Me Old China

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Michael Robinson was looking through this Flickr group dedicated to photos of Chinese restaurants outside China, "Chinese Restaurant Worldwide Documentation Project", which includes around 17,000 photographs, when he came upon this photo that was taken on December 23, 2012 in The Lanes, Brighton, England, GB:

That seems like an odd, yet charming, name for a Chinese restaurant. Wondering whether the Chinese name of the restaurant might give a hint for why this particular English locution was chosen, I glanced to the left and I saw that it was Xīndōngfāng 新东方 (New East / Orient) (half of the first character is missing, but I'm virtually certain that it is xīn 新 ["new"]), which superficially is pretty much the opposite of "Me Old China".

It turns out, however, that "Me Old China" is Cockney slang, and I found a delicious sentence that begins with this expression:

'Allo me old china – wot say we pop round the Jack. I'll stand you a pig and you can rabbit on about your teapots. We can 'ave some loop and tommy and be off before the dickory hits twelve.

Translated from the Cockney, that would be (with parenthetical glosses):

Hello my old mate (china plate) – what do you say we pop around to the bar (Jack Tar). I'll buy you a beer (pig's ear) and you can talk (rabbit and pork) about your kids (teapot lids). We can have some soup (loop de loop) and supper (Tommy Tucker) and be gone before the clock (hickory dickory dock) strikes twelve.

[From A Cockney Rhyming Slang Dictionary]

Whether the owner initially thought of the very prosaic Xīndōngfāng 新东方 (New East / Orient) and then devised "Me Old China" as an inspired translation, or first came up with the clever Cockney "Me Old China" and then rendered that into its rough Chinese counterpoint is moot, though I suspect that they were so taken by the colorful Cockneyism that they latched onto it as their main moniker, printing it larger and directly over the main entrance, and then arrived at the relatively lame Xīndōngfāng 新东方 (New East / Orient) almost as an afterthought.

Incidentally, if one were so inclined, one could use the rich resources of the "Chinese Restaurant Worldwide Documentation Project" on Flickr to write an entire dissertation on Chinese restaurant names outside of China. I just spent a few moments browsing through the thousands of photographs on the site and noticed, for example, one restaurant named Gōngfu 功夫 (Kung-fu; for an exhaustive treatment of this popular term borrowed into English, see "Kung-fu [Gongfu] Tea") whose English name is "Good Food".

There are also lots of Chinese restaurants whose names comprise "wok", e.g., "O'Wok", "Wok nTalk", "Wok 'n Roll", and just "Wok". It's curious that these restaurants usually don't have corresponding Chinese names, just the English. I have my own theory about this reluctance to provide a Chinese equivalent, but put it as a question to Language Log readers why this is so.

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42 Comments »

  1. Bruce Rusk said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 6:19 pm

    One of the Chinese food trucks that has parked outside the University of Toronto library for many decades is called "Wokking on Wheels," and in Chinese is 金輪 [Golden Wheel(s)]. You can see a photo here. So it has a Chinese equivalent, but the play on "wok" is lost. This may add data to help refine your theory…

  2. Bathrobe said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 6:42 pm

    My feeling is that anyone who uses 'wok' in a name is more likely not to be a native Chinese speaker. While 'wok' sounds like an archetypal Chinese word to English speakers, it is probably more familiar to them than it is to most Chinese speakers. That's because 'wok' is from Cantonese, not Mandarin. Apart from Cantonese speakers, Chinese people are usually surprised to know that the English word for 鍋/锅 (Mandarin guō) is 'wok'. So my tentative theory is that a restaurant using 'wok' in the name is likely to have been founded by non-Chinese who love the idea of having 'wok' in the English name and don't really care about having a Chinese name.

  3. Dw said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 6:43 pm

    @Bruce Rusk — given that this is in Canada (hence generally cot-caught merged), is it intended as pun on "walking"?

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

    I like the idea that the Chinese name is the opposite of the English one.

    The OED doesn't agree with the Cockney Rhyming Slang Dictionary on "tommy". It dates "tommy" meaning "food, provisions generally" to a 1796 meaning of "brown bread" and says, "App. personified as Tommy Brown, altered to brown tommy and tommy. Similarly a hunk of grey bread distributed at Minto House, as part of a Hogmanay gift to the village children, used to be called Tam Gray."

