Smith, Smith-Wong, Wong-Smith, or Wong? The Case of the “Miss-ing” Surname10 min read

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By Stephanie Lim


For many brides-to-be, another item on their wedding checklist may include whether or not they should legally change their last names to their husbands’. Like aesthetic appearance, sexual orientation, career, beliefs, values, culture and religion, surnames are simply another way people identify themselves.

Samantha Smith (maiden name), Samantha Smith-Wong, Samantha Wong-Smith, or just Samantha Wong—which should it be? In the end, the changing of one’s surname may be determined by a number of factors: personal choice, following tradition, or in some cases, abiding by the law.

While some brides hold dearly to their maiden name, others don’t. With marriage, the possibility of a new surname may signal a new identity. Imagine the experience of dating the man of your dreams while you’re enjoying a successful career. Then, suddenly he proposes. What then happens to your professional identity? Such is the case with Carmen So, a Business Analyst and Project Manager who is known at work as an independent, aggressive, and organized person. Carmen knows what she wants and gets down to business. When Calvin Kwok proposed to her—in his car on the way home from watching fireworks—the decision to change her maiden name to his surname immediately began to creep into her mind.

Like her co-workers, Carmen never had a doubt about her own identity and work ethics. However, if she were to change her maiden name, would people at the office and those who don’t know her well still identify her with ‘how she works’ or wonder who she’s married to? “It is almost like you have to prove yourself to these people all over again,” said Carmen, a newlywed who recently tied the knot to Calvin this past July. Like many of her friends and co-workers, she decided to maintain her professional identity, admitting to that fact that she never wanted to change her maiden name to begin with. “My last name represents my family. I don’t feel that because I am married, I should leave my family name behind and take up a new one,” said Carmen, “However, I would not be offended if people referred me as Carmen Kwok or Mrs. Kwok.” As a Chinese-Canadian, she doesn’t feel that culture had any influence on her decision. She also said that her parents were very open-minded and supportive of the decision that she made.

In the book, Chinese American names: tradition and transition, Emma Woo Louie explains that married Chinese women in the past were known by their maiden names followed by shi or clan. For example, Leong Shi would mean she’s from the Leong lineage. However, if the husband’s surname were to be adopted, his surname would precede hers and shi would act as née. For example, if his name is John Louie, his wife would be referred to as Louie Leong Shee (an alternative spelling for Shi) or Mrs. Louie née Leong.

Although Carmen chose to keep her maiden name, after some discussion, both her husband and his family supported her choice. For Calvin, he said whether she uses her maiden name or his surname is completely irrelevant. “This is the name I was born with, and being married doesn’t change that,” Carmen said adamantly. Carmen’s last name is part of her roots and who she is. For her, it is a matter of identity. Personal choice – check.


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