Hong Kong Names Theater “Xiqu Center,” Local Residents Ask What The Hell?

Xiqu Center Hong Kong

The Hong Kong government has recently been criticized by Internet users for using a Putonghua (common tongue Mandarin) term in its new Chinese opera theater’s English name. Instead of giving it an actual English or even Cantonese name, the new facility is simply the Xiqu Centre (戏曲中心).

The government explains that Chinese opera is different from Western opera, so “Xiqu” is used to differentiate itself.

Yes, we know everything in China is different from the West. If we follow the Hong Kong (or Xianggang?) government’s concept, Chinese medicines should be renamed “zhongyao” (中药), as Chinese and Western medicines are not the same.

There are a few more examples: mooncake as “yuebing” (月饼), Chinese martial arts as “wushu” (武术), democracy as “minzhu” (民主), as the Beijing government has its own interpretation of democracy with Chinese characteristics.

And how can we forget the ruling party? Propaganda officials should start forcing foreign media to refer to the party as “zhongguo gongchandang” to distinguish it from other (existing) communist parties in the world.

English translations should be simple, clear, and in proper English. “Chinese opera” is easy to understand, but Xiqu — what? You can’t even pronounce it properly without learning Mandarin. And if foreigners can’t pronounce it, how does the Chinese government expect to promote the art to the rest of the world?

No wonder the Chinese often claim that foreigners don’t understand them. Sometimes, they really don’t, literally.

(Image via)

    25 Responses to “Hong Kong Names Theater “Xiqu Center,” Local Residents Ask What The Hell?”

    1. Ick

      I think mainland Chinese often forget (as it must be said do I) how utterly alien much of ‘pinyin’ is to foriegn eyes. my friend who had only ever read my wifes name 《徐星》as XuXing had absolutely no idea how to pronounce her name his guess was ksuh ksing. Likewise he asked me if I’d heard the story of mr Bow, the famous corrupt politition.

      People seem much more sucessfull if I write it Giles-Wade, though having recently found an old British map of Shanghai, where I live I’ve become rather taken with the old transliterations, which although not very accurate are very intuative for English speakers at least. (For instance PooTung 浦东)

    2. Wee Kek Koon

      ‘Chinese opera’ seems to imply that it’s a Chinese copy/version of opera, a western art form. When one considers that the Japanese ‘kabuki’ is still ‘kabuki’ in English (or for that matter the Indian ‘bharata-natyam’ (not sure about spelling), the Thai ‘Ramakien’, the Malay/Javanese ‘Wayang Kulit’, the list goes on…), ‘xiqu’ may not be that radical.

      Blame the Chinese government in the 50s and 60s for adopting the Pinyin system, with consonents like q, x, c, etc. that most people around the world find so difficult.

      • Big Pile O' Fragrant Roses

        True. It’s a pinyin-issue that will have lasting effects. Most Japanese/etc. transliterations are at least easily readable to foreign audiences. I can already imagine what people are gonna say: “Ksee Kuu Center!”

        By the way, what’s wrong with naming it Chinese opera? I have no idea what kabuki means, just because you mention it here, I guess it is Japanese opera.

    3. Wee Kek Koon

      Calling traditional Chinese theatre ‘Chinese opera’ is like calling spaghetti bolognaise ‘Italian zhajiang mian’. 1) It is not accurate. 2) It demeans the art form (or in the latter, the pasta) by implying that it is a foreign copy or a somewhat lesser version of the ‘real thing’.

      Pinyin is difficult, but so is Irish or Czech or Gaelic. The rest of the world is careful to say ‘Shawn’ Connery instead of ‘Seen’ Connery, or ‘Shernaid’ O’Connor instead of ‘Seeneed’ O’Connor, maybe because they are not ashamed of or embarrassed about how their names are pronounced, and more importantly, they INSIST that others say their names properly. It amuses me to see Chinese people bending over backwards to accommodate foreigners, even to the extent of changing their names to ‘western’ ones. So much for being proud of their 5,000-year-old civilisation. Ha!