  5. Anthony said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

    It's likely the English name has no relation to the Chinese name. Usually Thai restaurants are known for imaginative names, not so Chinese restaurants.

  6. q said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

    To add to Bruce Rusk's point, I am aware of at least two restaurants I frequently visited that had "wok" in the English name but no such concept in the Chinese name. For example, one restaurant is called "Yea's Wok," but the Chinese name literally means "Yie Family's Place/Garden." I figure adding "wok" is a way of comforting English speakers that the place serves home-made Chinese food or somesuch.

  7. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 7:45 pm

    Is a person only Chinese if they speak Mandarin at home? My first exposure to Chinese restaurants, and Chinese businesses in general, not to mention Chinese home cooking, is San Francisco, during a time when the Chinese there mostly spoke Cantonese, not Mandarin. (I don't live there anymore so I don't know if there has been a demographic change along those lines) So it's not surprising to me that the word "wok" is a Cantonese name, and I'm sort of puzzled as to why that fact makes it likely that the people who are using the word must therefore not be Chinese.

    In our area (Central Coast) the staff of a Chinese restaurant is likely to be largely Hispanic, but most of the restaurants still seem to be owned by Chinese, whether or not they have "wok" in the name.

  8. MrFnortner said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 8:50 pm

    Of course, you have to wok before you fry.

  9. Richard said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 9:18 pm

    Three of the better Chinese restaurants here in Madison have Japanese names: Fugu, Ichiban, and Sogo. Fugu was the first one, and has a Sichuan chef; Ichiban spun off from Fugu which might explain the continuity. Sogo is owned by Taiwanese and claims to serve Japanese shabu-shabu (hotpot), but it, too, has primarily Sichuan food.

  10. Daniel Tse said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 11:20 pm

    There's a Chinese restaurant near us punningly named 'Wok and Roll', but with a Chinese name 食神 (Cantonese sik6 san4, "God of Cookery").

  11. Rick Robinson said,

    January 18, 2013 @ 11:45 pm

    I once read that it is common for Chinese restaurants (in the US, at any rate) to have English names that have no particular connection to their Chinese names. The one example that sticks in mind had an English name of 'Golden China' or some such, while the Chinese name simply said 'Superior Eating Place.'

    Since my ignorance of Chinese, written or spoken, is absolute, I have no idea whether the claimed typical non-connection of names is true or not.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 12:39 am

    Bathrobe's theory is very close to the one I was entertaining, with the added proviso that, aside from Cantonese speakers who are also literate *in Cantonese*, very few speakers of Sinitic languages are aware of the correct character for "wok".

  13. Kerim Friedman said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 1:18 am

    One thing to keep in mind is that there are strong restrictions on registering a business whose name is too close to the name of existing businesses. I once helped a Taiwanese friend register an English name for their business and they were rejected on the first few tries. For this reason (I believe), English names often have nothing to do with the Chinese, or sometimes use creative spellings.

  14. Vasha said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 2:49 am

    There is a Chinese restaurant near Cornell University whose Chinese name is inventive and whose English name is mystifying. It is 狀元樓 (zhuàngyuán lóu), zhuàngyuán being the student scoring best on examinations. Right for a place frequented by students, and less generic than the endless Jade Palaces and so forth that most places are named. But in English it's the Apollo Chinese Restaurant. Not only no obvious connection to the Chinese name, but hard to see where the name comes from at all.

  15. Max said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 3:32 am

    In Cape Town there is a large Chinese restaurant (perhaps best known for its Vegas-esque lighting at night) called "Sea Palace". The Chinese name is "中国大酒店" (zhōngguó dà jiǔdiàn; literally Chinese big wine shop — though I'm told that jiǔdiàn is pretty normal for the name of a fancy restuarant)

  16. Picky said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 4:31 am

    @Jerry Friedman: Rhyming slang doesn't necessarily have fixed meanings. It's jokey, and the jokes are constantly changing. That's especially true when the reference is to a current celebrity. To me (I'm approx a thousand years old) a Tommy is a window. But who today has heard of the top comedian of my youth Tommy Trinder?

  17. Mark Etherton said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 4:31 am

    In fiction there's Anthony Powell's 'Casanova's Chinese Restaurant', but the novel does not attempt to suggest what its name might be in Chinese.

  18. Henning Makholm said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 8:20 am

    @Vasha: Apollo is Phoebus, the god of light. A fitting place for brilliant students to congregate.

