Fri 27 January 2023 8:05, UK

Former Trump administration official Alyssa Farah has criticized Donald Trump for what she calls “repeated racist attacks” on Elaine Chao – what has he said in the past, and what could the meaning of “Coco Chow,” one of his preferred monikers, be?

His jibes are “beneath the office he once held,” Farah continued, Politico reports. And “particularly despicable in this moment when the Asian American community has been subject to threats and harassment.”

Meanwhile, Trump spokesman Steven Cheung has defended his employer. He reportedly said Trump’s criticism of Chao had to do with her “potential financial conflicts,” not her ethnicity. He, too, is Asian American.

“People should stop feigning outrage,” he said. “And engaging in controversies that exist only in their heads.”

Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images for Concordia

What could ‘Coco Chow’ mean, in relation to Trump and Elaine Chao?

It’s easiest to dissect Trump’s nickname for Elaine Chao and deal with it in two parts since the meaning of half of “Coco Chow” is easier to pin down than the meaning of the other.

Changing the “-ao” at the end of Elaine Chao’s surname to “-ow” is in line with certain mainstream methods by which to transliterate (or romanize) Chinese.

The dominant international standard for Standard Mandarin since about 1982 has been to use Hanyu Pinyin, which doesn’t contain the “-ow” formulation. 

However, today, transliterations of many Taiwanese proper names use the Wade–Giles, Bapomofo (Mandarin Phonetic Symbols/Zhuyin), or Chinese postal romanization systems. So, in other words, it’s not too much of a stretch to write “Chao” as “Chow.”

But it is still a misspelling of someone’s name

Trump first used the name “Coco Chow” to refer to Elaine Chao in a Truth Social post, meaning: he did it in writing, not verbally.

That means his choice of spelling was deliberate. And, while misspellings can be benign, others can be hurtful. Deliberate misspellings of proper names certainly can be.

Not only that but calling Elaine Chao “Coco Chow” represents the deliberate misspelling of a name someone has decided to spell a certain way. 

Elaine Chao has chosen to transliterate her surname, which in its original form is neither “Chao” nor “Chow,” but simply “趙,” as Chao. So to spell it “Chow” is to acknowledge that she chooses to spell it one way and deliberately slight her by spelling it differently.

What could the ‘Coco’ part in the name ‘Coco Chow’ mean? 

It could mean nothing at all, but Quora contributor Angela Stockton suggests Trump “thinks he’s being oh-so-clever” by making a reference to the character Ko-Ko, from Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado.

Which is set in Japan. Chao immigrated to the US at the age of eight, from Taipei, Taiwan.

If not, “Coco” could be a sweeping reference to the fact that coconuts grow in Taiwan. Other countries in the same broad geographical area produce far more, but Taiwan, as of 2013, grew between 100K and 1M tonnes of coconuts.

And if you Google search the meaning of the word “coco,” the first result is “coconut.” So, who knows? Maybe it’s something to do with coconuts; maybe it’s something to do with a Japanese character from a comic opera. Perhaps it is neither.

Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Elaine Chao responds to Trump in statement to Politico

Chao’s statement, Politico stresses, is an “extremely rare case” of her “wading into the political thicket.”

“When I was young,” she said, “some people deliberately misspelled or mispronounced my name. Asian Americans have worked hard to change that experience for the next generation.”

She has, in the past, decided not to respond to his references to her. It “creates another news cycle,” Politico quotes someone close to her as saying.

“Especially for Asians, it’s critical to have filial piety,” the former official reportedly said. “You honor the family name. And that’s a hit not only to her personal reputation but her name and family. It’s offensive and a stain on everything he achieved for Asian Americans.”

Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung had this to say: “People should stop feigning outrage and engaging in controversies that exist only in their heads.”

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