      • Ick

        So much like the Chinese newscasters pronounce would never say “奥巴马” but instead insisting on calling him bəˈrɑːk huːˈseɪn oʊˈbɑːmə. or they would never refer to Britain as 英国 due to that names association with English dominance over the union.

        Notably Pinyin is an order of magnitude harder than European languages to learn. One can look at any European language and make an approximate hash of the pronunciation, likewise with the Romanized forms of Japanese, Arabic and Hindi. But pinyin is completely impossible to guess, one can only study. Given that 95% of the world has no connection or even great interest in Chinese culture, that’s never going to happen.

        Regarding your point on the names, you mean to say that when you were a language student your teacher did not insist on your adopting a localized name (John to Johannes etc.)? Likewise I couldn’t imagine forcing my monolingual Chinese friends and family to pronounce my non-Chinese name and hence actually change my name to a ‘Chinese’ one. Strange heh I guess I’m no more proud of my countries history than the Chinese are of their 3700 years. Couldn’t be that people want to be polite and courteous could it?

    4. Wee Kek Koon

      It’s an observable fact that the Chinese, among Asians (except the Filipinos but almost all of them are Christians), are most ready to adopt a ‘western’ name (sometimes with hilarious consequences). The Japanese don’t do it, the Koreans don’t do it, neither do the Vietnamese, Malays, Thais, Pakistanis, and so on. It begs the question ‘Why?’

      The Chinese are more ‘cosmopolitan’? The Chinese are ashamed/embarrassed of their native names? ‘Western’ names are the modern-day equivalent of ‘zi’ or nicknames (but why are the majority Anglo-European names)? At the moment, I am teaching a class of 14 mainland Chinese, 2 Chinese Hongkongers and 1 American of European descent in a HK university. ALL the ethnic Chinese have ‘western’ names but I still call them by their native names.

      I never had a western name because I’m proud of my own. And it’s the only link I have with my paternal grandmother, who named me. I’m not Chinese, btw. I have Chinese ancestors and very possibly some Malay ancestry, but I am Singaporean,

      • SeaHorse

        Let me explain that. My mother’s family take the names of the countries of which they are citizens of. This is why my mother has a Vietnamese name, why I have an English name. Because it’s better to deal with the fellow natives of said countries.

        Many Canto and Hong Kongers who first immigrated over found it easier to adopt western names, or adopt western names at home to deal with people. Also in those areas with British influence, they like adopt British Christianized names when they convert or do business because it’s more formal.

        A lot of laogai (what cantonese people here call northerners) don’t change their LEGAL names when the immigrate, however southerners who came before the 2000′s I notice have anglicized names, but most of us over here are Cantonese. It’s also a fun thing to do, to have an English nickname because you pick it yourself.

    5. Big Pile O' Fragrant Roses

      Wee Kek Koon, I’m sorry but you’re entirely missing the point here. Props to you for being proud of your heritage, whatever that may be. Props on being born to Chinese ancestors. We all know that’s a very hard feat to accomplish.

      Point here is that it’s about accessibility to a foreign audience. If Chinese supermarkets can sell more spaghetti bolognese by calling it Italian noodles, so be it. It’s about functionality. It’s not as necessary for Japanese people to take on English names, since their names are more easily recognizable to those from other countries. That’s why people have no trouble with Mitsubishi and Sony, but Huawei is hard to pronounce for non-Chinese. It hurts business, because noone wants to mispronounce a product they want to buy and look like a fool.

      • Jess

        Sony developed as a name because Americans couldn’t pronounce its original name, so I can’t tell if that’s a really good example or a really bad example. But neither did people know how to pronounce Mitsubishi correctly when it first ventured into the English-speaking world. Nor Hyundai. It all comes through familiarity, and it simply makes sense for Chinese to follow suit. Huawei might be tough to pronounce now, but try again in ten years.

        I’m fine with Xiqu here. And English is cool with loanwords. Why rely on an external culture to define the art form, after all? It would be like referring to a wok as a “Chinese saucepan” or something like that. But nobody would complain about that because “wok” is Cantonese, and, as with so many things Hong Kong, people are only protesting here because it just seems too Mainlanderish.

