Punning with Shrimp and Fish 「蝦不掩魚」

There is a great columnist in Taiwan, Chou Wei-hang, who goes under the nickname 「人渣文本」 (Scum Text), often featured in magazines in Taiwan. Always a column to look out for. I was reading a particularly scathing article he wrote ripping into Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), when I came across this cool pun, which harkens back to one of my previous posts 「無魚,蝦也好」:


Ho Nuan-hsuan fired one of the union air hostesses for damaging China Airlines’ image. Does the New Tide faction (within the DPP) think that he did a good job?  Does Tuan Yi-kang (DPP Legislator) think he did a good job? Does Cheng Wen-Tsan (Taoyuan Mayor for DPP) think he did a good job? Cheng Yun-Peng (DPP Legislator), you highly recommended Ho Nuan-hsuan (as chairperson of China Airlines), why don’t you evaluate his performance after taking the job? A small blemish doesn’t spoil jade? Shrimp doesn’t spoil fish? It’s both foolish and blind?

The author takes the common idiom 「瑕不掩瑜?」 (xia2bu4yan3yu2), meaning literally that “one blemish doesn’t spoil the jade” and figuratively that just because there are disadvantages to something, doesn’t mean that they aren’t great overall. He then substitutes the 「瑕」(xia2) meaning “flaw” for 「蝦」(xia1) meaning “shrimp/prawn”, and 「瑜」 (yu2) meaning the “lustre of jade” for “魚” (yu2) meaning “fish”.

Now the phrase reads, “shrimp cannot spoil the fish”, and this is a nod to the Taiwanese phrase 「無魚,蝦也好」 (bô hî, hê mā ho):

Although this phrase was originally used to indicate “Something is better than nothing”, here it is used to mock the idea that you can replace something good with something lesser and still claim to be great overall. Here it particularly refers to the way politicians and others step down from their campaign promises with less appetizing versions of policies. This is a similar usage to the one I pointed out in Li Ang’s novel chronicling the breakdown of idealism and misogyny of the opposition activists that eventually formed the DPP:


As no normal women [Lin Hui-shu is the product of a mixed marriage between a mainland soldier and an aboriginal woman] dared to be associated with Chen Ying-jun, he really didn’t have much choice, and as, Lin Hui-shu was really quite attractive, the two quickly entered into a relationship.


Although some of his political prisoner comrades joked with him that he was really scraping the bottom of the barrel, most admired him with a little bit of jealousy mixed in.

Riffing again on the “yu2” and “xia1” sounds, he adds the phrase 「又愚又瞎」, where 「愚」 (yu2), meaning “foolish”, is a homophone of 「魚」 (and 「瑜」) and 「瞎」(xia1) is a homophone of 「蝦」 (and a near homophone of 「瑕」xia2).


Pimp My Characters: 衚衕, 666 and 爆改


Photo by Ivan Walsh, licensed under Creative Commons

Saw a cute variant of 「胡同」 (hutongs – traditional Beijing alleys) in a news article that caught my eye:


The headline translates to:

“Beijing Hutongs are too rustic, a group of foreigners spent four years pimping out a spicy soup shop, a butcher’s and a traditional board games room… the results were amazing”

I thought the use of 「爆改」(bao4gai3) as an equivalent to “pimp” as in “pimp my ride” was interesting, as well as the use of the slang term 「666」(liu4liu4liu4), used to stand in for 「溜溜溜」(liu1liu1liu1). Although 「溜」 is conventionally used for “skating” or “slippy”, here it’s used as slang for “with great and practiced skill”.

The news article has pictures of the designs here if you’re interested.

