Yawning Bread. March 2006

Deaf tourists and dud names




I was boarding a bus just for a short hop of 2 stops. On a cooler day, I would have walked, but today was a scorcher. I needed to get out of the heat. So I boarded the first bus that came along, even though I wasn't familiar with its route. It didn't matter, anyway. Wherever it was going, it would have to go past my destination barely 800 metres away.

Behind me boarded a Chinese woman, about 35 to 40, who spoke to the bus driver, a young man of Indian ancestry.

"Daobudao Yalong?" she asked him, in Mandarin Chinese, also known as Putonghua.

He didn't understand her and gave her a blank look.

She repeated her question.

"What?" the bus driver asked her in return.

She repeated it again, louder and ruder. At this point, I couldn't help but turn around to give her a dirty look, as if to say, why are you being so offensive? But at the same time, I noticed the pleading expression on the driver's face, as in, help me out, will ya? Since my sympathies were already with him, I couldn't let him down, could I?

So I had to get involved, even though I had taken an instinctive dislike to the woman. There she was, looking at me for an answer. There he was, looking to me for help.

Her question, "daobudao Yalong?" I understood. It meant, "do you go to Yalong?" The problem was, where the hell was Yalong? And wherever that place was, did this bus go there?

Time stood still. My brain cells worked flat out. Finally, I figured, Yalong probably meant Geylang, an area of cheap hotels in the general direction of where the bus was heading.

There was no way for me to check my answer -- the bus was nearly empty -- and they were both still looking expectantly at me.

To hell with it, I nodded to her and she boarded the bus.

Effectively, I had told her, yes the bus would be going to Yalong even though I wasn't 100% sure where Yalong was; moreover I had no idea whether the bus was headed there. A part of me hoped it wasn't, so that the rude woman would be transported to some other part of Singapore. That would serve her right.

I got off two stops later, leaving her on her way to ya-ya land.

I was so bad.

* * * * *

24 hours later, my karma boomeranged. I was unable to put the incident out of my mind. Worse yet, it had set me thinking, which means I now have an essay to inflict upon my readers.

The fact that she spoke Putonghua to the bus driver who was patently non-Chinese suggested to me that she was probably a visitor from mainland China. She was making a mistake no Singaporean would make.

As I have mentioned in the article Here, the first thing people register is your race, Singaporeans have quite a unique habit. We first draw some conclusion about a person's race before we decide what language to use. A Singaporean would not speak to someone who looks Indian in Chinese. Generally, we would use English to him without a moment's thought.

In most other places, people use the lingua franca of their country or province regardless of the colour of the person they're speaking to, unless the person is very evidently a foreigner (e.g. a Caucasian man in Thailand). In Thailand, the Siamese use Thai when addressing people of Punjabi, Chinese or Burmese ancestry. In France, they use French to everyone, whether you're white, yellow, brown or black.

In China too, if you look Han Chinese (or East Asian), people will mostly speak to you in the provincial language first, e.g. Shanghainese or the Sichuan dialect, and if that fails, they will switch to Putonghua. If you don't look Han Chinese (e.g. if you're Egyptian or Uighur), then they will assume you're not from the locality, and they'll speak to you in Putonghua from the start. Putonghua is the lingua franca, the link language for communication across ethnic groups.

Evidently then, this woman was using Putonghua to the driver as if it were the link language or the lingua franca of Singapore. Why did she believe that?

So this set me wondering. Do our tourism marketeers tell the Chinese market that Singapore is a nice place to visit because they'll find it familiar, and they'll have no language difficulties while here? By this, do they implant in people's minds the belief that Singapore is "just like China" linguistically?

Do the Chinese perceive Singapore as an extension of the Chinese world? Do we want to be so perceived?

* * * * *

As if to prove this incident was no one-off, I recalled that barely 2 weeks earlier, a family group with a map in hand stopped me to ask for directions. Both the husband and wife spoke simultaneously, and both posed the question to me in Cantonese.

