reside in.


My English name is Fiona. It is the name I use most often. It is a name I chose when I was five years old and had only been in Canada for two years, without any attention to the meaning of that name. It was a name I chose to replace the name my sister gave to me, in honour of her beloved cabbage patch kid doll. A doll she still has, with thick curly cinnamon brown hair, big blue eyes, and fair skin. Despite being on all my identity cards, my passport, my student ID, my bank card, my credit card: it is a name absent from my birth certificate. It is a name in the language of the British colonizers of Hong Kong, the place in which I was born. It is a name that ironically enough, literally bears the semiotics of Whiteness as it apparently means fair and white. Just like the doll whose namesake I originally held, before being overwritten with Fiona.

Scratching the Surface

The other first name “寧” pronounced phonetically as “Ling” in Cantonese, “Nung” in Mandarin, is colloquially referred to as my “Chinese” name in my experiences growing up in Canada. I don’t know the sound of my name in my father’s language. It was given to me at birth and lovingly chosen by my parents to mean roughly calm, tranquility, and peace. My knowledge is limited, but I do know that traditional Chinese characters work differently than English characters. A single word is often a composite of other words that contain meaning on its own and is used to signify the categories to which the word belongs. For example, “口” which means mouth on its own, is used to signify a word that has to do with speaking. “寧” can be broken down to mean a roof, a solitary man, heart, and a bowl. Couple with my family name “卓”, pronounced Cheuk (Churk soft k) in Cantonese and Zhuo (Dwuaw) in Mandarin, which means greatness, can be broken down to “up”, “day”, and “ten,” can create a vivid image of a man standing under a roof holding a bowl with his heart watching the sun rise up and the day begin.

The fact that I only have two characters to my name is uncommon to Hong Kong people who typically have 3-4 characters and is much more common in mainland China.  While I know the pronunciation of my name in both Cantonese (my mother’s tongue) and Mandarin I don’t use the latter. Not just because I grew up in a Cantonese speaking household, but there was always a sense of inappropriateness to using Mandarin pronunciations of my name.  From an early age, I learnt through my name uses about how the tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China play out in everyday life. However, it has only been recently that I began to recognize the colonial tensions underlying these different valuations of my multiple names. Particularly why it was always acceptable to use my English name everywhere I went, but not my Chinese names. Why it was acceptable to use my Cantonese Chinese name, and English name, but not my mandarin one in Hong Kong when it was a British colony. Through my name experiences, I wonder about how a century plus of education and government systems designed by Anglo speaking colonial powers does make a difference in norms around name use and respectability. I have yet to hear my name in my father’s tongue.

Thus, my two character name that I know by three separate dialects marks the division in my heritage between lands in the Fujian province within China from which my father’s family fled; lands that my maternal grandparents fled from in the Canton province which had witnessed the first Opium War and had been under Japanese occupation when they fled; and Hong Kong as a territory (and people) that had been part of China but then was made a British colony under unequal treaties.

Bleeding through Layers of my Names

The political significance behind my English name as something that is acquired to fit into Canadian white settler society and as my main name within the spaces that I travel through, reflects my embodied relationship to both Hong Kong which was a British colony at the time of my birth, and Canada as a current settler-colonial territory to which I reside as an immigrant.

For the former, it both reflects the dominance of British colonial power over my subjectivity as a Chinese Hong Kong citizen in that it is effectively a palimpsest, a process that overwrites my original Chinese name and identity alongside the nation to which my body was rooted to. Its nature as a name acquired in addition to my birth name also reflects my position as a person of Chinese ancestry, who was born within the same lands of my ancestors but is marked as a “British Special Territory Citizen.” The presence of my Chinese name on that identity card that marks me as such, also signifies the continuous process of overwriting my embodied identity and the nations to whom my body belongs to.

For the latter, Fiona as a ‘normal’ sounding name in the language of the colonizers in Canada rather than my birth name, signifies my position as someone whose body is always recognized as a “foreign” immigrant despite holding a Canadian citizenship. This has been perhaps an underlying thread of the many transformations that my English name has gone through. Morphs that were not of my own choice. In my elementary school classrooms located in the in-between-spaces of Markham-Stouffville, at a time where I was one of the only two non-white students, my classmates arbitrarily added a “J” in the middle of my name to Fi-jona. Perhaps the name “Fiona,” as an ordinary name in Western societies was far too plain for my visibly non-white embodiment amidst a sea of white student and teaching bodies who could trace their genealogical lineages to Europe. Read this way, perhaps the “j” was necessary for a disruption of my embodied identity being too close to North American-Eurocentric norms for comfort in that classroom space.

Two disparate places. Same colonial power that animates the recognition of my names within the White-Settler territories of Canada and the “post”-colonial territories of Hong Kong.

Short Bio: Fiona Cheuk is a PhD student in Social Justice Education at OISE, University of Toronto. She holds an MA in Critical Disability Studies from York University. Her research studies the connections between disability, access, and politics of evidence as contextualized in the settler-colonial structure of Canada. Her current political organizing involves disabled student advocacy and politics of access at UofT with Students for Barrier-Free Access (SBA) where she serves as this year’s co-chair. She also manages the Tumblr for Citation Practices Challenge Project.