For over a decade I’ve had to figure out some way to manage Chinese names in my address book. Switching between the Newton, a Treo, and now an iPhone, I’ve been through the ringer with trying to sync my data to and from my computer. The iPhone was the first device which “just worked.” Having unicode support built in allowed it to preserve the Chinese characters without any data loss. However, after switching to Gmail I also wanted to sync my address book online. Finally I switched over to using Gmail as my default address book, and used Gmail’s exchange server to push changes in my address book to my iPhone. This works great, but there are a couple of issues (such as the fact that the iPhone doesn’t sync contact “groups” from Google).
For Chinese contacts the biggest issue is being able to quickly call up contacts by typing the name in the search field. Neither Google nor Apple let you easily search by phonetic equivalents of Chinese characters. So if you have a contact whose name is 傅可恩 (my Chinese name) you can’t just type “keen” and expect it to show up. And it is a real pain to have to enter the Chinese text — especially if you are using the phone with one hand while doing something else. (Not to mention the fact that I mostly remember people’s names phonetically, and while I can read the characters of people I know, I couldn’t write their names if my life depended on it.) Google does provide a “nickname” field where you can enter the phonetic transcription of the name. But while the iPhone while search in this field, Gmail seems to ignore it! I could just write the names phonetically and put the characters in the nickname field, but I actually like seeing the characters — because I actually recognize the names faster when I see the character than when I see the Pinyin. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Added to the problem is the fact that many people use different transcription systems for spelling their own name, some of them even incorrect or idiosyncratic. Moreover, many people have “English” names, or use their Aborigine or Hoklo names when writing the romanized version of their name.
But I think I finally have system that works. I write the name in Chinese, with the name I actually call the person as their “middle name” and the proper pinyin transcription as the “nickname.” So my name would be “可恩 Kerim 傅” with “Fu Keen” in the nickname field. This seems to be working well for me. It makes things easier to read, it preserves more information, in syncs well, and search is working better. And if I tell my iPhone to list the last name first, it actually puts the name in the proper Chinese order, albiet with an extra space: “傅 可恩 Kerim”.