Clearly they were from Hong Kong, but what was really strange to me was how they evidently hadn't fully realised they were not in Hong Kong anymore. It would take no more than 30 minutes in downtown Singapore to notice that our linguistic landscape is different. Here, the primary languages would be English and Mandarin; a whole week might pass before you overheard anyone speaking Cantonese.

Our street chatter should have been enough to tell them that if they needed to ask for directions, they shouldn't open with Cantonese as it is not a language commonly used here. It would be foolish to do so as the chances of finding someone able to understand it would be slim. Yet they did. Were they deaf to their surroundings? Was the presumption that this is a "Chinese city" blocking out a more objective appraisal of where they were in?

It is remarkable how deaf people can be to their environment. Again and again, we see tourists go from place to place chattering among themselves, with little curiosity about what they're seeing or hearing.

Oh, isn't this cute? Let's take a photo beside it.

* * * * *

I would have thought that the sensible thing to do when travelling would be to learn a few simple phrases in that country's lingua franca, if nothing else, at least an establishing opener, as in "excusez-moi, parlez-vous Anglais?"

Using that, one would find someone to whom one could then put a more complicated enquiry. At the very least, that would be polite and more likely effective than presuming that the first person you meet would share your tongue.

It doesn't take more than an afternoon and a phrase book to learn 20 phrases before jetting off somewhere. But evidently, there are lots of people on this earth to whom this is a far-out idea.

* * * * *

The other thing that got me thinking was Yalong. It's bad enough that Chinese tourists don't realise that English is the common platform in Singapore, it gets worse when our city planners themselves are going about their jobs with little critical thought. The way we translate our place names into Chinese doesn't help at all.

Take Yalong. Everybody in Singapore knows that district as Geylang (pronounced "gay" + "lahng", where the vowel in the second syllable is "ah"). If the Chinese tourist had said to the Indian bus driver, "daobudao Geylang?" he would probably have been able to guess that that was where she wanted to go.

All she needed to do was to pronounce the district name the same way that all Singaporeans do. Instead, she said, "daobudao Yalong", and the reason she did that was because the Mandarin pronunciation of the Chinese characters was "yalong".

Now, why is the Chinese version so different, to the extent that it hinders rather than helps communication?


At this point, a history of Geylang's name needs to be recounted. It's an old name, predating the arrival of the British in 1819. This means its origin was almost surely from the Orang Laut people who inhabited this island before the empire-builders came ashore.

The Chinese immigrants, of whom a plurality were Hokkien (from the Xiamen region of Fujien province) [1], learnt the name of the area from the original inhabitants and they too pronounced it as "geylang". In written form, the Chinese found two ideograms, which in the Hokkien pronunication sound like "gay lahng". Thus, so long as one pronounced the Chinese ideograms using the Hokkien dialect, it came out right.

Then we decided to get rid of Chinese dialects insisting that all Chinese characters should be pronounced the putonghua way. Thus, those same two ideograms had to be pronounced as "ya long" ("yah" + "long", where the second syllable is a long "oh").

Meanwhile, Singaporeans continued to know the place as Geylang, and even when we speak Mandarin, we insert the place name into our sentences without mutating its pre-existing pronunciation. It doesn't have to be a Chinese name to fit into a Chinese sentence, just like how Australians might say, "we're off to Joondalup", knowing full well that "joondalup" is from a native language.

The result is that some Singaporeans, otherwise fluent in Mandarin, do not know that Yalong is Geylang, since they never say "Yalong".

So why are we giving tourists the idea that the place is called Yalong, when many Singaporeans don't know it by that name? Why do our tourist maps label the place as Yalong?

* * * * *

When we visit a foreign city and we want to be understood, we try our best to pronounce street and district names the way the locals pronounce them. Otherwise, we may not get any help.

Our tourism officials and city planners clearly haven't thought the problem through. Their job should be helping visitors to learn the local pronunciation of place names here rather than giving fanciful names in different languages, for by doing so, they make things worse.

