Right or Wong?

Observed on Queen’s Road. The first time I passed this sign, it stopped me in my tracks, and my first impulse was to run upstairs, knock on the office door. It was my native English speaker duty to clue in these hapless designers…”Hey you guys! You need to lose an “R” here!”

For those of you non-Chinese readers, a quick translation. “Wrong Design” appears to be a failed English translation of the Cantonese name, which is written up there beside the English in Chinese characters: Chit gai ji wong. Chit Gai” means design–so far, so good. “Ji” that little Z like character, is a connective word, the written Chinese way of saying “of” or “apostrophe S”. And the very last character is “Wong”–three whack wong, the character that means “Emperor” or sometimes “King”. It’s also a Chinese surname–as in the chanteuse Wong Fei (Faye Wong, of Chungking Express fame).

So the correct English translation of the name of this company should be “Wong Design”–if the owner is named Mr. Wong. Or if not, then: “King of Design”.

I didn’t run upstairs, that first time I saw the sign, because it was 9pm, and I was on my way to meet some friends at my favorite Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong (more on that later…). Instead, I filed this errand of linguistic mercy in the back of my brain, and of course quickly forgot about it.

Until last week, as I was running to meet yet another friend at my favorite Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong, and I passed the building again.

This time, though, I began to wonder. The sign’s typeface and the style were just too smart looking and crisp to be implicated in a whopping bilingual error. Hmm. And these guys, after all, were designers.

After dinner, I dragged the friend, an expat visiting from Beijing, over to take a look, figuring that since he lives in Beijing, he would be an expert at Chinese-to-English translation bloopers. He glanced up, and immediately said: It’s intentional. It’s too knowing not to be.

The Internet is your friend. When I got back home I looked up the company and found this note on somebody’s blog:

Hey, this is my company – thanks! I took the name because I was
disillusioned with all the rhetoric I see everywhere, also because the
Chinese name sounds like “wrong” (‘Chit Gai Ji Wong’ – ‘King of
Design’), and also just trying desperately not to be serious. Business
is booming. Thanks for the pic – makes me feel proud in some strange
way. Want a free Wrong design t-shirt?…..

Of course. What was I thinking. It took a visitor from Beijing to remind me that there is one more aspect of sign language that I forgot to discuss back there when I was deconstructing Hong Kong’s marvelous public displays of inter-linguistic cleverness. And that is the hip factor. Hong Kong people have grown up with two languages always in the air (Chinese, as most of you probably know, didn’t even become the “official” language of Hong Kong until 1974).  Cantonese are experts at making puns, even just within Chinese. When you throw another language into the mix, and let them loose in an even bigger ocean of potential bon mots the result is a profusion of knowingly hip names and slogans.

To put it another way, language in Hong Kong has a sharp, clever big city swing to it. As a New Yorker, that is one of the first things that attracted me to Hong Kong, even before I actually set foot in the place. Just watching the HK movies, I fell for the cool. local lingo that seemed to eat up and digest and play around with English the way that Latinos in New York and Miami make delicious concoctions out of English and Spanish.

What am I talking about? Well, stuff like “Wrong Design”. And this:

This is Hong Kong’s coolest design/housewares store, G.O.D. It’s a place where you can buy messenger bags printed with photos of old Yau Ma Tei tenement buildings, and mouse pads covered with the ad pages of old Hong Kong newspapers. Yeah, a little precious (and pricey), but it is one of the only stores in Hong Kong where you can actually purchase something that’s unique to HK–and ironically referential to boot. There is nothing like G.O.D. in Shanghai or Beijing. I doubt there will be for at least another ten years. That is the difference between Hong Kong and the Mainland.

But I’m getting off my track. The reason I bring up G.O.D. is because it is an even better example of the “knowing inter-linguistic pun” genre of signs. “G.O.D.” is an English homonym, a sound-alike, for some words in Cantonese. Right off the bat, this is a cool thing. Because almost always in Hong Kong, the homonyms move in the other linguistic direction, from English into Cantonese. From the “official” colonial language back into the vernacular, as a convenience for people speaking the former. So that the taxi driver can say “Ho lei woot” , and an English person can understand it means “Hollywood Road”.

G.O.D. reverses the power play–it is a homonym to help English people speak Cantonese. It is a “soundalike” for “Jyu hou di”, which in Cantonese means “Live a little better”. Not a bad name for a lifestyle store. And, just to make sure everyone in Hong Kong gets the joke, there are some characters in the logo to drive home the point.

There’s an added treat here, for the characters contain an additional nod and wink from these very locally-focussed and hipster G.O.D. designer guys. That last character, “Di” is not a Chinese but a Cantonese character. It is one of the lexicon of “local” characters. Like messenger bags stamped with Yau Ma Tei tenement facades, it is something you will see only in Hong Kong

I went to graduate school in cultural studies for some years, reading a lot of jargon-filled articles with titles like “The Subversive in Inter-Linguistic Constructions” and “National Identity in Language Usage in X…” If you live in Hong Kong, you can just skip reading these articles. You already know that language is one of Hong Kong’s big creative playing fields–a free space where people let out their frustrations, make allusions, music, protest, define themselves as Hong Kong Chinese people. It is what creates life here, and why a life-long New Yorker feels at home, even when she’s only getting 30 percent of the jokes.

I love living in the World’s Great Cosmopolitan Chinese City, where you can be sure that when you see a mistake, it is not wong.


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