    (Okay, that's a stretch).

  19. Roger Lustig said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    Sometimes it seems the naming process went awry. Around 2005, I think, this place actually existed for several months at the address given. Never got to try it, despite/because of the sign, which included an oil derrick. Never met anyone else who ate there either.

    Any theories? Is the Chinese name different and/or of interest?

    (For locals, this is the Windsor Green strip mall on Route 1 near Princeton: Whole Foods, Staples, Marshalls.)

  20. Derek said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

    Bathrobe: "Apart from Cantonese speakers, Chinese people are usually surprised to know that the English word for 鍋/锅 (Mandarin guō) is 'wok'."

    Heck, I'm a native Cantonese speaker, and even I was surprised to find out that 鑊 had been loaned into English as "wok" when I first moved to Canada. I simply never encountered the word "wok" in English when I lived in Hong Kong.

    "So my tentative theory is that a restaurant using 'wok' in the name is likely to have been founded by non-Chinese who love the idea of having 'wok' in the English name and don't really care about having a Chinese name."

    I'd amend that to "… or founded by a Chinese owner who is specifically going after the mainstream demographic (or at least not specifically targetting Chinese customers)".

    There's a chain of Chinese fast food outlets in mall food courts around Canada and the US called Manchu Wok. The chain was apparently founded by a Hong Kong immigrant in Peterborough, Ontario. I looked around their website and couldn't find an official Chinese name, though the Chinese media in Canada calls the chain "滿洲鑊" (a literal translation of "Manchu Wok"), and the Chinese Wikipedia article for the chain is also found under that name. Sure enough the chain serves the typical Westernized Chinese fare like sweet and sour pork and honey garlic chicken, and I'm not aware they've ever served anything that's actually Manchurian.

    I'll also add that "大鑊" (daai6 wok6; literally "big wok") is a Cantonese expression often uttered when someone screws up something, e.g. losing a passport. I might be going out on a limb, but this might be another reason why Chinese restaurants don't tend to use the word "鑊" in their Chinese names (if they have one) even if they use "wok" in their English names.

  21. Thor said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 5:14 pm

    Possibly apocryphal, but I was told there was an all-night Chinese restaurant in NY called "Wok around the clock."

  22. jan said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 5:26 pm

    In Ann Arbor there's a Chinese restaurant called Dinersty. Does anybody else see any problem with that? I took it as a pun on Dynasty, but somebody else pointed out the two words… Diner–Sty.

  23. Bathrobe said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

    In my pronunciation, that should be Dinnersty (Dinner-Sty), which is no better.

  24. Bathrobe said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

    And thanks to Derek for the refinement of my original rough guess (actually making it into a plausible theory) as well as the correct character for wok (鑊)!

  25. AB said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 7:03 pm

    McCawley ("Eater's Guide") mentions a place in Australia called "E___ Chinese Restaurant" whose Chinese name translates to "occidental food" (p. 71, first edition). He omits the full name since this is given as an example where "the Chinese characters on the front of the restaurant may provide you with warning that you should stay away."

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 12:19 am

    @Vasha: The English name is also a trisyllable that ends in the same syllable as the Chinese name, and has generally good associations.

    @Picky:

    To me (I'm approx a thousand years old) a Tommy is a window. But who today has heard of the top comedian of my youth Tommy Trinder?

    Just lucky people, Wikipedia tells me. This being Language Log, maybe I can also quote, 'The name's Trinder. That's T-R-I-N-D-E-R, pronounced Chumley.'

  27. Jeremy Goldkorn said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 1:18 am

    Oddly enough, "me old China" is a piece of cockney slang that was introduced into South African English and fossilized there as "my China" or sometimes just "China" to mean friend, as in the phrase: "Howzit my China?" meaning "How is it going my friend?" or "how ya doin'?"

    This leads to bad puns such as the headline Drogba says 'Howzit my China' to Shenhua about the football player joining a Chinese team.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    All right, folks, more stuff is coming out.

    From Bob Bauer:

    =====

    鍋 gwo1 is Mandarin, while 鑊 huo4 is Cantonese….

    The Cantonese pronunciation of 鍋 is wo1 and 鑊 is wok6.

