Friday, 6 October 2017

Photographic memory: 3 (Caracas, Venezuela)

We took a bus from the Caracas airport into town as it’s a lot cheaper, then a taxi from the bus terminus to our hotel.  Three days later, we were going to the airport to try and catch the first flight out to a jungle resort past the Angel Falls.  It was 3:30am, so we were lucky that a taxi came along within five minutes.  The taxi driver said he knew how to get to the airport bus terminus.  A few minutes later, however, he said he didn’t after all.  He might've been only half feigning ignorance in the hope that he could take us all the way to the airport, given that we were tourists, therefore wouldn't be expected to know the way. Unfortunately for him, I remembered the taxi ride from the terminus to our hotel three days before, so I directed him there.  He certainly took revenge by driving off with our big note without giving us the change.

(Caracas, Venezuela,1986)

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Photographic memory: 2 (UK)

I was touring the Isle of Man with some English friends on Easter Sunday in March 1978 when we drove past a shop that sold something I’d been looking for.  It was shut and we were returning to Liverpool the next day, when it’d still be shut (those were the days when everything shut at 4pm on Saturday and all day Sunday — public holidays are treated as Sunday).  The shopfront had its telephone number displayed, but we didn’t have any pen and paper to write it down.  I gazed at the number, imprinted it onto my brain screen, then when we got back to the house and could get hold of pen and paper, closed my eyes to call up the number on my brain screen and wrote it down. 

(UK 1978)

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Photographic memory: 1 (Singapore)

I’d always had a photographic memory.  

As a child, I’d go with my mother on her post-natal visits as a private midwife, just for the car ride.  

One day, a man whose wife was going into labour turned up while my mother was out on her rounds and I happened to have opted out.  My mother’s cousin had dropped by, so we jumped into his car and I directed him along the route my mother would’ve taken.  We found her at the second place, so she was able to dash off to deliver the baby before resuming her visits. 

My nephew Kaikai shares the same ability.  My brother and his wife would drop him off (aged two or three) at his maternal grandma’s place before going to work.  He used to hate this and would cry as soon as they approached the grandma’s block of flats, so one day they decided to try a different approach to the block.  Now, Singapore’s high rise blocks, especially those within the same estate, all pretty much look alike, yet Kaikai knew they were driving him to his grandma’s and started crying, even though it was from a different direction this time.

(Singapore, 1960s / 1980s)

Friday, 15 September 2017

Students' versions are much more fun: 1 (London)

My style of teaching is to challenge the student as much as possible, e.g., make them work out the meaning of a compound or phrase by breaking it down to the individual components and arriving at the final meaning that way.

One of those phrases is 可有可无 kě yǒu kě wú / “can have can not-have”, which the Mac dictionary gives as “be as well without it as with it” and another, online dictionary gives as “it doesn’t matter whether one has it or not”, i.e., one can take it or leave it, it’s dispensable.

When I asked David M what he thought it meant and when it might be used, he said, “Perhaps, say, used by a greengrocer, replying to your asking if they have any apples: ‘可有可无。Maybe we have, maybe we don’t.’”  

I collapsed in fits of laughter.  What a perverse greengrocer, being so cagey about whether they might have apples or not!  

(David is a mature student, not a teenager whose general knowledge of life might be a bit more limited and whose imagination might run a bit wilder than adults’.)

(London 2017)

Saturday, 12 August 2017

All-rounder training (Singapore / UK)

When I’d passed my Highway Code test at age 17 and booked a driving test date, my mother came up with a plan:  that I should learn to drive for free by chauffeuring her on her post-natal-care rounds, which were necessary anyway.  When I was good enough at on-road driving, we’d then pay for a professional instructor to teach me test techniques such as parking, reversing into a minor road, uphill climb, etc., which would only be a handful of lessons, thus saving a lot of money.  (This is advice I now dole out to young people wanting to learn to drive.)

For the first trip out on the road, I was wearing sandals.  To get a better feel of the pedals (it was a manual-drive car, automatics being a little way off yet), I shed them.  My mother said, “No, don’t do that.  You should learn to drive with whatever footwear you’ve got on, be it platform shoes, high-heeled shoes, clogs, sandals, flip flops or gym shoes.  This way, you’ll learn to adjust the pressure you apply on the pedals accordingly, so that it becomes intuitive and you don’t have to think about it.”