      • SeaHorse

        Names can be learned. Brands can be taught. Beijing successfully went from Peking to Beijing with no confusion. It’s a matter of simply popularizing the name. People don’t care what system its from, they don’t understand that. If you say it enough times people will learn the brand, that’s why we have no problems saying Akira Kurosawa was a great director, or I think I’ll try some of the foie gras and would you recommend the chardonnay with the fillet mignon? It’s why we can pronounce Yao Ming perfectly fine, the sports announcer has said it enough time.

        The problem with Chinese brands is not enough leave the confines of their culture and not enough understand branding enough. Huawei and Haier both have futures. Xiqu is a bit harder to say only because the X and Q sounds are drastically different in English, but if I could say Mitsubishi I can learn to say that too.

        • Wee Kek Koon

          Right on! I was just asking my students last week (mostly mainland Chinese, 2 Chinese Hongkongers, and 1 ‘white’ American) why was it that they all said no to having full Pinyin menus in Chinese restaurants when they were perfectly comfortable with lattes, cappucinos, sushi, kimchi, tom yam, froie gras, sake, nachos, tortillas, etc.?

          Why this cultural cringe? So unworthy of a culture that keeps telling the rest of the world non-stop that it is 5,000 years old and oh, how great it is and all that crap. LOL

    6. Ick

      Jess, the issue is not with loan words, but with Pinyin. Much of it is frankly unreadable for those who haven’t studied it and insisting on correct prononouciation is frankly a none starter. Mitsubishi etal are likely pronounced incorrectly by most none Japanese, but they can read the word and produce a culturally consistant pronouciation and I imagine the companies are perfectly happy with this. Trying to force people to learn Pinyin is daft, if the organisers have descided that it must be called by a MANDARIN name in English, in a Cantonese speaking city (both beingare equaly valid forms of Chinese) Then it should be called the She Jew Opera centre and be damned.

    7. Big Pile O' Fragrant Roses

      Totally agreed there Ick. The pronunciation of Mitsubishi/Citroen/Volkswagen/Opel is different across the world, but they are all pronounceable even though the sound may differ from country to country. Asking for people to make the switch to Seechu when reading Xiqu is just a step too far I think. I mean, I don’t mind since I know pinyin but try telling the potential market for Chinese products. I mean, Huawei, Meizu, Meidi, etc. those might still work after a little while. But try anything with x/q etc. and you’re in trouble as a company. And why? Because people don’t want to buy brands they can’t pronounce. Go brag about your hoo-wah-way phone. Let’s go to the Ksee-kuu center! What about brands with ‘qiang’? kee-i-ang makes awesome tablets. Guess not.

    8. Wee Kek Koon

      While Pinyin *is* hard for non-Mandarin speakers, there is no need to exaggerate its difficulty, I think. Mitsubishi is easy and Huawei is hard? Try it on a person who is encountering both words for the first time. The reason why Mitsubishi is considered ‘easy’ may be because it is so established and it’s been on many people’s consiousness for so many years. Pinyin-familiarity has to start somewhere, and why not now? The alternative is to get rid of Pinyin and replace it with some other transliteration system, which I think it’s not practical.

      The bottom line is: pride in your own language as reflected in how you present it to the rest of the world. The Japanese, Koreans, Thais, etc. have this pride. The Chinese seems not to have it.

      Re: names. If one emigrate to a foreign land, sure. Take on a local name to integrate. (Though I would argue that it is less necessary nowadays with the mulitculturalism being celebrated in most big cities). In HK, for example, it is actually *rare* to find a Chinese person without a western name. What for when 95 percent of the population are Chinese persons who speak mostly Cantonese to one another? So while the Peters, Pauls and Marys are happy to be Peters, Pauls and Marys, despite the fact that these names are culturally foreign, they get ballistic when the Pinyin ‘Xiqu’ appears on a building. (Peters, Pauls and Marys who are Chinese Christians excluded.)

