Beijing frowns on Western place names

The Jackson Hole resort community on the outskirts of Beijing, known in Chinese as Hometown America, attracts residents dreaming of a "free and uncomplicated life".
The Jackson Hole resort community on the outskirts of Beijing, known in Chinese as Hometown America, attracts residents dreaming of a "free and uncomplicated life".PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Rising popularity of foreign and strange names for estates and infrastructure makes govt see red

HONG KONG • There is a Vancouver Forest in Beijing, a Thames Town in Shanghai and an Oriental Yosemite in Dalian, China.

China's suburbs have been filling up lately with housing developments whose names and architectural styles are meant to evoke the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia, anywhere but China. And the authorities do not like it.

Minister of Civil Affairs Li Liguo said on Tuesday that "bizarre" names that "damage sovereignty and national dignity" or "violate the socialist core values and conventional morality" would be stamped out, reported the state news agency Xinhua.

And it is not just foreignness he objects to. The report also quoted Mr Li as saying that excessively grandiose or strange names for roads, bridges, buildings and residential compounds would also face scrutiny.

Housing developments in the country have been the biggest generators of odd names.

In the capital Beijing alone there are a Chateau Regalia, a Rose and Ginkgo, Merlin Champagne Town, Le Leman Lake Villa, Beijing Riviera and International Wonderland.

Developers say the international flavour helps sell homes. On the outskirts of Beijing, the Jackson Hole resort community, known in Chinese as Hometown America, attracts residents dreaming of a "free and uncomplicated life".

Tides of embrace or rejection of foreign arts, styles and philosophies have occurred through Chinese history.

In recent years, officials have tried to push back against Western values in textbooks and English-language acronyms in television and radio broadcasts.

The concern over place names has been raised as part of an official Chinese geographical survey that began in 2014.

Along with an explosion in foreign names, there has also been a noticeable disappearance of traditional names, Mr Li said.

The survey found that since 1986, 60,000 township names and 400,000 village names had fallen out of use as a result of development and urbanisation, the Beijing News reported.

It was not supposed to happen. There has been a regulation on the books in China since 1996 that prohibits the use of the names of foreign people or places for locations in China, including housing developments, the newspaper said. But the rule has had little impact.

And once a name is in use, changing it can be problematic.

Officials tried to rename a street in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, ostensibly because the Chinese character used to represent its foreign name was often mispronounced by people unfamiliar with the place, China National Radio said. But residents objected and filed a lawsuit to block the change, citing the potential loss of historical identity.

Previous efforts to change foreign place names in China have not been wholeheartedly embraced, either.

In the south-eastern city of Fuzhou, a housing development known as Fontainebleau was ordered by local officials to change its name, which became Gaojiayuan. Later, one resident complained to a local newspaper that she missed her bus stop after the signs were changed.

And a real estate agent confessed that while the official name was now Gaojiayuan, for the purpose of selling houses it would always be called Fontainebleau.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2016, with the headline 'Beijing frowns on Western place names'. Print Edition | Subscribe