English, the Shanghainese way
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”.
The North-China Daily News,