      What’s at work here is that some (many?) HK people simply hate the mainland. Which is fine. But what to do? Last time I check, it is still the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Live with it, work within it, celebrate it, whatever. It’s not going to go away. Alternatively, like many HK people I know, they can go away.

      Note: I’m neither pro-HK or pro-mainland. I don’t give a shit. It’s something for the Chinese to work out among themselves.

      • Big Pile O' Fragrant Roses

        What about foreigners who take a Chinese name? I mean, come on, you learn a language and you just want a name to go with that language. I never use my actual name in English either, simply because English people can’t pronounce it, so I just use part of it that actually works. And for Chinese you get a whole bunch of David’s who become Dawei and so on.

        But you know, that’s just part of the equation. I honestly don’t mind if people want to keep using their own name in another language. It’s just that they should then be prepared to start every conversation with a new person by explaining exactly how they are called, how to spell it, and so on. I mean, when I do use my full name, that’s always how it goes. A minute or two goes by before they get it right. Which is fine for friends or long-term colleagues. But what about quick conversations?

        As for learning pinyin, it’s just a matter of time in a way. Of course, if Chinese products can capture a large market share people will get more familiar with it. The question of course is whether they can capture such a large market share with hard to remember and hard to reproduce names. Maybe they can, then there’s nothing to worry about anyway.

        Honestly, from my perspective, knowing Mandarin and all, I’d prefer for them to stick to pinyin, I really do. Because at this point it just makes sense for Mandarin. And quite frankly I’d hate it if they started changing it and we suddenly have to eat doe-foo or go out at woo-dow-koh. But of course my opinion in that way is biased, so I’m trying to look at it from a company’s perspective abroad. You know, you can either call your company Lianxiang and just see what people are gonna do with it. Or you can name it Lenovo and start building your brand without confusion about names. Alternatively you can spell it out phonetically but that is more confusing imho. Lee-yan-shang. Doesn’t look cool either.

        Alternatively Chinese companies could start a joint platform teaching people how to pronounce the names more actively. For example, by using the Chinese name in TV ads, and having the voice-over pronounce it very clearly. But even then, where does it end? Do you want people to get the tones right? Or is it okay for them to call your brand lian3xiang4 instead of lian2xiang3? I mean, in the first case it sounds more like it’s a cosmetics company. How far do you want to take this?

        • Wee Kek Koon

          Ah but the big difference is this: westerners who take on Chinese names almost never use those names in ‘real life’. The wife of Kevin Rudd, say, would never say, ‘Good morning, Kewen.’ And I find it hard to imagine the friends of Chris Patten saying, ‘What have you been up to, Ding-hong?’ In contrast, the western names of Chinese people (at least in Hong Kong) have become such an integral part of their identities that everyone around them calls them Peter, Mary, Yumiko, Apple, Rimsky (the name of the current Secretary for Justice), and so on. When I call my Chinese Hongkonger students by their native names, they actually feel embarrassed/surprised/awkward…Now, why is that? I find it so interesting.

          • Ick

            It is interesting, but just to clarify, by Chinese you mean Cantonese or Mandarin? My feeling on the matter is that you feel the names issue is so jarring because of the very alien nature of Chinese compared to most (all exept Korean and vietnamese i suspect) other languages. Very few Britons for instance have a (given) name of British origin. Likewise for many Africans or South Americans. However in Chinese one MUST have a Chinese name regardless of ones wishes, so
            not doing so is a fairly political act.
            But anyway this is digressing a little from the topic on hand; that of using Mandarin Pinyin as an English name in a Cantonese speaking city. Perhaps write an article on the subject for Antony to post? I’d certainly be intersted in reading it.

            • Wee Kek Koon

              No, I won’t say it’s political. I don’t think it’s at that level. It’s simply the Chinese in Asia have this notion – one that is not shared by most other Asians – that having a foreign name gives them, for one of a better word, CLASS. And not just any foreign names, mind, but ‘western’ and interestingly Japanese ones. I haven’t seen a Chinese who calls himself Ahmad Chen or Rajaswari Wong, for example.

