Shen Ta-niang (沈大娘) has an unusual name, which has led to laughs and confusion about his gender, but the peculiar name has also given him positive publicity and helped boost his company’s business.
Looking to turn his fortune around a few years ago, the 37-year-old reverted to his original birthname, Shen Ta-niang. Taniang (大娘) refers to the wife of an elder paternal uncle or is used as a term of endearment, denoting a family matron, an aunt or a grande dame.
It has confounded many people, with Shen often responding with: “I am ‘Mr’ Shen,’ and no, I am not a woman. Yes, it is my real name.”
Shen said that at birth, “Ta-niang” was the name given by his father, a Malaysian-Chinese, who chose it based on the hierarchy order in the family’s genealogy book. However, his mother refused to go along, reasoning that giving their son a feminine name was inappropriate, and changed it to the more neutral Shen Chung-min (沈中敏).
Shen said he was not a diligent student and preferred spending time playing or hanging out with friends. When he was in his 20s, he changed his name to Shen Shuang-lin (沈雙琳), meaning “double lin,” because his two former girlfriends both had “lin” (琳) in their names.
Shen took on different jobs over the years, including working as a chauffeur, car wash operator, truck service deliveryman and mobile phone salesman, and he even opened an eatery. However, his jobs were unsteady and he did not make much money. When he fell into debt, he went into hiding, but was caught and served time in jail. Moreover, his marriage ended in divorce.
Things changed about five years ago, when he found a new interest — balloon sculpting — twisting and shaping balloons to create colorful cartoon characters and sculptures. To make it in the balloon sculpting business, a balloon artist needs a nickname. Shen remembered his original birthname.
“My name is Ta-niang, but my personality is not at all niang [which means effeminate, when applied to men], but I like to talk just like a taniang,” Shen says when he introduces himself to customers.
Shen said the name was “cute” and a good fit for him, as friends also started to call him by this name.
Focused on becoming a balloon artist, Shen was determined to learn everything about making creative balloons. He bent and twisted balloons for up to eight hours a day, bruising his fingers at times.
With a new direction in life, Shen thought about changing his name again, to mark a clean break from the past. A fortune-teller once told him “Shen Ta-niang” can be a very good name, but it depends on the person using it. After thinking about it, he had his national identification card changed to “Ta-niang.”
Since that year, fortune has smiled on him, he said.
He joined an international event as a last-minute replacement — and won the championship title at the balloon artist competition in Malaysia. The year after, he was invited to an exhibition at the Taitung Art Museum.
As his work and balloon sculptures drew more public attention, Shen opened a business specializing in events and party decoration services. His business is doing well, generating monthly revenues of more than NT$200,000.
“After changing my name to Shen Ta-niang, I was reborn. Twisting balloons has brought happiness to other people and myself,” he said.
His name has benefited him in unusual ways. Sometimes when eating out and he tells people his name, those who think he is pulling their leg would put up a wager, which, of course, Shen wins when he pulls out his ID and show them his name. Thus, he has been treated several times to extra small side dishes for winning the bet.
“The name is easy to pronounce, it is interesting and memorable. People meeting me for the first time feel I am a nice, friendly guy,” Shen said.
At times, it is the cause of funny encounters. Shen said he would receive sales calls or inquiries on the phone, and they always refer to him as “Miss Shen.” When he corrects them by saying he is not Miss Shen, they sometimes change their tone, emphasizing each syllable, and say: “Yes, Miss Shen Tai-niang.”