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San Francisco and the Bay Area News & History

No, Your Honor, You Can’t Call Yourself ‘High Just...
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By Heather Knight and Amy Qin

Heather Knight reported from San Francisco, and Amy Qin from Washington, D.C.

Feb. 18, 2024


San Francisco has printed candidate names in Chinese characters since 1999. But now the city is cracking down on ones that some argue go overboard with flattering, flowery phrases.

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, which is pronounced Ho Gam-lai and means “Congratulate Brocade Beautiful.”

Most Americans know her by another name: Kamala Harris.

“She’s the vice president right now,” Mr. Le, 88, said in Cantonese. “And she deserves it.”

In San Francisco, where more than a fifth of residents are of Chinese descent, politicians have long taken a second name in Chinese characters. And any serious candidate knows to order campaign materials in English and in Chinese.

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

No more. For the first time, San Francisco has rejected Chinese names submitted by 22 candidates, in most cases because they could not prove they had used the names for at least two years. The city has asked translators to furnish names that are transliterated, a process that more closely approximates English pronunciations.

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

And Daniel Lurie, who is challenging Mayor London Breed, must scrap the name he had been campaigning with for months: 羅瑞德, which means “auspicious” 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 closer to the sound of his name in English but are meaningless when strung together.

Most Chinese names feature two to three characters — a surname, and a one- or two-character given name. In the Chinese-speaking world, choosing a baby’s name can carry so much weight that some parents still consult fortune tellers who consider factors like the exact time of birth and the number of brush strokes in a character to suggest an auspicious moniker imbued with meaning.

The federal Voting Rights Act requires that jurisdictions with a significant number of voters who aren’t fluent in English — like the large Cantonese-speaking population in San Francisco — provide translated ballots and voter materials. The act, however, leaves it up to local election officials to decide whether that includes candidates’ names.

No, Your Honor, You Can’t Call Yourself ‘High Justice’ on the Ballot in Chinese


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