「ㄆㄨㄣ(潘)系列」 Swill, leftovers, rice water and other delicacies

When browsing a few of the Chinese-language posts that come up on my Facebook feed, I saw the following (public) post from China Times journalist Feng Kuang-yuan:

The first section of the post reads as follows:





Yesterday I was discussing something with my daughter
This was whether or not we should plan out a menu for our house
That way, if guests visit
We can offer them a choice of dishes

We both thought this was a good idea
So we started to think of different sections for the menu
I was thinking of things like a range of hamburgers, of omelettes, of pasta
But the first range she mentioned was
a range of leftovers

I found an article in the ET Today from 2014 which helped explain the meaning of the Taiwanese word 「ㄆㄨㄣ」 (pun/phun). It explains that Chinese character (本字) associated with the term is the popular surname 「潘」 (Pān in Mandarin), which originally meant “the water leftover after washing rice”. The term can now be used to refer to leftover foods or kitchen waste that is normally used to feed pigs, so another translation might be “swill” or 「餿水 sou1shui3」(food waste) in Mandarin.

This definition is also featured in the MOE Taiwanese dictionary as below:


The character is pronounced “phun” (Click through to hear).

The ET Today article came out in the midst of the gutter oil scandals and apparently kids surnamed 「潘」 were teased at the time, being called 「ㄆㄨㄣ小孩」. Kids can be so cruel. A Taiwanese teacher cited in the article, suggested that an alternative character be invented to represent the word to avoid embarrassment for all the Mr and Miss Swills out there. He advocated the combination of the food radical 「食」 alongside 「賁」 (bēn in Mandarin). Although the latter means “energetic” on its own, he suggested it because it makes up the right part of the character 「噴」 (pēn in Mandarin), which means “to spray or spurt”:


Afternote (Nov. 16, 2017): 饙 fēn (to steam rice) is in fact already a character, so in this case the Taiwanese teacher cited in the ET Today article is suggesting borrowing this character for a new purpose, rather than creating a new character.

泊車 paak3 che1 English interpreted through Cantonese to Mandarin – Parking


Parking Lot APP CEO Ronald Yu (second from left)

I recently attended a conference in Taipei at which the CEO of parking app 「停車大聲公」 (ParkingLotApp) Roland Yu (余致緯) described his company’s transition from a mobile-based valet parking application to an app that provides information to drivers on cheap and convenient parking spots near their destination where they can park themselves, allowing them to pre-book times and check availability. It was an interesting question and answer session and I’ll go into it in more depth in the IP Observer later this month.

What interested me in terms of language, however, was that although his app bears the word 「停車」 (ting2che1), meaning “to park”, Ronald kept using the word “pa車” during his speech.

During his brief introduction to his business, he mentioned that he’d written an article online detailing his company’s transition. On inspection of this, I found that he’s used the term 「泊車」, which although looks temptingly like 「怕」 is pronounced “bo2che1”. So why was he pronouncing it “pa”?

Continue reading

Responding Passive Aggressively to Passive Aggressive Note Posting: A Guide

Classic example here of tearing up a note, but leaving it up to show the person what you think of their message (there was a trash can just beside the elevator).


We’ve used the latest digital methods to enhance and reconstruct the original note as below:


The note reads:

「請不要將廚餘、垃圾放在地上」 (Please don’t put kitchen waste or rubbish on the ground)

Note: I did not take any part in the writing or tearing of this note

‘Door’ by Chiang Hsun 蔣勳的「門」


門                                                                  Door

開,或者關                                                   Open, or shut

都可以                                                           It can be both
有時候是阻擋                                                Sometimes it obstructs
有時候是歡迎                                                Sometimes it welcomes

進,或者出                                                   Entry, or exit
都可以                                                           It can be both

它真正的意思                                               It’s real meaning
只是通過                                                       Is just passing through

This is a nice little poem from author and poet Chiang Hsun (蔣勳). He was born in Xi’an in 1947, and moved to Taiwan with his family in the wake of the Chinese Civil War. He had some involvement with the anarchist movement in France while studying abroad there and supported the democracy movement in Taiwan while working as a professor on his return to Taiwan.

