Prince George's mayor has a Lunar New Year gift for the city: a poetic Chinese name

Prince George Mayor Simon Yu in his office with a framed map of Summit Lake, which inspired his Chinese name for the city.  (Nadia Mansour/CBC - image credit)
Prince George Mayor Simon Yu in his office with a framed map of Summit Lake, which inspired his Chinese name for the city. (Nadia Mansour/CBC - image credit)

The mayor of Prince George, B.C., has a special present for his municipality as it marks the new Lunar New Year this week.

It's a poetic new Chinese name thought up by Simon Yu himself: 㵨基 — pronounced "pee jee" in Mandarin, the same as the central B.C. city's initials — which means "foundation of tributaries," according to the classical Kangxi Dictionary.

Yu said the name was inspired by Summit Lake, a watershed between the Fraser and Peace basins about 50 kilometres north of the city.

It's the latest in a long history of poetic monikers for B.C. cities created by Chinese Canadians, some of which have entered semi-official use in Chinese-language media.

Yu, Prince George's first mayor of colour and of Chinese descent, says he's spent more than a decade researching a new name for his city, which Canada's Chinese media commonly calls 喬治王子市, pronounced "chao jee wang zee shee" in Mandarin and literally meaning "city of Prince George."

"[The current name's] phonics is a little bit long," he said. "[Chinese names of] most cities around the world, such as New York and London, normally have only two syllables."

Nadia Mansour/CBC
Nadia Mansour/CBC

Names should look good and sound good

Jan Walls, a retired Chinese studies professor formerly with Simon Fraser University, says Canada doesn't have a government agency to decide official Chinese names of its cities.

In the past the task mostly fell to Chinese-language newspaper editors, who were mostly Cantonese-speaking immigrants in the country's early history, he adds.

City of Vancouver Archives (CVA 780-472)
City of Vancouver Archives (CVA 780-472)

Walls explains this is why many B.C. cities' Chinese names sound more like the English name when spoken in Cantonese than in Mandarin.

Each Chinese character used to imitate an English sound bears a meaning, Walls said, so Chinese Canadians have always tried to ensure transliterated names both look good and sound good.

"The Chinese have to be more sensitive to the vibes of every syllable that they use," he said.

Chinese monikers for B.C. municipalities

Cantonese vs. Mandarin

As more Mandarin speakers immigrated to B.C., Chinese media editors felt a need to adjust cities' names to make them sound right to this newer audience.

Walls takes Vancouver as an example: years ago, editors changed its Chinese moniker from the more poetic, Cantonese-sounding 雲高華 ("blossoms under high clouds") to the less poetic, Mandarin-sounding 溫哥華 ("warm brother's blossoms").

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

But some names have also become more poetic in Mandarin, Walls adds — sometimes out of necessity.

He points out the City of Port Moody adopted its current Chinese name 滿地寶 ("land full of treasures") in 1998, after finding that the old one, 穆迪港, sounds like "port of graveyards" in Mandarin.

As for Yu's name for Prince George, Walls says 基 is a good choice to capture the "G" sound, but many Chinese speakers don't know what 㵨 means and sounds.

Walls admits it's hard to find a good "P" sounding replacement in Chinese.

"'Breaking wind' is pronounced pee in Mandarin, [and] you certainly don't want that," he added.

Yu agrees 㵨 is a complicated word, but says it's not a bad idea to revive an ancient Chinese character by coining a new name, which he hopes can make his city better known to Chinese people in Canada and beyond.

Nadia Mansour/CBC
Nadia Mansour/CBC