This reminds me of something my brother said in 1999 when I was helping out my sister-in-law at the canteen she was running at a 24-hour factory.  His comment was, “Westerners have this amazing array of knives, big and small, with practically each one dedicated to a particular function.  The Chinese just have the one — the meat cleaver — which can be for hacking a whole chicken to smaller pieces, for mincing pork, for peeling a potato, or for cutting ginger into small thin slices or strips.”  Same principle:  it's the control over the way the hand holds the cleaver and applies the pressure.

I’ve since applied this to my teaching of text analysis.  Students are often deliberately not given the context, or are just given the middle paragraph of a piece, or even only the second half of a sentence.  This way, they’re forced to rely purely on, say, their knowledge of Chinese grammar to do the parsing:  e.g., how do you know it is a Verb here rather than a Noun (e.g., 发展 fāzhǎn is both a Verb [to develop] and a Noun [development]).  

And of course, what I’ve called “Guessology skills” (“Guessology” is my coinage from the 1980s): the logic of one version versus another (whether it makes sense there), etc., without resorting to any assistance from their knowledge of the subject matter in hand.  Which is very likely to be the case in real life when they have to read or listen to a piece in Chinese that might have no universal equivalent.

It works very well, because my students approach their texts using their knowledge of grammar (they can all do grammatical justifications in their sleep, so frequently-drilled they are) rather than just hit-or-miss, unsubstantiated guessing, relying on the teacher to confirm that they’re right.

(Singapore early '70s & 1999; UK)

History repeating itself (UK / China)

I was doing a Skype lesson with Ed in Shanghai.  He’d chosen an article which was an interview with an American CNN journalist who had covered the 4th June 1989 Tian’anmen Square Incident.  

At one point in the interview, the journalist was talking about the difficulties they’d encountered broadcasting live.  The Chinese government had clamped down on live satellite broadcasts the day after Gorbachev left, so they had to do them via the telephone.  The video tapes had to be smuggled out of Beijing to Hong Kong or Tokyo, to be broadcast from there, thus incurring a lapse in real time of a few hours.

It was when we were reading this bit of the article that the sound quality on Skype started to experience trouble, so I suggested that we use FaceTime.  The sound quality was good on FaceTime but there was no dialogue box for me to send the text over for Ed to read and translate.  We resorted to me sending the text to the dialogue box on Skype for Ed to read, but using FaceTime for the verbal element of the lesson.  Then Skype wasn’t transmitting the text I’d inputted into the dialogue box, so I had to use FaceBook Messenger for that.

It suddenly occurred to me that we were experiencing the same thing as the CNN journalist back in 1989, having to use different modes to send material out.

Spooky or what?

(UK / China, 2017)

Clever parenting (UK)

In the ‘70s, home students doing university courses could get a government grant which covered their fees and all living expenses.

Ben, two years below me at SOAS, was living at his parents’.  His mother told him he’d have to pay for his room and board, since he got the money for it from the government.  He thought at the time that his mother was a bit heartless, but paid up all the same.

Four years later, when he graduated, the mother handed him a bank account passbook.  She’d been depositing the money over the years on his behalf.

(UK, late 1970s)

Monday, 17 July 2017

The term "comrade" in Chinese

This blog is inspired by, as usual, Valerio, my most avid follower and good friend, after a conversation about my other blog entry "My spouse":

The term "comrade" in Chinese is 同志 tóngzhì / "same aspiration", and was widely used as a term of address between mainland Chinese people post-1949.  It is a unisex term, which is egalitarian as well as convenient.

One would use it as a generic title, addressing Mr. Li / Miss Li as 李同志 Lǐ tóngzhì / Comrade Li.  Mrs. Li would be addressed by her maiden name, e.g., Comrade Wang, rather than as Mrs. Li.

If one needed to catch the attention of a stranger in the street -- to ask for directions, say -- then just tóngzhì in the same way one would say "Sir" / "Madam" in English.  

