Fascinating Old Handbook for Chinese Heading Overseas

In Chinese, hello is 你好。 What? Can’t read characters? Just say knee-how (or nǐhǎo1, nixao2 or niihao3).

What about the reverse, though? How do Chinese learn English if they can’t read Latin alphabets? Can you use characters, instead? Can “Hello” be written as 河罗 (héluō4). Can “Who is he?” be spelled out as “夫,衣寺,希” (fu hu, yī sì, xī or “Husband clothes temple hope”)?

Back in 1912, someone tried just this. A remarkable book was published for southern Chinese heading to the US and Canada. It’s called “Half-Chinese, Half-Western English” (半唐番英语), and I recently managed to track down a few pages, hidden in a small museum in rural Guangdong. And it’s amazing.

“Shut the door” becomes “Mistake! Ground lots” (失!地多). A spittoon is “Scholar must through” (士必通). And the simple command, “Bring it here” becomes the convoluted dadaist poem, “Cloth, collar, throat, hope, Asia” (布。领,咽,希亚).

Below are some pix. The characters are traditional, and they’re meant to be pronounced with a Guangdong — or maybe a Taishan (aka Toisan or Chinatown) — accent. (Can anyone who speaks them tell me which?)

By the way, if you want some more amazing Chinese language info, don’t miss The World of Chinese Magazine. We love it…

And the book was in the back of the Chikan Old Museum, in Chikan, Guangdong. An amazing spot.

1. Pinyin romanization system
2. Xinwenzi romanization system
3. Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system
4. The River Luo

4 thoughts on “Fascinating Old Handbook for Chinese Heading Overseas”

  1. In the south of china, they swap f’s and h’s (when speaking mandarin) so ‘fu yisi xi’ is actually ‘hu yisi xi’, which sounds perfectly like ‘Who is he?’. Well, almost.

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