No, Your Honor, you cannot call yourself ‘High Justice’ on a ballot paper in Chinese

Hong Le still remembers meeting a charismatic woman campaigning for San Francisco district attorney in 2003. In Cantonese, that woman’s name was 賀錦麗, as pronounced Ho Gam-lai and means “Congratulations Brocade Beautiful.”

Most Americans know her by another name: Kamala Harris.

“She is currently the vice president,” said Mr. Le, 88, in Cantonese. “And she deserves it.”

In San Francisco, where more than a fifth of the population is of Chinese descent, politicians have long taken second names in Chinese characters. And every serious candidate knows how to order campaign materials in English and Chinese.

But the city’s leniency toward adopted names has frustrated some Chinese-American candidates, who say non-Chinese rivals have gone overboard by using flattering, flowery phrases that at first glance have little to do with their real names. Some candidates have gained an advantage or engaged in cultural appropriation, critics say.

Enough. San Francisco first rejected Chinese names submitted by 22 applicants, in most cases because they could not prove they had been using the names for at least two years. The city asked translators to provide names that were transliterated, a process that is closer to English pronunciations.

That means Michael Isaku Begert, who is running to retain his local judge seat, cannot use 米高義, which means in part “high” and “justice,” a name that suggests he is destined to sit on the bench.

And Daniel Lurie, who is challenging London Mayor Breed, must drop the name he campaigned on for months: 羅瑞德, which means “favorable” and “virtue.” Mr. Lurie’s new name, 丹尼爾·羅偉, pronounced Daan-nei-ji Lo-wai, is a transliterated version that uses characters that are closer to the sound of his name in English but are meaningless when put together.

Most Chinese names contain two to three characters – a surname and a one or two letter name. In the Chinese-speaking world, choosing a baby name can carry so much weight that some parents still consult fortune tellers who take into account factors such as the exact time of birth and the number of brushstrokes in a character to suggest an auspicious name imbued with meaning.

The federal Voting Rights Act requires jurisdictions with significant numbers of voters who are not fluent in English — such as San Francisco’s large Cantonese-speaking population — to provide translated ballots and voting materials. The law, however, leaves it up to local election officials to decide whether that includes the names of candidates.

Certain cities in Alaska must translate ballots into Yup’ik, an Alaska Native language, while some counties in Arizona must do so into Navajo and Apache. Hundreds of jurisdictions across the nation must translate their ballots in Spanish, while 19 must print in Chinese, 12 in Vietnamese and four in Korean.

Since 1999, San Francisco has mandated that candidates’ names appear in both English and Chinese. But now, under a 2019 state law, it requires transliteration for new applicants and allows those who can prove they’ve used a Chinese name for at least two years to continue using it. (The law also applies to ballots printed in Japanese and Korean.)

The switch is not universally popular. This ends a San Francisco tradition, cherished in some quarters, of Chinese leaders naming their favorite candidates. And this has the potential to result in long nicknames that are difficult to remember or even cringe-worthy, as characters that sound like someone’s name can translate into strange phrases in Chinese.

Fiona Ma, California’s state treasurer, backed a legislative effort in 2019 after inconsistent policies led to her Chinese name being changed without her knowledge.

Ms. Ma, the daughter of immigrants from China, has used her Chinese name – 馬世雲, meaning “Horse World Cloud” – on the ballot since the early 2000s, when she first ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She said she had always been proud of her name, and the Chinese-language media had long referred to her by it. But Ms. Ma learned that her name had been changed to transliteration in the June 2018 vote.

Laws sponsored by Ms. Ma set new ground rules. She wanted to ensure that candidates who had a legitimate claim to a Chinese name could use them, but also that others did not gain an unfair advantage by inventing flattering names.

“If it’s a good name, like ‘The Most Amazing Trusted Person’ or ‘For Public Safety,’ then it could make a difference,” Ms. Ma said.

At a recreation center in San Francisco’s Richmond District, some voters said a candidate’s name has less influence on who they vote for than what someone has done. Mr. Le said between games of ping-pong that it was more important to him whether the candidates addressed the needs of the Chinese community.

“If you care, we’ll know your name,” he said.

Jen Nossokoff, who first ran for the San Francisco County Central Committee in March and for the Board of Supervisors in November, said she was given the name 高素貞 by a Chinese supporter last summer. The name is pronounced Gou Sou-zing in Cantonese and resembles a well-known one Chinese folk character which is considered a symbol of benevolence.

“It means integrity,” she said. “It means ambition.”

She printed the name on her campaign signs, many of which hang in the windows of her neighbors’ houses.

But that name was rejected by the Department of Elections, which recently gave her a transliterated name, 珍·諾索科夫, or Zan Nok-sok-fo-fu in Cantonese — a gravel moniker that has none of the lofty symbolism of her desired name.

Voters now go to the polls for the March 5 election, and Ms. Nosokoff said it was confusing that the name on her campaign literature did not match the name on the ballot. She said the mandated name change was unfair because her opponent in the supervisor race, incumbent Connie Chan, was the one who notified the Department of Elections that it violated state law.

Ms. Chan, 45, a native of Hong Kong, moved to San Francisco’s Chinatown with her mother and younger brother when she was 13. Her name was Szeman, but she quickly changed it after arriving in the United States because, she said, it “sounds like sperm.”

Instead, she joined the legions of other Chinese girls her age and officially changed her name in honor of Connie Chung, a leading news anchor.

Ms. Chan, knowing the state had passed the 2019 law, sent an inquiry to the city’s elections department last fall. It’s still unclear why the city didn’t follow state law — Elections Chief John Arntz said he didn’t know — and the Board of Supervisors unanimously ordered Mr. Arntz’s department to comply.

Mr. Arntz said applicants can use a birth certificate or even a wedding invitation to prove they have a legitimate claim to a Chinese name. Otherwise, the city will provide their transliterated names.

“I feel strongly that our Chinese names are not a trend,” Ms. Chan said. “It shows a relationship with the community that I’m not sure they’ve worked hard to build. It’s cultural appropriation.”

Ms Chan has given white colleagues Chinese names in the past. When Supervisor Matt Dorsey was the city attorney’s spokesman in 2016, he wanted a Chinese name that could appear consistently in the Chinese press instead of reporters slipping out different translated versions in different media.

Ms Chan, who was then a city hall aide herself, thought he had shown his commitment to the Chinese community through his years of public service. She gave him a name that sounded similar to Matt Dorsey and had a pleasant meaning.

Well, sort of.

It is now known in the Chinese community as 麥德誠: “Polite Barley.”

Zhe Wu provided the Cantonese interpretation for this story.

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