Do you remember the victims’ names in Asiana plane crash?

Three teenage girls from China recently died, when their plane smashed into a sea wall in front of the runway at San Francisco International Airport on 6 July. The girls from Zhejiang, an eastern coastal province in China, were passengers on the South Korean Asiana Airlines Flight 214. Their dream of a fun and exciting summer camp in America was cruelly shattered.  

In response to Lorelle’s blog exercises: How to Write about Something Someone Else Wrote, I’ll examine this tragedy from a fresh angle, a person’s name and its cultural identity.

How many people remember the victims’ names? The girls’ names were: Ye Mengyuan 叶梦圆 , Wang Linjia 王琳佳, and Liu Yipeng 刘易芃. Their names in Chinese meant “fulfilling dreams’, ‘grace’, and ‘lush’ respectively. However, the media was not interested in these names, which carried their parents’ hope and love.

People now seemed to remember the pilots’ fake oriental sounding names. The news anchor from KTVC, a TV station serving San Francisco Bay Area, told viewers the purported names of the pilots on Asiana Flight 214 were: “Sum Ting Wong,” “Wi Tu Lo,” “Ho Lee Fuk”, and “Bang Ding Ow”.

You don’t need to have a linguistic degree to feel that these names sound ‘funny’ in English:  Something Wrong, We Too Low, Holy Fxxx, and Bang Ding Ow (Note: The plane made a bang on the runway, and ‘ding’ was heard, then people cried, “ow”.)

Bogus pilots' names in Asiana plane crash

Bogus pilots’ names in Asiana plane crash

In this name blunder, some people are outraged and offended by the deeply rooted racist attitude against oriental people.

As an oriental person, I’m not angry by the hidden racist attitude, but I’m saddened by it. I’m saddened by the ignorance of some people, who don’t have the common sense about the languages around them, and who can’t tell a Korean name from a Cantonese Chinese name. Stephen Colbert, a famous US comedian, discussed this distasteful name blunder about racism humorously in this program.

Chinese name formation:

Chinese character 福 fu/fuk: luck and happiness

fu/fuk: happiness

On name formation, while some English speakers may think “Ho Lee Fuk” is a totally ridiculous name, it can actually be a respectful, genuine name in its original Chinese characters. Last year, I wrote a craft post, The Only Chinese Word You Need to Know. This special word is 福, meaning luck and happiness. This character is pronounced fú in standard Mandarin Chinese, ‘fuk’ in Cantonese, and ‘hok’ in Hokkien, my mother tongue.

In Malaysia, where Chinese names are still transcribed in alphabet letters based on the sound of the language spoken by their ancestors, (Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainan, Teochew etc.), a person whose surname is 何 will have his surname transcribed as hé in Mandarin, and ho or hor in Cantonese and Hokkien.

Fuk the Happiness:

The use of the alphabet system in transcription is just a convenient way to decipher the Chinese characters, some of which are pictographs. While some sounds are ‘funny’ to the western ears, they’re definitely not to the Chinese. For example, if a southern person is named 何利福 or 何丽福, in the standard Mandarin spelling system called pinyin, these names will be represented as hé lì fú, but in Cantonese, this name is likely to be transcribed as Ho Lee Fuk. 何利福 or 何丽福 literally means fortune and happiness, or beauty and happiness.

A Korean American named Suey wrote powerfully in this post, The Role of Media in Modern Day Racism. The post was deservedly Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Suey reported racist tweets and comments following the plane tragedy. One of  the tweets was: “of course the Korean plane crashed. Asians can’t drive, what makes them think they can fly a plane.”

It’s sad that the tragic Asiana plane crash has become an easy playground for some malicious and ignorant people to play their racist games, through their racial stereotyping and name insulting. These people have triggered anger and racial tension. Their ignorance about their neighbours, and their neighbours’ languages and cultures is saddening. The crude joke about the pilots’ bogus names has revealed how racism and prejudice never die. However, we’ll challenge them, and always rise above them.

You can find more Blog Exercises on . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

My Related Posts:

Do sex, age and race matter?
Memorial: grief and celebration
This is a Chinese poem you can’t possibly perform
5 changes of a Chinese wife in England: on Language
The only Chinese word you need to know

13 thoughts on “Do you remember the victims’ names in Asiana plane crash?

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      True. It’s sad that sometimes people are not even aware how offensive their attitudes or remarks are. They may think they’re being funny or ‘don’t mean it’ when they are hurting other people’s feeling. It’s ignorance that I’m sad about. I love your modern poems, as you oo often explore humanity issues. Keep it up!

  1. Lorelle VanFossen

    As usual, you’ve taken one of the blog exercises in a powerful and unique direction. Brilliant. And hopefully changed some lives along the way.

    You are so brave for bringing up topics like this. I may not completely missed the pilots’ names if you hadn’t pointed them out to me, but my subconscious would have figured it out, which is where this needs to stop. I hope the station was pounded for such deliberate stupidity.

    I hate stereotypes and assumptions, yet this is the world we currently live in. When working with young people and I hear slang and stereotypical references, especially dealing with women and sexuality, I tell them that love is precious. I don’t care if it is the love between friends, family, or intimate love, it doesn’t matter if they are male or female or their sexual preference. Love is a rare and special thing, something to treasure. Let it exist in all forms making the world a better, safer, and stronger place. By labeling and judging it, you suck the life out of love, devalue it, tarnish the entire concept of love. Leave love alone. It’s fascinating to watch their eyes grow wide and their minds shift gears when they think of it that way. I tell them to lead with your heart, start with love. The rest will fall into place.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you. Your blog exercises are so challenging that they just can’t be ignored (ignoring them at your peril!). A lot of them speak to me directly and I’ve enjoyed the thinking process, about the purpose of writing, the timelessness issues, and you’ve made me more conscious in my writing, however, the change of path has not been easy.

      I like how your embrace love. Respect doesn’t come naturally to most people, and like learning a foreign language, it needs to be acquired. I have another thought in mind, and I’ll write another post about love and respect.

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  5. Ruby

    The interesting thing I found about the news coverage was the sheer lack of it. It seemed as if once the media discovered that it wasn’t a western plane, and only a few people died – and they were south Korean, it didn’t really matter any more.

    And yes, sometimes making up pseudo-names is funny (there is a regular column in Private Eye’s letter pages). Sometimes it is not. When people have died, it is not.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Indeed. Because it was a South Korean plane, and the victims were non western, the value of the news in the west became very low. There were about 70 Chinese students with their teachers on the plane, with an aim to learn English abroad in the summer. Summer camps in the west are very attractive, and lots of kids go abroad each year and it’s a huge industry. Chinese parents are under a lot of pressure to send their kids abroad to immerse in the western culture. There’re a lot of debates about this kind of summer camps; it involves a few thousand pounds for each pupil for a 2-week trip. And, when these teenagers died so tragically, on a school trip, to pursue their American dream, we heard nothing in the west — we only heard about the tragedy because some people made fun of some Chinese names. It’s saddening.

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