In the 80s, with Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms and a more capitalistic lifestyle (even if officially China was, and is, still a socialist* country), the term "comrade" with its political connotations started to lose its appeal and currency.  

A few more years down the road, it re-emerged, this time for referring to gay people, e.g., 他是个同志 He is gay.  One can see the logic of this.  The Chinese language can be quite flexible and creative, too, not just rigidly fixed in its wide use of proverbs and set phrases.

Note: Wikipedia says this was adopted as a formal term of address after Hong Kong film-maker Edward Lam's 1989 Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival:

QUOTE The Festival is screened annually each September, and in Chinese is known as the Hong Kong Tongzhi Film Festival, with both the title and the resurrection of the word Tongzhi (Chinese同志pinyintóngzhì), which translates into English as Comrades, the idea of one of its first organisers, Edward Lam (林奕華).  UNQUOTE (Wikipedia)

QUOTE 1989年随香港人林奕华的同性恋电影节香港同志电影节」的出现,渐渐演变为社會對同性戀群體的代称及該社群之間的正式稱呼。UNQUOTE (Wikipedia)

*They call it 有中国特色的社会主义:
QUOTE Socialism with Chinese characteristics, meaning socialism adapted to Chinese conditions, is the official ideology of the Communist Party of China (CPC), claimed to be based upon scientific socialism. ... The CPC argues that socialism is compatible with these economic policies. UNQUOTE (Wikipedia)

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Free burglar lookout service (London / Lisbon)

As I approached Table 46, wondering if I should collect the half-empty bottles of beer, four customers (one woman) at Table 45 said, “They’ve just gone outside for a smoke.”  I said to them, “Do you know what you are?  You’re the Neighbourhood Watch.”  They really liked that, and laughed, turning it over aloud: “Neighbour Watch.  That’s a good way of calling it.”

Reminds me of when an ex-colleague at The Heart of the Dragon, our picture editor Douglas Tunstell*, moved from Malaga to Lisbon in the late 80s.  He wrote, saying, “We’ve moved into our new home.  We don’t need to worry about burglars, as just across the narrow road is another block of flats, with old ladies sitting at their windows all day long, looking out at the goings-on in the street.”

I’ve certainly seen similar scenes in Turkey, Spain, and Greece.  Perhaps a common feature throughout the Mediterranean countries?

(London 2017 / Lisbon late 1980s)


Women on the March

 | 58 min

This feature film in two parts is an exploration of the women’s suffrage movement. Spearheaded by women like Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women's Social and Political Union, the Suffragettes realized they would have to become radical and militant if the movement was going to be effective. There followed many demonstrations, and imprisonments until the women’s vote was finally granted, in 1918 (Britain) and 1919 (Canada, except Quebec.)

Machine translation: 02 (UK)

An ex-student on my evening Chinese programme who teaches drama (including Chinese opera) as a university course/module wanted to do a survey among Chinese drama students.  He decided to have a go himself at drafting the questionnaire in Chinese, then sent it to me for checking.

After explaining the aim of the questionnaire, he then asked the informants to 滴答 dīdā the boxes.  I told him that 滴答 dīdā is “tick” as in “tick-tock of a clock”!

(UK 2007)

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Interpreting from Chinese (China / Italy)

As a south-east Asian who’d only been exposed to mainly southern accents in Singapore and Taiwan, and then some mainland Chinese accents in London since 1977, I’ve always worried about interpreting from Chinese to English, due to the vast range of regional accents.  

A planned interview on the 1988 film shoot in China, with the protagonist of the motorcycle travelogue “coming across” a peasant who’d become rich on the Responsibility System of 1979 (initiated by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of 1978), had to be abandoned because I couldn’t understand a single word of what the peasant said.  The local guide/interpreter’s English was too poor to make it viable as we’d have to get her to render the peasant’s Chinese into standard Chinese for me, and I’d then have to render that into English, which would take up too much time and film stock for it to be worthwhile.

Last year, intermittent student Daniel wanted to take advantage of Mr Zhang’s presence at the Milan Trade Fair to hold a meeting with him over various matters.  Mr Zhang is the manager of the factory in Shenzhen where Daniel gets his product made.  Daniel wanted to thrash out some issues and it was cheaper to go to Milan than to China.  I was asked to go along and interpret.

