Unlike the English, who had no qualms about the wholesale importation, where required, of words from a host of other languages, when the Chinese don’t have a word for something, they often combine existing characters to form a new word: for example, in Cantonese, a train is foh che (‘fire carriage’), leaving the way open, when motor cars first appeared, for these new monsters of the road to be called hei che (‘gas carriage’). Other concepts new to the Chinese are often named by transliterating (that is, by selecting Chinese words that are similar in sound to the equivalent English expression). Examples, again using Cantonese, include tik see (‘taxi’), bah see (‘bus’) and gar fei (‘coffee’). It can be confusing, however: foh shui (‘fire water’) is kerosene, not whisky, which is wai see kei.
It is seen as essential for foreign companies hoping to do business in Hong Kong and/or China to have a Chinese name, which is usually chosen with great care. The result can be either a disaster or a master stroke. Perhaps the best example of the former is Philip Morris. When this company moved into Hong Kong, its name was transliterated as Mo Lai See. It was badly advised: the same sound can be produced by different characters that mean ‘no lucky money’, lai see being the red packets, containing money, that are handed out during the new year period.
Coca-Cola, on the other hand, got it more than just right. However, Coke had the advantage of a product with four syllables, corresponding to the four characters in a traditional Chinese proverb. The only serious weakness in this approach is that traditional Chinese proverbs come with a back story. My own favourite is yim yee do ling (Cantonese, literally, ‘cover ear steal bell’).
The story goes that one day an itinerant beggar was walking through a village when he espied a shiny bronze bell hanging over the gateway to a house. He resolved to steal the bell, but he could foresee a problem: when he took the bell down, it would be sure to ring, thus alerting everyone in the neighbourhood that something untoward was happening. His solution was to cover his ears with a thick strip of cloth, reasoning that if he couldn’t hear the bell, it wasn’t making a sound. You can predict the rest. So how would you use this expression? If you see someone do something unutterably stupid, the appropriate response is yim yee do ling. Sadly, these four-character proverbs and their back stories are no longer taught in Hong Kong schools, and it seems likely that they aren’t taught in the rest of China either.
So what name did Coke come up with? It makes little sense in Cantonese (Ho Hau Ho Lok), but the Putonghua (Mandarin) version is remarkably close to the English in sound. It isn’t identical though, because then the company wouldn’t be able to claim that it tastes good and does you good (the literal translation is ‘good mouth (taste), good health’). I don’t think that Coke could get away with such a blatantly false claim in any Western country.
However, the most amusing aspect of transliteration is its application to people’s names. When Sir Edward Youde became governor of Hong Kong in 1982, he was given the name Yau Tak, ‘man of virtue’, but the same sounds can also serve as an answer to the question: can you swim? “Swim? Sure.” And his wife, Lady Pamela, was Pa Mei Lai, someone who keeps a suitcase packed (for a quick getaway). The first was a reference to the fact that until the so-called touch base policy was ended in 1981, most of the illegal immigrants entering Hong Kong did so by swimming across Mirs Bay, while the second referred to the uncertainty at the time over the projected handover in 1997. Whoever said that the Chinese have no sense of humour hasn’t been paying attention.