‘Now everyone is uncle or auntie’

Keeping the tradition alive: Pang with his wife, Agatha Soh, and their sons Trevor and Tyler. – The Straits Times/ANN

Two-year-old Trevor Pang Hyin Hing’s Chinese name shares the same second character as that of his younger brother Tyler Pang Hyin-En, who is six months old.

They both have the character xian (Chinese for “to show”) as part of their names.

There is a long history behind what might seem to be just a simple way for two siblings to have similar-sounding names.

The practice of using generation names has been passed down through decades and even centuries of Chinese families, though the number of families that upkeep this tradition in Singapore appears to be declining.

A generation name – bei ming – is a common character used to name children born in the same generation, according to their family tree.

Often, families such as the Pangs will have a book or document to refer to.

The book could be a jia pu, which usually refers to a book for a branch of a much larger family, while a zu pu is for a whole tribe. Both are used among Chinese Singaporeans.

These books usually contain a Chinese poem or couplet which describes the hopes and aspirations for the family’s descendants.

The poems could have eight, 16 or 24 characters, depending on the family, and each character in the poem would become a generation name that is typically used as the middle character.

In the case of the two Pang children, their generation name is xian.

For their father, Terence Pang, 38, whose Chinese name is Sze King, his generation name is the Chinese character shi.

This is the same character in the name of his cousin Pang Sze Yunn, 52, who co-edited the 12th version of her family’s genealogy book that was published in 2022.

Families like the Pangs are increasingly rare as the use of generation names has been declining over the years, experts said, citing anecdotal evidence and personal observations.

There are no official statistics or records that show the prevalence of its use.

Associate Professor Lee Cher Leng from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of Chinese Studies has taught an annual undergraduate course on bridging the East and the West for about a decade.

As part of the course, she asks students to find out about their own names, in English and Chinese, and those of their parents and grandparents.

Over the years, the number of students whose families use the zu pu or jia pu to determine generation names has declined to a handful – not more than 10 – in a cohort of about 200, she said.

It is rare to find students who, before the course, already knew of their generation names and family history, she added.

Ng Yew Kang, president of the non-profit Genealogy Society Singapore, said generation names can help family members connect, especially with people scattered worldwide.

If they meet someone with the same surname and middle name, they might have reason to suspect a potential relation, he said.

He suggested that families that wish to rekindle this tradition create a new poem.

The society also advocates that Singaporeans record their family histories in detail, with biodata such as education level, contributions to family or society, and photos of family activities.

Dr Foo Suan Fong, executive director of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language, said preserving the use of generation names and the jia pu or zu pu is also a means to show respect to senior members of the family.

“Now in English everyone is just uncle or auntie – strangers are also uncle and auntie. With generation names, you will know better the relationship between you and your relative, it becomes more personal,” he said.

The decline in the use of generation names is sad, said Pang, chief executive of neuroscience company Neurowyzr.

Generations of her family have used their book and the poems within since the 1800s.

Being female, she could not pass on her family’s use of generation names to her children, and her husband did not have access to his family’s book. Instead, they asked around for the character for their children, and an aunt told them.

Pang’s generation name helped her realise she was related to a close university friend’s mother.

Once when trying to call her friend at home, she could not reach him, so she left her name and number.

When he called back, he said they might be related, as his mother shared the same surname and generation name. It turned out that 16 generations ago, their respective ancestors had the same grandfather.

Her cousin, Pang said he was very conscious of his generation name as a child. The spelling and pronunciation was difficult, so he would get teased by classmates in school.

“My name Sze King made me the butt of all jokes – like ‘If you’re sea king, then is your brother land king or sky king?’ I was a bit embarrassed,” said Pang, who is Shopee’s chief operating officer.

As a teenager, he gained more interest in the tradition at family gatherings when his father introduced him to relatives with the same character in their names.

Pang said he always assumed he would carry on the tradition for his parents.

With his wife, they decided they wanted three children to each embody three values – heng for perseverance, en for kindness and le for happiness.

It happened that the character for their generation was xian (to show), which fit nicely.

“As you have your own family, you start thinking about heritage and ancestry. I imagine it would be the same for my kids. When they become parents, the choice is up to them,” he added. — The Straits Times/ANN

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