Mr Zhang is from central China.  He’d brought along a young man in his early 30s from north-west China to interpret for him at the trade fair.

During the negotiations, there were a couple of words Mr Zhang said that I could not quite place: gēngsī and gēngzuò.  After a while, I worked out that he meant gōngsī (公司 / company) and gōngzuò (工作 / work).

I asked Mr Zhang’s interpreter, “Do you understand everything he says?”  He said, "No!"  

What chance do I have if even his own interpreter, who’s from mainland China as well, doesn’t always understand him!?!

(China, 1988 / Italy, 2016)

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

An exam essay (London)

When I was examiner for the University of London Board ‘O’ level Chinese exams in the ’80s (1984–1988), one of the essay titles was “Education”.  One of the overseas candidates (from Hong Kong) wrote something to this effect:

I had always been a poor student.  One day, I got a duck’s egg for my maths.  
I thought, “OK, so I got a duck’s egg, so what?”

My mother then got a letter from the school principal to go and see him.  
I thought, “OK, so the principal wants to see my mother, so what?”

When my mother returned from the meeting, I knew something was 
not quite right.

After that day, my friends gave me the nickname “Zebra”.

(London 1984/85)

*The Chinese don’t just get a zero, they get a big zero (a duck’s egg being bigger than a hen’s egg), so it’s even more humiliating.  My MacBook Pro dictionary gives it as “goose egg” in American English, which is even bigger!

goose egg (noun, N. Amer. informal): a zero score in a game.
ORIGIN:  late 19th cent.: with reference to the shape of the zero

duck (noun, Cricket): a batsman's score of nought: he was out for a duck.

ORIGIN:  mid 19th cent.: short for duck's egg, used for the figure 0 because of its similar outline.

Unconscious pun (London)

My beloved supervisor Paul Mulligan Thompson* told me this:

A props manager working on a play that featured cannibals in the story line had to find scalps to go on display.  

One of the publicity claims of the department store Harrods at the time was that you could find anything in their store, and if not, they’d source it for you.  So, the props manager rang them up.  

In those days, one had to go through the switchboard operator to get to the right department / person.  He explained to the switchboard operator what he wanted.

At the end of it, the operator said, without realising her unconscious pun (they have to handle so many calls each day that they don’t usually process more than the purely superficial), “OK, I’ll put you through to the Head Buyer.”

(London, 1970s)


Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Students’ mistakes are much more fun (London)

A scenario in one of the textbooks used on the evening programme had the three student protagonists asking the teacher if he’d be free on Saturday.  

In my own first hand experience, an almost universal answer given by the Chinese when asked such a question is: “你有什么事 / nǐ yǒu shénme shì / "you have what matter" ( = What is it? / What do you have in mind?)  For some reason, the Chinese don’t seem to like providing information freely.

Sure enough, the teacher in the textbook scenario asked, “What do you have in mind?”

The answer was, “We’re having a birthday party on Saturday, and would like you to 参加.”

Now, 参加 means “to take part”, romanised in the Pinyin system as cānjiā.  The “c” in “参 cān” is pronounced “ ts’ ”, an aspirated explosive sound expelled between the teeth.  Beginner students who are still not that familiar with the Pinyin system almost invariably pronounce cānjiā as “kānjiā”, with the “c” being rendered as a “k” sound.  Unfortunately, “kānjiā” does exist, 看家, meaning “look after house”.

My perverse sense of humour always creases me up at this point, “No wonder the teacher was so cagey about telling them if he would be free on Saturday.  They only wanted him to housesit while they were throwing a birthday party and enjoying themselves!”

During a Listening Comprehension exercise, Italian student Sonia made a mistake which I found to be more fun than the original.  

The original was: 

stop by at the gift shop and 看看给张老师买点什么 /  “look look for Zhang teacher buy a bit of what”.  

Sonia, in repeating after me, left out the 给 gěi / “for”, so her version came out as: 

看看张老师买点什么 / “look look Zhang teacher buy a bit of what”, 

which is a nosey “Have a look at what Teacher Zhang is buying”, instead of “See what to buy for Teacher Zhang”.


Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Chinese publishing delegation from Inner Mongolia (London)

Back in the 80s, a Chinese publishing delegation from Inner Mongolia came to visit Linguaphone (who produce self-study language courses).  They were bringing their own interpreter but Linguaphone asked me to attend the meeting all the same, just to check that their interpreter was translating things accurately.

The interpreter turned out to be an Englishman, who was visibly nervous to see me.  After a brief pre-meeting chat, however, he discovered that we’d both been to SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), so he felt less intimidated.  I assured him that I’d be happy to help out if he got stuck.

The delegation told Linguaphone that they were most interested in their English course, but they did not have any foreign currency with which to pay for the course.  They wondered if they could pay with yak wool instead, as they had plenty of yaks in Inner Mongolia.

(London, 1986)

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Hedging one’s bets (London)

One of my students, Judith Morris, on the evening programme was a retired senior lady who had done a degree in Chinese at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) in the 1950s.  Like Oxbridge, they only did classical Chinese in those days, so she came to my evening classes for the modern side of the language.

In one of her homework, I found a recurring word translated differently each time, so I wrote the comment: “You’re not even consistent in your mistakes!”  

She said, “I was hedging my bets.  If I was wrong about one particular rendition, then I’d get all of them wrong.  The way I’d done it, I might at least get one of them right.”

(London, 1990s)

Chinese puns: May Yong (London)

The Chinese love taking advantage of the homophonic system to do puns, to have a laugh at the expense of the unsuspecting "victim".

I used to have a Malaysian woman in my evening class, by the name of May, who had married a Mr Yong, so she went by her married name.  

For years, I called her May Yong, May Yong, before I suddenly realised it sounds just like 没用 méi yòng (shortened from 没有用 méiyǒu yòng / "not have use" = useless).  I emailed her about this, and we had a good giggle over it.  

After that, I'd call her 有用 (yǒu yòng / "have use" = useful) in class, which became a private joke between us.

(London, 2000)

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Growing old

Charles Saatchi on growing old: “Growing old is not for sissies”, Eveing Standard 110517
Routinely, your back goes out more than you do, your knees buckle but your belt won’t, and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Oops 2

Metro [newspaper], 130417:

Donald trump said the US bombing of a Syrian airfield began as he and China’s president enjoyed a ‘beautiful chocolate cake’.  
He also branded Syria’s president Bashar Al-Assad an ‘animal’ — despite getting Iraq and Syria mixed up during a TV interview.  
The president told Maria Bartiromo, of Fox Business, that the US military confirmed they had begun the missile attack on the airfield while he was dining with visiting Chinese president Xi Jinping last week at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.  He said: ‘We were having dessert.  We had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen — President Xi was enjoying it — and I was given the message from the generals.
‘And I said, “Mr President, we’ve just launched 59 missiles heading to Iraq”.’

Oops, bombed the wrong country…

Friday, 14 April 2017


Those who have come into direct contact with the Chinese will have observed that they slurp their soups and drinks (as well as noodles [as do the Japanese]), which is generally considered bad manners — by the non-slurping cultures, anyway.  

I’d always thought that, logically, it was to cool the hot liquid a bit, so that it wouldn’t burn their tongues.  But surely they can blow on it instead, which is what grown-ups do when feeding very young children.  (In the case of noodles, it is more technical: it is not easy to suck up the long strings into the mouth quietly.)

Fifty years later (yes, I’m very slow thinking), it’s dawned on me there might be another reason.  Western wine tasters slurp the liquid, even though it is not hot.  (Tea tasters slurp, too.)  The reason is that this aerates the wine (and tea), which will help release the flavour and aroma.

