10 Asian Cities That Changed Their Names And What They Mean

Istanbul was Constantinople,
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople,
Been a long time gone, Oh Constantinople,
Now it’s Turkish delight on a moonlit night

Just like what the song Istanbul (Not Constantinople) from They Might Be Giants infers, cities change their names for a number of reasons, even New York was once New Amsterdam. Istanbul and New York are not the only cities to have changed their names. Some old names persist despite what it says on paper, but others are completely forgotten. Here are the stories of a few city names around Asia:

1. What Is the Former Name of Tokyo, Japan?

Have you ever wondered why one Japanese city is called Tokyo, while another one is suspiciously named Kyoto? Is this some kind of a wordplay here? Well, you’re on to something! Tokyo’s old name is Edo (lit. ‘Bay Entrance’) and it was nothing more than a fishing village in the 12th century. The capital at that time was Kyoto, which literally means ‘Capital City’ in Japanese. Edo was renamed Tokyo (lit. ‘Eastern Capital’) when the 17-year-old Emperor Meiji and his entourage moved from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868.

2. What Is the Former Name of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia?

Kota Kinabalu is the state capital of Sabah, East Malaysia. Most Malaysians probably know that it was formerly called Jesselton after Charles Jessel, the vice chairman of the British North Borneo Chartered Company, during the British colonial time. But even before that, the area was known as Singgah Mata (‘Where Eyes Like To Behold’ in Malay) among the Bajaus and also Api-Api (‘api’ means fire in Malay). Until today, members of the local Chinese community still refer to Kota Kinabalu as a pi in Hakka (or yà bì in Mandarin). After Malaysia’s independence, Jesselton was renamed Kota Kinabalu in 1967:  ‘kota’ means fort in Malay, Kinabalu after the nearby Mount Kinabalu.

3. What Is the Former Name of Sihanoukville, Cambodia?

Given that ‘Sihanoukville’ sounds very French, you’d be correct to assume that the famous coastal resort town was not always known by that name. Sihanoukville was formerly known as Kompong Saom (also spelled Kompong Som or Kampong Som), which means the Port of the Moon. Kompong Som was renamed Krong Preah Sihanouk in 1964 in honour of Norodom Sihanouk, who is regarded as the father of modern Cambodia. Sihanoukville, the Western variant of the name, was suggested by Norodom Sihanouk himself.

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4. What Is the Former Name of Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam?

One of the most common reasons for a city changing its name is to honour a respected leader, which is the case of Bandar Seri Begawan. The capital of Brunei Darussalam was formerly known as Brunei Town (or Bandar Brunei in Malay), but it was renamed Bandar Seri Begawan in 1970 to honour Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III (1914-1986).  ‘Bandar’ is a Persian loanword in Malay which means ‘town/city’, while ‘Seri Begawan’ is the title of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III, which means ‘The Radiant Lord’ in Sanskrit – shri (radiant) and bhagavan (one who is revered).

5. What Is the Former Name of Dhaka, Bangladesh?

Once a city changes its name, it is not necessarily a done deal. For example, Dhaka was renamed Jahangirnagar (Jahangir’s City) to honor Jahangir, the fourth Mughal emperor, who ruled from 1605 until his death in 1627.  But the city’s name was changed back to Dhaka after the death of the emperor.

6. What Is the Former Name of Xi’an, China?

The ancient city of Xi’an has always been an important commercial hub due to its location along the Silk Road, and it has been renamed numerous times by different dynasties it came under. Many of them included the character ‘an’ which means peace, which is a bit ironic given the city was always the centre of many conflicts. It started with the name Fenghao during the Western Zhou Dynasty, Chang’an (Perpetual Peace) during the Western Han Dynasty, Xijing (Western Capital) during the Eastern Han dynasty, Daxing (Greatly Prosperous) during the Sui Dynasty, back to Chang’an during the Tang Dynasty, then subsequently Fengyuan, Anxi (Peaceful West), and Jingzhao during the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty, back to Xijing during the Ming dynasty before the same dynasty changed it to Xi’an (Western Peace) in 1369.

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7. What Is the Former Name of Hanoi, Vietnam?

The current capital city of Vietnam had a kick-ass name – Thang Long (Soaring Dragon). But in 1831, Emperor Minh Mang changed the name of the city to Hanoi (River Interior), which refers to its location between the rivers. Not really what we call an improvement, but hey, can’t argue with an emperor!

8. What Is the Former Name of Chennai, India?

You know how Western colonialists liked to change the names of their conquered lands because they weren’t able to pronounce the names properly? Beginning in 1947, following the end of the British imperial period, several cities in India changed their names from the old British names to what was seen as more ‘local’ names. Most were to amend the previously anglicised names to Indian English spelling. Examples including Bangalore to Bengaluru, Calcutta to Kolkata, Poona to Pune, Cochin to Kochi, and Trivandrum to Thiruvananthapuram. Other changes include realignment of former British colonial names to alternative local names. One of the most important changes is Madras, which was officially christened as Chennai on 17 July 1996. The name Chennai is believed to derive from Damarla Chennapa Nayakadu, a Telugu ruler.

9. What Is the Former Name of Jakarta, Indonesia?

Just like many Asian and African countries, Indonesia changed several city names after its independence. Mostly they just reverted everything to the former names the cities had before the colonial Dutch government era. Examples include Fort de Kock to Bukittinggi, Oosthaven to Bandar Lampung and Bencoolen to Bengkulu. One of the most important ones is the capital city, from Batavia to Jakarta, which is derived from the city’s post-colonial name Jayakarta (‘complete victory’ in Sanskrit).

10. What Is the Former Name of Seoul, South Korea?

Most major places in Korea (both North and South) have corresponding names in hanja (Chinese characters used in the Korean language), like Pyongyang, which means ‘Peace Land’ and Busan is ‘Cauldron Mountain’ when read in its hanja. Seoul is unique as it has no corresponding name in hanja and can only be written in hangul (Korean alphabet). Furthermore, the city hasn’t always been called Seoul. It was known as Wiryeseong during Baekje era, Namgyeong in the Goryeo era, Hanseong or Hanyang in Joseon era, Keijo (in Japanese) or Gyeongseong (in Korean) during the Japanese occupation, before known as Seoul since at least 1882.

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Written by Ari Vanuaranu

Albeit claiming to be a vegetarian, this self-professed culture vulture says that he’s willing to make an exception every time he is in an exotic place, as trying the local food is essential to widening a traveller’s horizon. But then each and every single place in the world outside of his hometown in Indonesia’s South Borneo counts as an ‘exotic place’...

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