The Beijing Subway is an epic element of “daily life” (as they say here in Beijing) my end. Whilst I don’t ride it day in day out, I do ride on it religiously enough that I’ve been to most stations (though not all, unlike London at the moment), and I’ve seen a few Chinglish fails.
So City Hall got me the chance to speak to 90 of the Beijing Subway’s “Ops-3” (Third Operations) company. These guys manage Lines 2, 8, 10, and 13, which included the city’s two loop lines, and the arc line as well. We also went over the basic, included ten phrases used in ten situations — gateline English, at the platforms, to deal with interchange routes, and many others.
But we saved the best for last. I treated Subway crew to nearly a hundred phrases or so used at major interchanges and stations across town, in mock situations, and to deal with horrendously complex transfer situations. ▶
I did the Everyday Rail English books in late 2017 so to clean up on China Railway’s epic mistranslations (they run great trains, but some translations are just totally random). It was bilingual for the sole fact that they had to have something to read in English, but all the descriptive text and others remaining in Mandarin Chinese. Like my Chinglish book, it found itself an unexpected international audience. There is hearsay this book made it big in the Belgian community in Beijing, both civilian and diplomatic (!??). As a result, this book began an unexpected second life as a book semi-primed for expats as well (supposedly so they could probably use pre-canned phrases to navigate their way around the rail network).
The Bookworm’s probably the most well-read, literally, of all expat hangout places in the Jing, so I decided to talk about the book, but also my documentary, and other untold stories of the Chinese railways, at the Bookworm for the 14 May 2018 event. The topic was so Sheldonesque I thought I’d get maybe just a few coming along for the ferrovial brainwashing. Except that I had underestimated interest in this…
Not only did I take a look at the raison d’être for the book — but I also went ahead with a few unknown facts (and hopefully less factoids) of the railways in China… such as the rather complex way they managed the stations on the Beijing-Shanghai HSR (11 different entities or bodies manage the 24 stations!), or how Muping has this Tottenham Court Road-like echo hall at the departures hall. ▶
Just yesterday, I had left the Starbucks not far from central Oxford and was headed to the town hall, apparently for “lunch”. Tracy got me into a room in the town hall, which was to be used in the afternoon for an event we would take part in. She asked me to come to the lectern for a photo opp. (You like doing that and giving speeches all the time!, she said, so on I went to “the set”. There was also virtually no-one else there, and it would be at least a full hour until the event would be underway, so we had plenty of time.)
I thought about using this pic (look at this great shot, my wife said to me) so to tell you all about a key shift in my life as I prepare for what’s next my end, career-wise. Now Tracy and I had just finished a few weeks where we consulted one other for solid plans. I myself am putting behind unpredictable times and have a fresh new vision, but also am true to that age-old adage — If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! I have to say she is far more optimistic than I dared imagine — and both of us were also realistic. ▶
This report was first published in Chinese on 16 April 2014 by reporter Wang Dongliang of the Beijing Daily.
The Handbook of Everyday English was released yesterday by the Beijing Municipal Foreign Affairs Office and the Beijing Speaks Foreign Language Committee, amongst other bodies. The WeChat and e-learning channels were launched at the same time. Residents are now just taps away from learning English.
David Feng, international teacher at the Communication University of China and a member of the Handbook‘s editing team, spoke about the launch to our reporter. He stated that in spite of city efforts to improve English and train reception industries ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there are still reports by expat drivers stopped by police officers, only to find they were unable to speak English well, being only competent to say, “My English is very poor”. ▶
Did the official, national China Railways Weibo account just start tweeting things in English?
If everything was in Chinese back then, it made sense. But then we had Deng’s reforms. Then we had the Olympics. The World Expo. The Asian Games. Two Universiades. You got people from all creeds, all religions, all countries and territories, in essence pouring into the country and onto our trains. (I’m typing this in a café with Italians next to me!) It kind of made sense to be bilingual. Bilingual signage popped up everywhere — at Beijing South, on trains, everywhere.
For a moment, most of us believed our railways turned bilingual overnight.
That’s the case for much of the written signage. But if you’ve done a lot of travelling in China by train, you’ll see probably more than a few gaping gaps between — say, the train and the platform. You’ll see gaps in different expressions being used for the very same things. Whilst you might use an Exit at Beijing South, the signs point you to a Way Out in other stations. Then there’s how we name stations. Or name new things, like personal tickets and their replaceable equivalents. Or how we should get the English right, as a whole. I’ve also heard stories from rail crew — basic things like grabbing stuff at the dining car would leave crew at a loss — simply because of the language barrier. ▶
I’ve done 100,000+ km in China, and man do my bums hurt.
But unfortunately, they’re getting all the station names wrong. Some even are off-colour.
Poor Hangzhou needs a better name than one that implies — the more private parts of your body. Thankfully, beginning August 2013, I’m joining the official national railways web site, People’s Railway Daily Online, at peoplerail.com. Every day, I’ll be telling rail folks in and around the country how to write English right. ▶
The “standard” expression for “un-Chinglish” would, of course, be English, but I had to point out the “un-Chinglish” bit. One has to, when one sees what the station’s been through. A few years back, Platform 1 was given a Chinglish name, as I saw in my February 2013 trip to the Zhangjiakou South Railway Station.
In March 2013, I started redoing their sign after I linked up via Weibo to one of the people in charge of stations around Greater Zhangjiakou. I redid all of their signage onboard Train G71 whilst it sped from Beijing West to Changsha South.
These guys sure were happy: they were spared the design fees (and got Swiss design instead). After a bit of a hard time coaxing the station bosses to get the sign up and ready, in late May — that’s just recently — they got the signs updated.
Hopefully I’ll be along for the whole ride as China makes a giant leap towards proper English! ▶
I will be appearing with wife Tracy on Sunday, 08 April 2012, from 18:00 through to 20:00 (Beijing time) on Top FM 101.8 on China National Radio (CNR). We’ll be talking about trains and Chinglish!
For the full two hours (which is quite a bit when you think about it), our live show will go through the amazing stories of my 120,000+ km of train travel, 2,200+ Chinglish shots, as well as my travels in nearly 20 countries and territories. I’ll also do a bit of “multilingualism” over the airwaves.
You can listen in online on at Top FM 101.8 — either in Beijing at FM 101.8 or over the online airwaves. ▶
That’s our train headed back to the Jing…
The three-week educational working visit to Harbin’s come to an end today. It’s been three weeks of Chinglish. During this trip, my iPhone’s ran into about 25 cases of new Chinglish in Harbin. I’m up to about 2,200 cases of the concoct language, and while it’s far from perfect, I did like one of the most recent Chinglishes I found this morning — that the restaurant lies on the second floor, complete with the MAIE RESTROOM. Now just how do you pronounce the latter?
My thanks to the trio that made it possible: two lessons plus a title of International Teacher of English at the newly-formed and grassroots Chenguang School, and two more visits to more established locations, including the Hulan campus of the well-known Harbin Normal University (哈爾濱師範大學) and the Yuan Dong campus of the Harbin Institute of Technology (哈爾濱理工大學). About 80 joined me for the first one; the second one was sheer magic with 200 people. ▶
Our train tickets are with us: we’re headed back to Beijing in the next few days. I leave behind a Harbin I’ve found more crazy Chinglish in (and even up north in Bei’an), but also a Harbin I’ve tried to de-Chinglish-ify as much as possible.
I have to say that I’m happy with Harbin and the lessons. I spent time teaching groups — be they just four people or a class filled with dozens and dozens on end. There was no real multimedia service, so I had to rely on a blackboard and plenty of body language to engage them. Which is good, as nobody really does that here in China… ▶