I think, therefore, that even if the modern Chinese person slurps without consciously thinking of it as a means of improving the taste, it must be there in the culture that’s got built in over the years (thousands, maybe).  So, if I’m right, then once again it seems that the Chinese discovered something more profoundly scientific (than cooling down the liquid) a long, long time ago — an excerpt from my blog on The Chinese heart versus the Chinese brain said:

Another joke I used to apply to my teaching: in Chinese, one says 心里想 (xīn lǐ xiǎng / "heart inside think”)  for thinking something to oneself (“inside the heart”, without saying it aloud).  I'd say to the student, "The Chinese heart does all the emotional and intellectual processes.  The Chinese brain doesn't do any work.”  (I often say outrageous things because it’s more effective as a mnemonic, apart from making them laugh.)  A couple of years ago, I heard a programme on BBC’s Radio 4 saying scientists had discovered the human heart does more than just pumping blood around the body.  So, if it is true that language usage reflects thought/cultural processes, the Chinese must already have known long ago that the heart is in charge of all the intellectual and emotional processes as well.


Friday, 7 April 2017

Marking homework (London)

I had a reputation with my students for having a very active red pen.  

They’d get their homework back, covered in red: some were corrections, some were comments (on why a particular usage/translation was wrong), and some were my offerings of an alternative or a better version.  I often told them, by way of massaging their bruised ego, that if they made no mistakes, they were then in the wrong grade and should be in a higher grade, and that they were therefore not learning anything new.  This practically always worked.

They got so used to these red markings being an indication of how many mistakes they’d made that they’d occasionally cry out in surprise at a smiley face next to a correct or good sentence.

One of the evening students in my early days at the polytechnic, back in the 80s, was a lady in her 60s (70s??) who was very conscientious, handing in homework every week in spite of making loads of mistakes.  (Full marks for effort and attitude — it’s the trying that’s important.)  Every week, she had to leave ten minutes before the end of class to go and catch her train home (somewhere outside London).  She’d hand in her homework en route to the door, and say with a giggle and a shrug of her shoulders, “I’ll buy you a new red pen next week!”  Full marks, indeed, for attitude.

(London, 1986)

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Ambiguous signs/notices (London)

Lots of pillar boxes in London have two compartments, marked "London" and "Country".  I was once standing by one of these when I overheard a baffled tourist ask, "Which country?"

This sign by Tube escalators is increasingly disappearing now:  "Dogs must be carried."  Someone once asked, "What if I don't have a dog?"


*pillar box: (in the UK) a large red cylindrical public postbox.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Batting it back (London)

On one of my Saturday night pub shifts, I walked past a high round table at which were seated two men in their fifties.  They, like most of the customers at this north London pub, were very friendly towards me, saying a cheery hello and asking how I was.

About half an hour later, I was around that part of the pub and found them now seated in one of the booths, with two new female additions.

One of the men said, “We’ve moved.  Sorry to confuse you.”  I said, “It’s not confusing.  It doesn’t make any difference, because all Westerners look the same to me anyway.”  All four of them collapsed in laughter. 

(London, 2017)

Friday, 3 March 2017

Freudian slip? (USA)

Evening Standard, 27 Jan 2017:  

White House drops an ‘H’ and a clanger

Aides were left red-faced today after the White House misspelled Theresa May’s name.  
The president’s press office sent out a memo about Donald Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Mrs May today but missed out the “h” in her first name.  It read:  “The President will partake in a bilateral meeting with United Kingdom Prime Minister, Teresa May.”  The “h” in Mrs May’s first name was dropped in two other mentions.  The mistakes were later corrected.  
The slip-up is all the more embarrassing as Teresa May is a retired glamour model and former soft-core porn actress. … 

Freudian slip?

(USA, 2017)

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Self-incriminating action surely? (Malaysia / North Korea)

Metro 23 Feb 2017:  QUOTE Two women suspected of killing the half-brother of North Korea’s leader in Malaysia were trained to coat their hands with toxic chemicals then wipe them on his face, a police chief said yesterday.  They had practised the attack at two Kuala Lumpur shopping centres before targeting Kim Jong-nam at the city’s airport last week claimed Khalid Abu Bakar.  He said CCTV showed them keeping their hands away from their bodies after the fatal poisoning, then going to the toilets to wash.  North Korea — whose ruler Kim Jong-un is suspected of ordering the hit on his sibling — ridiculed the police claims.  It demanded the immediate release of the two ‘innocent women’, Doah Thi Huong, 28, from Vietnam and Siti Aisyah, 25, from Indonesia.  UNQUOTE
I can understand the "ridiculed the police claims" bit (an act of immediate self defence when accused).  But why should North Korea demand the immediate release of the two suspects when they aren't even N.Korean citizens?  Also, how did they come to the conclusion that they are innocent?  Finally, they're not even saying the women should be released; they are DEMANDING their IMMEDIATE release.  Self-incriminating surely?  