    =====

    From Mandy Chan:

    =====

    鑊 and 鍋 are certainly not the same thing. 鍋 is rarely used in spoken Cantonese in HK. Cantonese uses 煲 (can be used as a verb or noun), which is a deeper bottom pot/boiler, for 鍋. 鑊 is for stir frying and 煲 for slow cooking like 煲汤. This is why it is 电饭煲, not 电饭锅. Although I suspect the "language police" in the mainland might one day eventually "standardize" by calling it 电饭锅. 煲 is pronounced as "bo" (as in "bow" or "roll").

    Also, in HK slang, if you hear people say “大鑊啦!", it means "big trouble", so 补鑊 is "correcting a mistake" — an extremely common phrase.

    If you ask for a 鍋 in HK, people will ask you to clarify what you meant. You see it in the menu, like 沙锅鱼头, 回锅肉 but 锅 isn't a Cantonese word.

    Mandarin speakers seem to use 鍋 interchangeably for wok or a regular pot, because the 锅 in 沙锅鱼头 most definitely does not mean "wok" but a type of earthenware pot; but 锅 in 回锅肉 refers to a wok. And obviously people have 火锅 with a pot, not a wok.

    "And do you think that either 鑊 or 鍋have anything to do with a word in any other language?"
    I suppose it could have, but it depends on how these two words were pronounced in 中古汉语 (Middle Sinitic) and earlier stages. 鍋 in Cantonese and Hakka begin with a "w" sound. The language systems that I know best other than Chinese are Arabic and Turkic, and their words for pot and frying pan don't even sound remotely similar to "guo".

    Did 盐铁论 or 史记 specify what type of pot was used in ancient times for salt boiling?

    BTW, deep frying using a 鑊 is dangerous — it is a recipe for household disaster!!

    =====

    VHM: There are many unanswered questions and problems about "wok" that remain to be cleared up. For example, The Wiktionary etymology for "wok" confuses two words (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/wok#Etymology):

    =====

    From Cantonese 鑊 (wok6), in Mandarin called: trad. 鑊, simpl. 镬 (pinyin: huò) or trad. 鍋, simpl. 锅 (pinyin: guō).

    =====

    One thing we need to do right away is distinguish between 鍋 (Mandarin guō) and 鑊 (Cantonese wok6). These are two different words for two different types of cooking implements.

    I suspect that the real reason we have both 鑊 and 鍋 in Sinitic is that they come from two separate cooking traditions and that, consequently, we may discover that one or both of them have connections to a non-Sinitic language, as with the multiple words for "dog", "river", etc.

    Compare the very interesting post and discussion here:

    "What Do We Really Know about the History of the Wok?"
    http://www.rachellaudan.com/2008/12/what-do-we-really-know-about-the-history-of-the-wok.html

    And Mandy Chan, in her good comments copied above, introduces yet another very different type of pot that is popular in Cantonese-speaking areas, the bou1 (Mandarin bāo) 煲 (the ones I've eaten from are usually earthenware).

    So we see that thinking about the quotidian wok leads to all sorts of fascinating and important questions about the nature and transmission of cooking traditions and technologies. More work needs to be done on all of these issues. For the moment, however, let me return to the remark about the reluctance of restauranteurs outside of China to provide an equivalent of "wok" in the names they come up with for their establishments with which I closed my original post. The reason is that "wok" is very much a part of spoken Cantonese and English (borrowed from spoken Cantonese), but the character for writing it is not well known, certainly not by Mandarin speakers, who — when pressed to come up with a character for writing it — are apt erroneously to choose the graph guō 鍋 / 锅.

  29. Alan said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

    I grew up hearing and using a lot of Cockney rhyming slang. I live in Australia and I still occasionally use "China" in place of "mate". I say it less often since the time I acknowledged the waiter with "Thanks, China" – he was ethnic Chinese, in a Chinese restaurant.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

    From a native speaker of Cantonese:

    "We don't use the Mandarin word 'guo' in Cantonese, so the pronunciation is irrelevant."

  31. David Moser said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 7:33 pm

    Yikes! It's embarrassing how many of my commonsense assumptions are wrong. I've confidently informed 4,267 people in the past that "wok" is just the Cantonese pronunciation for 锅. Now I've got to get back in touch with them and correct the mistake — which in cockney rhyming slang perhaps makes me a silly "Berkshire hunt."

