Post-war Hong Kong and British bank cheques

I’m currently part way through David Graeber’s book ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years‘ and stumbled upon an interesting Hong Kong-related titbit.

Neon lights in Wan Chai, Hong Kong

Relating to IOUs between people, Graeber regales a story told to him.

The anthropologist Keith Hart once told me a story about his brother, who in the ’50s was a British soldier stationed in Hong Kong. Soldiers used to pay their bar tabs by writing cheques on accounts back in England. Local merchants would often simply endorse them over to each other and pass them around as currency: once, he saw one of his own cheques, written six months before, on the counter of a local vendor covered with about forty different tiny inscriptions in Chinese.

Imagine the same thing happening today!

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Confusing ‘L’ with ‘N’ on Nathan Road

I’ve visited Hong Kong a number of times with my father, and every time he talks about Nathan Road (the main street of Kowloon) I hear ‘Leighton’ instead of ‘Nathan’ – leaving me horribly confused until I realise what he is actually saying. So why is an apparently simple street name so complicated?

Looking north up Nathan Road

The Center for Language Education at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has this useful fact sheet on how native Cantonese speakers mispronounce English words:

Common Pronunciation Problems for Cantonese Speakers

This leaflet provides information on why pronunciation problems may occur and specific sounds in English that Cantonese speakers may have difficulty with.

Pronunciation problems happen when speaking a second language because most people are used to hearing and making sounds which only exist in their mother tongue.

There are many sounds in Cantonese and English that are similar. Some however, are only partially similar and others are totally different. When you hear or are trying to say the partially similar or totally different sounds, it’s easy to make mistakes because you are used to hearing and making sounds in your mother tongue.

The particular sound that causes the ‘Leighton’ / ‘Nathan’ confusion is the [l] consonant:

/l/ and /n/ both exist in Cantonese at the beginning of words but in Cantonese you can use both sounds for the same word without changing the meaning. You can, for example, say the word for ‘you’ in Cantonese using either the /l/ sound or the /n/ sound. If you do this to English words you get a different meaning. If you change the word: ‘light’ to ‘night’, the meaning is quite different. It’s important therefore to be careful of this when you speak English. The main difference between /l/ and /n/ is that, in making /l/, air escapes through the mouth, but in making /n/, air escapes through the nose.

Merging the /l/ and /n/ sounds when speaking Cantonese is also a thing, but is considered a “lazy sound” by traditionalists.

Some history on Nathan Road

Nathan Road was the first road built in Kowloon, with the first section completed in 1861. It was originally named Robinson Road, but to avoid confusion with the road of the same name on Hong Kong Island, in 1909 it was renamed in honour of 13th Governor of Hong Kong Sir Matthew Nathan.

Further reading on the /l/ /n/ confusion

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TV commercial for the 1997 launch of the Octopus card

Way back in 1997 the Octopus card system was introduced to Hong Kong, providing a fast and easy way for passengers to pay their train, tram and bus fares.

Teaching passengers how to use the new system is an essential part of the rollout, so to get the message across, television commercials such as this one were produced:

A five year old boy describes how to use the new system:

  • touch the card to the turnstile
  • it works through a plastic sleeve or leather wallet
  • if you run out of money, head to the ‘Add Value’ machine
  • just insert your card and the money, push ‘OK’ and then retrieve your card
  • it’s that simple!

And in the process, manages to outsmart his father. 😛

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Chinese airports and ‘International, HK, Macao and Taiwan Departures’

Naming the terminals at most airports is easy – flights inside your country use the ‘domestic’ terminal, and flights to other countries use the ‘international’ terminal. But at the airports in and around China, things get a little more complicated.

Overview of the terminal at Hong Kong International Airport

Hong Kong International Airport says it all in the name – as the only airport in Hong Kong, it doesn’t have any domestic flights.

Cathay Pacific A330 B-LAH on arrival at Hong Kong

But across the border in Mainland China, the word games start at the international terminal, where the signs read ‘International, HK, Macao and Taiwan Departures’.

'International, HK, Macao and Taiwan Departures' board at Beijing Airport

The reason for Hong Kong and Macao being singled out is their status as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China – under the One China, Two Systems principle they have their own separate passports, customs territory, and immigration policies.

As a result, any resident of Mainland China can’t just walk onto a flight to Hong Kong or Macau – they need to apply for a ‘People’s Republic of China Exit-Entry Permit for Travelling to and from Hong Kong and Macau’ before they are allowed out of the country.

'International & Hong Kong / Macau / Taiwan Departures' sign at Xi'an Airport

While Taiwan is an even more complex situation – the Republic of China of the island of Taiwan consider themselves a sovereign nation, while the People’s Republic of China considers the island a renegade province.

A side effect of this mutual repudiation of nationhood is that the two countries refuse to accept each other’s passports, so any Taiwan Nationals arriving into mainland China have to apply for a special ‘Mainland Travel Permit for Taiwan Residents’, and mainland Chinese headed in the reverse direction have to apply for a Republic of China ‘Exit & Entry Permit’.

'Travel Document for Taiwan Residents' sign on arrival in China

Clear as mud?

Further reading

Wikipedia has more detail on the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China and the One China, Two Systems policy they are subject to.

It also has a primer on the political status of Taiwan, and more about the tongue twisters that are the ‘People’s Republic of China Exit-Entry Permit for Travelling to and from Hong Kong and Macau‘, ‘Mainland Travel Permit for Taiwan Residents‘, and Republic of China Exit & Entry Permit.

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Avoid the traffic chaos, and ride the MTR

One of the benefits of riding Hong Kong’s MTR is avoiding the traffic chaos back at ground level – something that the MTR used to great advantage during this advertising campaign from 1991.

No getting stuck at red lights.

No inching forward inch by inch in traffic onboard a public light bus.

And no watching your taxi fare climb higher and higher.

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