(Malaysia / North Korea, 2017)

Monday, 13 February 2017

Chinese traditions: Bride Price (Singapore)

In the old days, when matchmaking was the standard way of pairing up couples, once the man’s family had picked a girl for their son (very rarely the other way round), they’d send a matchmaker over with an offering.  This was often, but not exclusively, in the form of a sum of money.  

Even numbers are auspicious, as the hope is that happy events will be repeated, so the bride price figure would be an even number.  (By the same but reverse-significance token, contributions towards funerals would be in odd numbers.)

If the girl’s family was financially on a par with the boy’s, the bride price would be even more of a mere ritual.  They’d accept a token even-number figure and return the rest (also as an even number).  For example, the boy’s family would send over a bride price of $800, the girl’s family would keep $200, and send back $600, which are both even numbers.

When my mother’s cousin and his girlfriend decided to get married, they still observed the tradition of having a matchmaker go round to the girl’s family with an offering, even though this was Singapore in the late 1960s and it was not an arranged marriage.

The girl’s family is from the Hakka (客家 kèjiā / “guest family”) dialect group.  To the Hakkas, the number 9 is auspicious (along with “dog” as it sounds like 9 in their dialect).  If a boy child is born at 9 o’clock on the 9th day of the 9th month (and a dog is barking outside at the same time), the child will be sure to have a great future.

Given this background, my mother’s cousin sent over a bride price of S$999.99.  The girl’s family kept the whole sum, to retain the maximum number of 9s.  When the matchmaker came back with an empty basket, the family said to him, “Why couldn’t you have fallen in love with someone from a different dialect group?  At least we would’ve got some change back!”

(Singapore, 1960s)

* Hakka |ˈhakə|
noun (pl.same or Hakkas)
1 a member of a people of SE China who migrated from the north during the 12th century.
2 [ mass noun ] the dialect of Chinese spoken by the Hakka, with about 27 million speakers. Also called Kejia.
relating to the Hakka or their language. the Hakka language and culture.
from Chinese (Cantonese dialect) haàk ka ‘stranger’.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Letting machines do the work (London)

Trying to find out when electric pumps first came about at petrol stations, so typed in Google box: "electric petrol pumps when did they first come about".  Back came a prompt from Google: "Did you mean: car electric petrol pumps when did they first came about".  Note: They italicised and emboldened "came" in case I missed it!

On a separate occasion, first spotted on Sunday 08 January 2017, FaceBook asked me:  "What did you study at SOAS, University of London, MA Linguistics in 1994?"

I won't be totally redundant soon then (as a human / teacher / translator / proofreader).

(London, 2017)

Update, 12 Jan 2017:  Hahaha, another one from FaceBook:

What is your position at Spouter's Corner, Wood Green?

Team Leader
Customer Service Associate

Lecturer at a pub??

Time warp (Isle of Skye, Scotland)

On a self-drive tour of the Isle of Skye (N.W. Scotland) in 1984, I came upon a petrol station with a hand pump instead of the electric ones which had by then been in common currency for a few decades.  When I remarked on this, the owner told me that a power outage on the island a year back had seen his station inundated by drivers, as it was the only place on the whole of the Isle of Skye that could dispense petrol manually.

The shop itself was like a film-set for a 1940s film:  built-in wooden shelves lined all four walls straight up to the ceiling, sparsely stocked with tinned food and packets of dried foodstuff.

The shopkeeper was chatting to the lone customer in Gaelic, the latter’s pile of shopping sitting on the counter, with a spanking new Casio cash register machine beside it.  Since I was waiting to pay for the petrol, the shopkeeper broke off the conversation to tot up the customer’s purchases, which he did mentally, then entered the final total into the Casio.  Old habits die hard indeed.

(Isle of Skye, 1984)