  32. Victor Mair said,

    January 21, 2013 @ 10:48 am

    "What’s the History of the Wok? A Continuing Investigation"

    http://www.rachellaudan.com/2013/01/whats-the-history-of-the-wok-a-continuing-investigation.html

  33. brombles said,

    January 21, 2013 @ 6:49 pm

    If you're going to pinch my image off Flickr and not ask my permission can you at least add a link to the Flickr page?

  34. brombles said,

    January 21, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

    Apologies, link has been spotted – I jumped the gun there sorry!

    I stumbled on this website after typing "translate me old china into Chinese" into Google. I wanted to reply to someone's comment on the photo on Flickr. It's a small world (wide web) sometimes!

    Nice to see my photo being put to good use :-)

  35. brombles said,

    January 21, 2013 @ 7:14 pm

    …by the way I can go back and take another photo including the other half of the missing character if you so wish, me old fruit?

  36. Victor Mair said,

    January 22, 2013 @ 12:37 am

    @brombles

    I'm glad you realize that I linked to Flickr, both to your photograph there and to the huge collection of Chinese restaurant signs of which it is a part.

    Sure, that would be nice if you take a photo of the other part of the sign.

  37. Victor Mair said,

    January 22, 2013 @ 11:16 am

    Cantonese WOK6 is what we know in English as "wok" and Cantonese BOU1 is an earthenware pot, but Mandarin GUO1 is much harder to deal with because it is so unspecific. It can mean any sort of pot, pan, boiler, cauldron / caldron, and so forth. That is why northerners can happily and LOOSELY acquiesce in referring to the wok as a guo, and — as we have seen in the comments to this post — go on from there to link the two words wok and guo because of some supposed vague phonetic resemblance (even many great scholars have made this mistake!).

    Historically, of course, the guo would have meant something more specific, and I would say that the main difference there from the quintessential wok is that the latter has a rounded bottom that curves upward from a point in the center, whereas a typical guo has a flat bottom and straight sides.

    Here are some Chinese encyclopedia and dictionary articles that will help the perplexed gain a better understanding of what a guo is like. There are enough illustrations and English terms / explanations in them that readers who don't know Chinese should be able to gain some useful information from these sources.

    http://baike.baidu.com/view/37476.htm

    http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E9%94%85

    When people use "guo" to refer to a wok, it's because they don't know that the Mandarin pronunciation of wok *should* be HUO4, so they just sloppily borrow GUO1 for wok.

    Incidentally, the characters used to write "wok" / HUO4 and GUO1 both have metal radicals, so from ancient times they must have been made of metal. Such is not the case with the earthenware BAO1.

    As I noted in one of my previous comments to the thread, it's not surprising that we have two or more different words for pots and pans, since they probably come from different linguistic and cultural (culinary) backgrounds.

  38. Rob Solheim said,

    January 22, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

    There used to be a Chinese restaurant locally in New Malden, SW London (maybe it's still there), named "Wing Fat". I've no idea what this might mean in any sinitic language, but it always seemed an odd choice of name to English ears. This area has now the largest Korean community in the UK, and it's to these reastaurants I make a beeline when I'm visiting home these days.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    January 22, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

    @Rob Solheim

    It's probably 永发, pronounced Wing Fat in Cantonese. It means "Forever Prosperous" (i.e., forever make a fortune).

  40. Chandra said,

    January 23, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

    I was hoping this would turn out to be some kind of mixed-up interpretation of the "Ye Olde" shop-sign trope (which is, of course, itself a mixed-up interpretation of "Þe Olde").

  41. Bathrobe said,

    January 23, 2013 @ 10:20 pm

    To quote Wikipedia (edited slightly):

    Mandarin Chinese uses different words for wok: 锅 / 鍋; literally "cooking pot" guō or 炒菜锅 / 炒菜鍋 chǎocàiguō. In Indonesia the wok is known as a penggorengan or wajan. In Malaysia it is called a kuali (small wok) or kawa (big wok). In the Philippines it is known as a kawali and also called a wadjang. In Japan the wok is called a chukanabe (literally, "Chinese pot" or "中華鍋")

  42. Ian Loveless said,

    January 24, 2013 @ 11:36 pm

    David Moser: In authentic rhyming slang the whole phrase is not used, me old Berk. My. Favourite rhyming slang is "septic" or "seppo", apparently coined during WWII, short for "septic tank", rhyming with "Yank".

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