Header image courtesy of Ko Tim-keung (via Hong Kong Memory)
Hong Kong’s rich history leaves its footsteps in the city’s objects and people. While it is easy to turn to the internet and the library to look up information, the tales of cities are always more fascinating when unravelled through existing legacies. Perhaps you already know of a few notable examples off the top of your head: the Clock Tower, Western Market, Victoria Prison, and its likes—and the value in all of these historic legacies lies in the collision of quiescence and vibrancy. While they silently front the city through a time-lapsed lens, they simultaneously speak loudly about its history and give us a glimpse of what society looked like back then.
Heritage is arguably the most significant part of any society, as there will never be a ‘present’ without a ‘past.’ For Hong Kong, such a transition is perhaps most well-put in its stories of translation. Every part of our city will be able to show you how it straddles two languages, as well as the way it bridges two significantly different cultures. Over the course of a hundred years, the topic of change still lingers in Hong Kong. Such change is not futile, but substantial—after all, the connection with a homeland is what defines one’s identity. And what better embodies the substantial changes of Hong Kong than the streets we step foot on every day?
People change, cultures change, languages change. It is our geographical landscape that remains constant, one that testifies to all other changes. If streets could speak, some of them would perhaps be interested to learn how and why their Chinese and English names differ so drastically. Little would they know, though, just how much these differences embody Hongkongers’ state of mind: lost in translation. Get a glimpse into five streets that unfold whimsical tales of how meanings differ in English and Cantonese.
One of the earliest roads in Hong Kong as an open port was, in fact, an eccentric translation error regarding Queen Victoria. Before claiming its position as an open port, Hong Kong was known as “a barren rock.”
In 1842, its main thoroughfare was officially named as Queen’s Road. And while we are all acquainted with the fact that Queen Victoria was indeed the monarch, this information falters in the Chinese translation of Queen’s Road. Translated as 皇后街 (wong hau gai), it denotes a sense of dependence on the king, indicating that the queen is not a monarch in nature.
In some sense, this translation mirrors the contrasting political cultures in Britain and China. In the former, having an empress as a monarch is well-acknowledged and celebrated. While patriarchy arguably underpins most cultures, it prevails quite severely in Chinese culture. Over the span of 4,000-plus years, there had been merely one Chinese empress: Wu Zetian. All others were dowager empresses. This deep-rooted discrimination perhaps explains the translation of Queen’s Road, where the individual authority of the queen is disregarded and instead assimilated as a dependent figure to the king.
The story behind the Chinese name of Sycamore Street is a beautiful collision of two languages. Situated in Tai Kok Tsui, Sycamore Street is part of a bigger family tree that includes neighbouring Elm Street, Beech Street, and Pine Street, all named after plants. While most of these street names were translated according to their Chinese equivalent, Sycamore Street was gracefully conceived of a colourful anthropological meaning that is quite the opposite of its botanical reference.
It is said that “sycamore’ was to be translated to 無花果 (mou fa gwo), the Chinese word for the fig. Unwittingly, the word “無” denotes nothingness while the second character “花” means flower—the literal meaning opposes the very definition of fruitfulness! From a Chinese perspective, augury seeps through language and its meanings are treated with the utmost severity. This is why Sycamore Street is translated as 詩歌舞街 (si go mou gaai), a beautiful name that is literally translated as “Poetry, Song, and Dance Street”—the most primal human forms of celebration. What underpins this sense of celebration is the search for fortune. To combat the vacuous undertones in the Chinese word for “fig,” translators took an opposite turn to adorn this street with as much vibrancy and livelihood as possible.
While Minden Row sounds perfectly ordinary, you may be surprised to know that it has an extraordinarily cultivated Chinese name—the country Myanmar. Minden Row was named after a town in Germany, where the Battle of Minden of 1759 took place. Before the First World War, there came an inflow of residents from Germany residing in the place known as Tsim Sha Tsui now.
It certainly seems conventional to translate the street according to what it sounds like in Cantonese—and in fact, it did so, but in a rather unorthodox way. Instead of being translated into something that would remind you of its German origins, the Chinese name of Minden Row is a little farfetched, bearing the same name as the country Myanmar instead. 緬甸 (min din) greatly resembles the English pronunciation of Minden, despite having little to no semantic significance to the German town.
Similar to Sycamore Street, Aldrich Street’s translative story is an imaginative intertwinement of English and Cantonese. In 1842, Major Aldrich arrived in Hong Kong to assist military operations, such as planning the framework for Hong Kong during the earliest of its colonial period. One of the things Major Aldrich became known for was his stern precision to rectify the British soldiers. It is said that the morale of British soldiers back then was low due to the climatic difference between their home country and Hong Kong. Major Aldrich took up the role to remedy disciplinary issues and succeeded.
Now, have a guess what the Chinese translation is for Aldrich Street—愛秩序 (oi dit jeui). Yes, it literally means “loving discipline.” The most engrossing aspect of this mirroring of languages is perhaps the fact that it is not only semantically sensible but also phonologically. “Aldrich” and “愛秩序” align fairly well in both aspects, and even without prior understanding of the street’s backstory, the biliteracy immediately evokes an imaginative look at the inspiration behind the name.
This tiny lane is enough to paint a picture of the early stages of British colonisation. Upon their arrival on Possession Street in 1841, the British navy set up barracks in Sai Ying Pun. Established in Sheung Wan, Pound Lane then was where the British navy kept and fed horses and mules for logistical value. While a “pound” is mostly known as a measuring unit and a currency, it is also used to refer to a place where pets that are lost or not wanted are kept.
As you may have known or guessed, the Chinese translation steered the wheel to its most commonly comprehended meaning—pound as a measuring unit, 磅 (bong). In all honesty, perhaps none would have questioned just how differently “pound” meant in the olden context. That way, the translation of Pound Lane hardly stands out in the pool of whimsical street name translations and gives a sense of total lucidity.
Existing long before Victoria City, Pound Lane served military operations in the first place, and to some, it was part of Hong Kong’s birth as a city. If you understand the history behind Pound Lane, your sojourn in Sheung Wan will carry you through time—when this small part of Hong Kong Island was once where the horses trotted and the soldiers marched. The same concrete, but a different day.