To begin with, there is no consistent way of transcribing non-Chinese place names into Chinese.

Sometimes, as seen in the case of Geylang, they take an existing dialect transliteration and keep the same Chinese characters even though, when pronounced in Mandarin, it doesn't sound at all like what Singaporeans call the place.

Other times, the names are newly transliterated, that is to say, the sound is captured in similar-sounding Mandarin Chinese characters.

For example Tampines (pronounced "Tampi-nees") is rendered "Danbinni" in Mandarin. This is fairly close.

But sometimes it is not. Dhoby Ghaut (pronounced "doh-bee-gort") is made into "duomeige" (pronounced "dwor-may-ger") in Chinese. Many people will not hear any similarity between the two.

Other times, we don't transliterate the sound, but translate the meaning, and badly too.

City Hall metro station is translated into "zhengfu daxia", which as you can see sounds nothing like "city hall". It doesn't even mean "city hall". It means "government mansion". Once I was so stumped I kept asking the person, "which government building do you want to go to, there are so many?"

Commonwealth metro station is translated as "lianbang". Again it sounds nothing like "commonwealth", nor does it even mean that. "Lianbang" means "federal".

Harbourfront metro station is translated into "gangwan", which means "harbour bay". Marina Bay metro station is translated into "binhaiwan" which means "seafront bay". This is confusion waiting to happen. Tourists will complain that Singaporeans are totally unhelpful, but they won't realise that it's simply because we ourselves don't know what the Chinese names refer to!

We should not encourage our visitors to use names that we ourselves don't use. Esoteric Chinese names should not appear on maps. Only exact transliterations.

In Shanghai, for example, there's a major road called Xietu Lu. Literally, it means "sloping earth road", but no map says that. They all say "Xietu Lu", and you know you ought to pronounce it like that even if you can't speak Chinese. 

In Bangkok, the road names Witthayu and Silom mean, respectively "wireless" and "windmill". But we'd be a fool to get on board a taxi and say, "take me to Windmill Road", or "take me to Wireless Road", using the translation of the meaning of the Thai words. We'd say "Silom" or "Witthayu" as close as possible to the way Thais say it. We'd think it useless to have a map in hand that marks the roads as Windmill Road and Wireless Road.

Yet, Singapore produces maps like this for our city. We mark a place as Yalong when everybody knows it as Geylang. We mark a station as "Gangwan" when everybody -- even when we're yabbering away in Chinese -- calls it Harbourfront.

Yawning Bread 


English name: Geylang (pronounced "gay" + "lahng", where the second vowel sounds like "ah")

Chinese name:

In Hokkien, these two characters are pronounced "gay lahng". But Hokkien is considered illegitimate in Singapore.

In Putonghua, these two characters are pronounced "yah long", where the second syllable sounds like "oh".



  1. To get a better perspective on Mandarin/Putonghua and other Chinese dialects/languages, see the 1998 article Mandarin and the Southern Chinese
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  1. An tale from a reader:
    Thought I would share with you an experience I had at Changi Airport that made me think of the above essay that you wrote recently.

    I was at the SingPost outlet in Terminal 1. I've stopped there a few times prior to recent trips and usually there is the same older Malay lady behind the counter (and quite over worked too I may add; she's usually there by herself with a line of people claiming they are about to miss their plane). This lady wears a head dress.

    On line in front of me was a man and woman from China who looked to be in their early 20s. Before the person in front of them was done transacting, the woman started asking the SingPost lady a long rapid question, in Mandarin. It sounded like a long run on sentence that went on for 30 seconds.

    The expression on the Malay lady's face was if she was looking at a space alien, and I don't blame her. She then asked "Do you speak English?" to which the lady from China said "yes" and then repeated her question in excellent English.
    I can understand that in China, the natives would use Mandarin even with foreigners, as it is the lingua franca as you discussed. Why would thy use it with such an obviously non-Chinese person? Perhaps the answer to your question "Do the Chinese perceive Singapore as an extension of the Chinese world?" is 'yes'?