English, the Shang­hainese way

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My grand­fa­ther was raised in a fam­ily of farm­ers in Shang­hai but his first job was as an ac­coun­tant in a store in Yuyuan Gar­den, a tourist hotspot. Ev­ery day, he would lis­ten to dozens of for­eign cus­tomers and col­leagues speak English and this re­sulted in him form­ing his own adap­ta­tion, or a pid­gin — a sim­pli­fied ver­sion of a lan­guage. He, and many other se­nior Shang­hainese cit­i­zens, dubbed this pid­gin “Yang Jing Bang English”.

Yang Jing Bang was a small river lo­cated on the borders of the for­mer French Con­ces­sion and the Shang­hai In­ter­na­tional Set­tle­ment which were founded dur­ing the mid 19th cen­tury when the gov­ern­ment of the Qing dy­nasty (1644-1911) lost the bat­tle and was forced to open some of its port cities to Western coun­tries.

The small river was later trans­formed into a road near what is known as The Bund to­day. Since then, the place be­came a trad­ing cen­ter where busi­ness­men from var­i­ous coun­tries gath­ered to bar­gain, and this even­tu­ally gave birth to a spe­cial Shang­hai-style English named af­ter Yang Jing Bang. As time passed, this pid­gin be­came pop­u­lar in other parts of Shang­hai, es­pe­cially among peo­ple whose jobs re­quired much in­ter­ac­tion with for­eign­ers.

Apart from these in­stances of so­cially-ma­nip­u­lated English, the lan­guage has ac­tu­ally be­come more pop­u­lar over the past two cen­turies in a for­mal way. Shang­hai was, af­ter all, once home to the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar English daily — The North China Daily News – which was es­tab­lished by a Bri­tish busi­ness­man named Henry Shear­man in 1864. It is rec­og­nized as the city’s first mod­ern news­pa­per. It closed in 1951.

Since Shang­hai was forced to open its doors to the out­side world in 1853, the city has be­come ever more tol­er­ant, or even wel­com­ing, to the in­flux of for­eign cul­ture. More­over, Shang­hai has al­ways pos­sessed an un­canny abil­ity to di­gest these new cul­tures be­fore blend­ing it with its own and giv­ing birth to a new style called haipai (Shang­hai style).

In the 1930s, Shang­hai peo­ple were so cap­ti­vated by Hol­ly­wood movies that the city quickly de­vel­oped its own movie in­dus­try and a batch of su­per stars. Shang­hai women then started to draw in­spi­ra­tion from Western fash­ion icons and re­fined their Chi­nese tra­di­tional robes by adding de­tails to the col­lars and waist ar­eas. In terms of gas­tron­omy, the clas­sic French dessert of eclairs was some­how trans­formed into the Shang­hai dim sum hadou, which has since be­come a sig­na­ture dish in Shang­hai cui­sine.

With Shang­hai widely rec­og­nized as the na­tion’s lead­ing city in terms of econ­omy and so­phis­ti­ca­tion, Shang­hainese peo­ple are tra­di­tion­ally rather ar­ro­gant and they like to dis­play their sense of su­pe­ri­or­ity to peo­ple from other prov­inces. They are fiercely proud of their rep­u­ta­tion for keep­ing their word, and un­like other parts of China where the terms and con­di­tions of busi­ness deal­ings are some­times shrouded in am­bi­gu­ity, Shang­hai busi­ness­men are sys­tem­atic, pedan­tic, and have a healthy re­spect for the rules.

Shang­hai peo­ple also use lan­guage to ex­press this pride — they of­ten in­sist on speak­ing their own di­alect in­stead of Pu­tonghua or man­darin while English be­comes a pop­u­lar for­eign lan­guage. This ex­plains why Shang­hai’s younger gen­er­a­tions some­times use an English word or two when they are chat­ting with fel­low com­pa­tri­ots.

In the satir­i­cal novel Fortress Be­sieged, the au­thor Qian Zhong­shu de­scribes a Shang­hai white col­lar worker named Jimmy Chang as some­one who likes to sprin­kle his Chi­nese with mean­ing­less English ex­pres­sions such as “go down­town”, “have a look see”, or “plenty of dough”.

“It wasn’t that he had any new ideas that were dif­fi­cult to ex­press in Chi­nese…The English words in his speech could be com­pared with the meat piece in­laid in one’s teeth to show he had a rich meal, oth­er­wise, it is to­tally use­less,” wrote Qian.

There is, truth to this.

So don’t be sur­prised if you sud­denly hear an English word mut­tered by some­one con­vers­ing in Shang­hainese. Just like other bits of cul­ture, the Shang­hai di­alect has sub­sumed many Yang Jing Bang English words of the past.

For ex­am­ple, an old-fash­ioned gen­tle­man is at times called “old classy”; a team leader can be jok­ingly re­ferred to as “Num­ber One”; some­one who is a miser is called “on sale”; a silly per­son is “a moron”; a woman with loose mo­rals is la­beled a “lassie”; poor peo­ple are deemed “begsay”. My fa­vorite one is “love me” — it ac­tu­ally means “over­cooked noo­dles”.

per­haps, much


The North-China Daily News,

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