My Mixed Heritage: What's in a Name?

A series of memories juxtaposing family traditions of Chinese (Wong) and Southern (Fowler) roots. The purpose is to stimulate ideas and conversations about family memories and how they are constructed, modified, and passed on from one generation to another, within or across cultures.

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Grandpa and Grandma Fowler had four girls: Julie Susan Elaine, Linda Ann, Rebecca Lynn and Bonnie Kay. The marriage went through bouts of turbulence, which resulted in divorce in 1971. The following is a brief account of how their children’s names came to be from the perspective of Grandma Fowler.

At first, Grandma Fowler wanted to name her firstborn child Susan Elaine. She had always liked the names, along with Penelope, and even gave her dolls those names when she was a child. The name discussion didn’t occur until just before her due date. Grandpa Fowler preferred to call their first child Julie. Meeting in the middle, they named their daughter Julie Susan Elaine. She was born in 1957.

Their second daughter arrived two years later. Grandma Fowler named her at the hospital. She was discussing what to name her daughter with the hospital worker in charge of medical records. The job of this hospital worker was to relay information to the Court House. Grandma felt a connection to her because she herself had worked in a hospital after the birth of their first daughter. She named her second daughter Linda Ann.

One year later, their third daughter – my mother – was born. Her name was Rebecca Lynn. Though there was no particular reason why she chose the name Rebecca, Grandma said, “I liked the name.” Reflecting on the name now, she says, “The name Rebecca just feels like a part of me, so when I think of that name, I guess what I feel is love. I have always thought Rebecca was a special name.”

Finally, in 1971, their fourth daughter was born. The relationship between Grandma and Grandpa had strengthened by then, so when they discussed the name, they decided to go with Bonnie KayBonnie was chosen by Grandpa. He’d always loved the famous outlaw “Billy the Kid,” whose real name was William Bonnie. Kay, which was taken from Grandpa’s mother’s name, Kathleen, was chosen by Grandma. She added that “Both names had roots from Irish, Mexican or Spanish decent.”

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Chinese names are commonly composed of three characters. The first character is your surname and the second and third characters are given to you by your parents, grandparents, or sometimes even fortune tellers. Many parents defer to others to provide a name as they have unique character combinations that can make promises of good character, fortune and family. While books and websites provide roots and origins of English names, the journey of piecing together a Chinese name, in many ways, is like an art.


My Chinese name is 黃浩文 (Wong Ho Man in Cantonese, Huang Hao Wen in Mandarin). The first character, Wong, is my surname meaning ‘yellow’. It’s the fourth most common surname in Hong Kong, after Chan, Cheung and Lee.


The second character of my name is identical to my older cousin’s name. His Chinese name is 黃浩堅 (Wong Ho Kin in Cantonese). When my (Chinese) father gave me my Chinese name, he decided to follow a tradition that honored the unique relationship between his son and his brother’s son. This relationship is unique because we are the only two members in our generation to pass down the Wong surname. In Chinese, our relationship is called 堂兄弟, or ‘blood-brother’ (direct translation). Our shared middle character, 浩 Ho, describes a large expanse, offering limitless opportunities, experiences, and joy.


The final character in my name – my defining character – was chosen for two reasons. On the one hand, my father wanted it to have a similar phonetic sound to the last syllable of my English name, Ke-vin. This would bridge the two cultures of my biracial upbringing and identity. On the other hand, he wanted this character to speak to my character. 文 Man represents one who is knowledgeable and rich in literature. An alternative meaning of the character 文 Man is a person of gentle kindness. Interestingly, and unbeknownst to my father at the time, this meaning is parallel to the Irish roots of my English name, Kevin, meaning kind and gentle one. This was chosen by my mother and agreed upon by my father. A serendipitous selection.

An interesting point of of departure between English and Chinese names is the middle name. With a distinct English and Chinese name, I often wondered if my name should be written together as Kevin Matthew Wong Ho Man, Wong Ho Man Kevin Matthew, or Kevin Matthew Ho Man Wong. As someone of mixed heritage, I actually like that my two names are separate; that I have one for each heritage, offering me “insider” status (at least on paper) to each world that I belong to.