              A good gauge is the entertainment industry. It is rare to find a Chinese star (esp. from HK or Taiwan) who *doesn’t* have a foreign name. In contrast, it’s rare to find a Japanese, Korean, Thai, Malay, Vietnamese, etc. star who does.

              Britons who take on pre-Norman names, for example, or Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, etc. may do so for political reasons, but I don’t think there’s an equivalent in China or Chinese names, at least not today.

              SO, back to Hong Kong’s ‘Xiqu Centre’. The objection among many Hongkongers is of course Pinyin and the mainlandisation that it implies. Like I said, HK is part of China now whether they like it or not. How long does HK want to stay ‘special’? How long CAN it stay special? Who knows. My suggestion for Xiqu Centre? Perhaps ‘Centre for Traditional Chinese Theatre’ because xiqu is a total theatre – there’s acting, singing, music, acrobatics, dancing, recitals…much more than just an ‘opera’.

    9. S.

      Pinyin is not that hard. It only has this number of limited syllables, and each of them can be pronounced in 4 different tones. So I don’t see what all this noise is about? It takes 15 minutes to master it. Yes, without knowing, X is a weird letter, but once you know what it sounds like, it’s easy.
      Here is the combination of all pinyin sounds that can ever exist in Mandarin.

    10. Dawei

      Do not worry all, it will never be built, along with all the other planned “cultural” concrete at the white elephant that is the cultural district.

      Honestly one of those bamboo pora-thearters that tour the outlying islands would be much better and a wee bit cheaper I suspect. Those things are bona fide real “organic Chinese “Culture”, though dieing out now.

    11. Cheung Wung

      Pinyin is a transcription system invented by Russian linguists, no country in the latin script world (english, french, german, spanish) can correctly pronouce it without a specific teaching, and I doubt the average Russian performs better.
      I’m tired to hear horrible mispronouciations in the western news (Guizhou, Qinghai, …).
      Oh and try to explain someone how to say “qu”? Ok then “chu”
      Or “Xi” (Jinping). Then “Si”(chuan).
      Do you see what I mean?

      Anyway Pinyin has nothing to do in Hong Kong, it’s just neo-colonialism and eradication of the local culture.

      • Wee Kek Koon

        Have you seen Irish names? My goodness, it’s like they were spelt by a dyslexic (no offense). But the rest of the world are so careful to pronounce them properly. Thus, ‘Sher-nayd’ O’Connor, not ‘Sai-need’ O’ Connor (Sinead O’Connor), Siobhan is pronounced ”Sher-von’. ‘Fionnuala’ ‘Fer-noola’ and so on. It’s nothing to do with pronunciation or the difficulty of getting it right (non-native speakers will probably never get it 100% right), but greater issues like ‘soft power’, a nation’s image and standing in the world, etc. Now, if you Chinese aren’t even proud of your own language and how it’s presented to the world, what hope is there for you?

        I attach a news story in The Straits Times today. See? It’s ‘kabuki’, not ‘Japanese Opera’. The Japanese have pride, the Chinese don’t.

        Kabuki master wows Paris (The Straits Times, 12Feb 2013)

        Paris – The Peony Pavilion, a classical Chinese opera directed by and starring Japanese kabuki master Tamasaburo Bando, won a standing ovation at its premiere in Paris on Sunday.

        Many Japanese, including some women dressed in traditional kimonos, were in the audience at the Theatre de Chatelet to see Bando, who was named a Living National Treasure in July last year.

        It was his first performance in Paris in 25 years and the first staging of his version of The Peony Pavilion outside of Asia.

        Around 60 actors and musicians performed in the abbreviated version of the Ming Dynasty masterpiece, which runs to 55 acts in the original.

        Bando, 62, plays the heroine Du Liniang, the daughter of an important official, in the complex love story.

        The show, a collaboration with Suzhou Kun Opera Theatre of Jiangsu Province in China, runs till Saturday.

        Bando also presented Jiuta, a production which features three classic Japanese traditional dance pieces, earlier this month in Paris.

        He was named a Living National Treasure for his work as an onnagata – a kabuki actor for female roles – by the Japanese government.

        Agence France-Presse


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