The curious case of 「開嘜」

I was at my bus stop this morning when I saw this sign on a shop that pricked my curiosity:


The first bit is the classic shaven ice dish that’s very popular in Taiwan 「剉冰」(Mandarin cuo4bing1), almost always referred to by its Taiwanese pronunciation: chhoah冰

(Side note, you should definitely try this place if you want some pretty stylized shaven ice – 路地 氷の怪物 (Street Ice Monsters) – there are two in Taichung and one in Taipei)



Anyway, it was the second two characters that intrigued me more: 「開嘜」.

Looking online I found several examples of its usage, but they all seemed to point to a different meaning, referring to starting filming or broadcasting. One of my friends suggested that 「嘜」 is short for 「麥克風」, a borrowing from the English microphone, with an additional mouth radical to emphasize the difference from the original meaning of 「麥」, “wheat”. So in this sense it would be something similar to where the director shouts “rolling” on a film shoot, referring to when the sound starts getting recorded.

This meaning is suggested by the Executive Yuan’s Youtube channel, titled 「行政院開麥啦」 (notice the 口 in front of 麥 isn’t included), translating roughly to “The Executive Yuan start broadcasting”.

Likewise with this article on the broadcasting of judicial proceedings: 「司法,開嘜啦!」.

This doesn’t really help us with the sign at the bus stop, however, and it’s most likely that the character 「嘜」 `(mai4 ㄇㄞˋ) is just standing in for its homonym 「賣」(mai4 ㄇㄞˋ), although I’m not exactly sure why. It could just be to attract attention or for comedic effect. If anyone has a better suggestion, feel free to put it out there in the comments section.


‘Rainy Night’ by Hsieh Wu-chang 謝武彰的「下雨的晚上」


下雨的晚上                             On a rainy night
看不見星星和月亮                  The stars and the moon can’t be seen
他們也跟我們一樣                  Just like us
被媽媽關在屋子裡                 They’ve been shut up in their rooms by their mother
要等雨停了                             And have to wait for the rain to stop
才可以出來玩                         Until they can come out to play

Although this poem is from a children’s poet, which may explain its simplistic language, I have to admit I’m not a fan of talking down to kids and it’s not my favourite.

Hsieh Wu-chang (1950-) is a children’s author and poet. He previously worked in advertising and as an editor.

Ay Chung Flour-Rice Noodles and their Passive Aggressive Neighbours


Photo credit: Chi-Hung Lin

Although not to everyone’s taste, this noodle shop is one of the most well-known in Taipei and you’ll have to line up in a quick-moving queue to get your order in. As i was waiting for my friend to get his order, I noticed these signs on the pillar that separates the store from its neighbour:


As well as the English-language sign on the left which states rather directly: “Don’t eat noodle here”, there’s a Chinese-language sign on the right. For those lacking super vision, here’s the enlarged version:


This sign reads as follows:


Compatriots who are fans of flour noodles, don’t let your rubbish fall on the ground. Don’t cause people problems, thanks!

Although the word 「同胞」 technically means simply “compatriots”, it is frequently used by people on both side of the Taiwan Strait to refer to the other side, more frequent when Chinese people refer to Taiwanese people.

For example, the permit (as their passports aren’t officially recognized) that Taiwanese people have to get to enter Mainland China are called 「台胞證」(Taiwan Compatriot Permit) a more casual way of referring to the 「台灣居民來往大陸通行證」 (Permit to allow residents of Taiwan freedom of passage to and from Mainland China).

In my mind this suggested that the sign was probably aimed primarily at Mainland Chinese tourists, many of whom visit the noodle shop while in Taipei.

Flowery Wordplay 「我想要兩朵花」

My manager at work brought me back a little souvenir from her holiday in Singapore – a coin purse with a joke on it:


The joke plays on the two meanings of 「花」 which means “flower” when used as a noun and “to spend” when used as a verb. As Singapore uses simplified characters, you’ll notice the characters are all in simplified form:


This literally translates to

“I want two flowers: to have money to spend, and to be able to spend it however I want!”

So 「有銭花」 and 「随便花」 are jokingly posited as the two kinds of flowers referred to in the first sentence, while they actually mean “having money to spend” and “being able to spend it how one likes”.