Canton Eyes Guangzhou China – Culture Musings, Architecture Oddities, Urban Design

27May/105

Midnight Express is a 7-11 now

Chungking Mansion on Nathan Road

One of my favorite Asian films is the 1994 movie Chungking Express (重庆森林) by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai.  The film is popular in university film studies classes; just Google it and you can find lots of term papers analyzing endlessly. I think of it as the Asian version of Pulp Fiction because of its similarly non-traditional narrative structure.  Amazingly, they were both released in the same year; it seems some small cross-cultural movement was going on.

Using hand held camera work, choppy editing, and real locations, the film creates vivid impressions of life in urban Hong Kong.  The two main locations are Chungking Mansion and a food stall with the name Midnight Express.  Other locations include the escalators that go up the steep streets from central up to Soho neighborhood.  On a recent visit to Hong Kong, I made a point to visit some of the filming locations.

In the first half of the film, a mysterious woman in sunglasses and a blond wig is involved in a drug trafficking scheme. Chungking Mansion is the chaotic place she recruits the traffickers, who are Indian Nationals.  Today, Chungking Mansions is still there, on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui district.  It's well known among budget travelers as the cheapest place to stay in Hong Kong.  And it's still the gathering point for lots of Indian immigrants and their businesses, and now more Africans too.  The first 3 floors are a mall.  As it was in the film, the ground floor mall is occupied by money changers, cheap Indian restaurants, and lots of little shops selling electronics.  The third floor mall has gone upscale and renamed after the movie.  Above the mall pedestal are multiple tower blocks, mainly occupied by dozens of different hostels.  I stayed in a room there with a bathroom but no windows, that measured 1 meter by 3 meters.  Chungking is a hyperactive and dense place, like Hong Kong itself and more so.  In a fully developed city, there is still this pocket of the developing world allowed to exist.

So I took the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island to visit Midnight Express.  The food stall is the only connection between the two narratives of the film.  It's where two policemen stop and spend their lonely time after losing their girlfriends.  But they never actually meet.  I searched all over for the place.  Actually, I wasn't even sure if it ever existed, but I assumed so because other shooting locations in the film were real places.  I thought I stumbled on the place where it had been on an alley called Graham Street, filled with improvised semi-permanent street kitchens literally leaning against the back facade of modern skyscrapers.  But I decided that place wasn't right.   So I went to Pacific Coffee, Hong Kong's ubiquitous chain coffee shop with free internet.  After Googling it, I found an address listing and even a photo of Midnight Express in Lam Kau Fong, a popular nightclub street.

I feel kind of silly admitting that I felt very disappointed when I finally got to Midnight Express, 16 years too late.  Was I expecting to meet Faye Wong and order a Caesar Salad?  As the post title suggests, it is indeed a 7-11 convenience store now.  So I went inside and bought a Vitasoy drink.

8May/103

I’m from Saint Road Easy, Mr. Si

I hope you won't be put off by a few Chinese characters; don't worry, this is still an English blog.  I was recently surprised to discover that the China version of Google Maps (www.ditu.google.cn) is now translating foreign street names into Chinese.  Now, it's quite normal for Chinese streets to be translated into pinyin, the romanized version of Chinese sounds. In fact, almost all street signs in China include the pinyin name under the Chinese name.  This is attributed to a decision by Chairman Mao, and from many westerner's perspective this is one thing we can be grateful to him for.

Pinyin is fairly straightforward.  While there are many characters that make a particular sound, all are simplified to one pinyin word.  For example, all of the following characters would be written in pinyin as "shi": 是,时,十,事,实,施,使,什,市,史,世,式, plus about 50 more.  If you practice saying shi, you can get the sound right.

Writing Chinese street names in pinyin is one thing, translating English names to Chinese is quite another.  Translating an English name to Chinese involves choosing from many characters that might more or less approximate the syllables.  In addition, it's a plus if the character's meaning suggest something about the thing being named, or least has some positive meaning.  For example, take my hometown, Saint Louis.  Here it is...

The Chinese translation is "圣路易斯".  In pinyin the sounds are "sheng lu yi si", and the meaning suggests something like "saint road easy" and the surname "Si".  I guess that is a neutral meaning?  But the translations of major American cities have been officialized on US maps in China for many years.  Now Google has taken it upon itself to translate almost every street name.  It's really astonishing.  I'm not sure how Google is accomplishing this, but I have to assume they're using Google Translate.  The service works by using statistical analysis of previous professional translations, including UN documents, to assign a translation to words and phrases.  Take a close look at my old neighborhood:

I used to live in a 3-story brick apartment building at the corner of 拉塞尔大道 and 克姆街.  I was living in the 肖 neighborhood.  You can see that most but not all of the street names are translated.  It seems Google is assigning names to streets that have been translated previously somehow, but not to names that it can't find in it's database.  So it seems Google isn't translating each name by hand, it's happening automatically through Translate.

What are the implications of all this.  Well, it should make things easier for independent Chinese tourists.  There aren't many now, most Chinese tourists in America are part of coach tours around the Grand Canyon and San Francisco.   But give it a few years and we may see Chinese tourists wandering around the streets of Saint Road Easy Surname.  Is this the first step of the Chinese colonization of America that conspiracy theorists babble about?  Is it even really necessary, when the majority of Chinese citizens can sound out English words, even if they can't string three words together in speech?  Is ditu.google.cn available outside of china?  Have you used Google's translation of foreign street names?  Leave your thoughts.