cactus wawa: the strange tale of a strange character

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On December 15, 2012, Jakob Leimgruber sent in the following photograph of an unusual sign in Montreal:

I took one look at the sign and said to myself, "We've got problems."

1. The biggest problem is the character after の.  It is not in Unicode, much less in any commercial font.  It appears to be sui generis.

2. The の itself is a bit of a problem, since that is a Japanese kana, pronounced no, whereas all the other non-Roman parts of the sign seem to be Chinese.

3. The word "cactus" cannot be accounted for by anything in the Chinese.

4. The disyllabic word wáwá 娃娃 means "baby; doll; child", which — though it reminds me of the convenience stores in the Philadelphia region — is not something that I'd normally associate with a store for adults, which this one in Montreal is.

5. How can you have a zhǐ huǒguō 纸火锅 ("paper hot pot / chafing dish") — the item in the bottom right corner of the sign?

I thought that the better part of valor would be to call the shop directly at 514-288-1314, which I easily found on the web.  This I did — for about a month — but no one ever picked up, even though I called at all hours of the day and night.

Frustrated after weeks of calling, I turned to my friends in Montreal, asking them to visit the shop to see if they could get answers to my questions directly from the proprietor.  Since no one was up to the task, the trail grew cold, and cactus wawa faded into the back of my mind, though it never disappeared entirely.  From time to time, I would reminisce:  "Who is 'cactus wawa'?"  "How would cactus wawa pronounce that strange character after の?"

Then, about a month ago, Phil Miraglia, Senior IT Specialist in Williams Hall where my office is located, informed me that he had to update the operating system of my computer, but that he couldn't do it because there was too much junk on the desktop.  After Phil had gently nudged and prodded me for several weeks, miraculously I found myself alone in Williams Hall one night with nothing else immediately pressing, so I bit the bullet and started trashing hundreds of old files that littered my desk top.  Since I was actually paying attention and trying not to throw away anything important, I was pleasantly surprised when the cactus wawa sign turned up.  Rescuing it from oblivion in the trash can of my computer, I resolved then and there to complete the investigation that I had begun nearly two years ago.

Once again, I looked up "cactus wawa" through Google:  same address, same telephone number.  Before starting to call again, I thought I'd take a look at the map:  1431 Rue Mackay / Mackay St., near Concordia University.  I felt that I was about to meet an old semi-acquaintance again.

The excitement mounted, but suddenly my hopes were dashed:  closed!  (so why did the phone keep ringing back in late 2012 and early 2013?)

The distinctive "cactus wawa" sign is clearly visible if you switch from the street map to Google Street View (June, 2012).

Gritting my teeth, I accepted my fate:  cactus wawa was not going to help me solve the perplexing problems presented by her sign.  I'd have to go it alone, but with the help of my friends (see the acknowledgements below).


If only to build up my confidence, I'll start with the items at the bottom, which are relatively easy compared to the main part of the sign.

zhēnzhū nǎichá 珍珠奶茶 (lit., "pearl milk tea") thé tapioca (in English this is usually called "bubble tea")

Táiwān měishí 台灣美食 gastronomie taiwanaise ("Taiwanese cuisine")

zhǐ huǒguō 纸火锅 fondue en papier ("hot pot; chafing dish") — they really do this in Taiwan and in Japan (where it's called kami nabe):

I'll save the hardest part for last, that's the character after の.

Since this is a Taiwanese shop, I'll treat the kana and the two characters before it as Taiwanese.  The の is actually easy:  it is one way of writing the Taiwanese genitive particle ê [e].  This is by far the most frequent morpheme in Taiwanese, but there is no Chinese character for writing it, so it is often written with the roman letter "e", the Mandarin Phonetic Symbol ㄟ [ei], or — as here — the Japanese kana の, which has a similar grammatical function.

See "Our Taiwan" (11/19/13) for a fuller explanation.

So it's "娃娃's something-or-other".

Now, moving leftward, if 娃娃 means "baby", then the Taiwanese pronunciation will be gín-á; if it means "doll", then the pronunciation will be "ang-á".  (N.B.:  wáwá 娃娃 itself is not used directly in Taiwanese.)  This ("baby / doll") is probably the nickname of the owner of the shop.

All right, now we have to face the character after の.  It consists of tê [Taiwanese] / chá [Mandarin] 茶 ("tea") enclosed within a 囗:

(custom character made by Richard Cook with Wenlin software)

This character does not exist in any font known to me.  I suspect that it was invented by 娃娃, the owner of the shop, or one of her friends.  I further suspect that this unique graph is polysyllabic, like the ones I discussed here: "Polysyllabic characters in Chinese writing" (8/2/11).

I suppose that it probably stands for tê-hn̂g 茶園 ("tea garden"), which would be a fancy way of saying "tea shop".  Less likely, it might stand for tê-kuán 茶館 ("tea house") or tê-tiàm[-á] 茶店[仔] ("tea shop") — if the extra syllable is added at the end, it might cause eyebrows to raise.

The last, nagging problem is the disparity between English "cactus" (somewhat reinforced by the green design motifs) and wáwá 娃娃 ("baby; doll; child").  I think it is intentional to indicate that the proprietor, though a cute, seemingly vulnerable woman, is actually tough and perhaps even a bit prickly.  Incidentally, in medieval Chinese, wá 娃 meant "beautiful woman / girl", but I don't recall seeing it in reduplicated form with the meaning of "baby / child" until around the Yuan (Mongol) period (1271-1368).

What shall we make of a unique character like that, for all we know, may only have existed on this sign in Montreal (and perhaps also on the menus and advertisements of the cactus wawa tea shop)?

It is crucial to observe that the Chinese writing system is essentially open ended.  That is why, from the time it first arose around the 13th century BC until now, the size of system has continued to mushroom from about 1,500 different graphs to more than 80,000 discrete graphs.  It is possible for people to create a new character for their own name or for some other purpose, even out of pure whimsy.  Of course, in a strongly autocratic, bureaucratic state such as the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) or the People's Republic of China, such a new character is not likely to gain public currency beyond the individual who made it up for him/herself.  But I think that in a freer, more open society such as Taiwan, such a newly coined character has a greater chance of gaining currency among society beyond the person who dreamed it up.

I remember about a quarter of a century ago encountering this character in the name of a female Taiwanese author:  娳 (because of the fairly, though not entirely, stable phonophore, I guessed that it was probably pronounced lì).  Since I had never encountered it before, I was taken aback.  I could not find 娳 in the Kangxi Dictionary (the first great character dictionary of "modern" times, with over 47,000 characters and dating to 1716) or Hanyu Da Zidian (the most recent major dictionary of characters, with 54,678 head entries and published between 1986-89).  See also here. Zdic and other online dictionaries say that 娳 is "an old character used in women's names", but I rather doubt that, though I'd be happy to receive evidence to the contrary.  The point is that previously unknown characters can pop up out of nowhere and clamor for recognition and acceptance in Unicode.  娳 has succeeded in gaining a Unicode number (5A33), but the mystery character after の on cactus wawa's sign hasn't — at least not yet.


I was going to end my post right about there, but then yesterday I received a message from Michael Cannings:

My wife (the only native speaker I have on tap now after moving to the UK) thinks the enclosure is for "style or emphasis", and that it's simply meant to be read as chá or tê (Mandarin or Taiwanese). Also to me, if it were genuinely an integral part of the character it would observe proper stroke order, which that rounded top left corner patently doesn't.

The first two characters aren't used together in Taiwanese (nor, I guess, Japanese). In Taiwanese the common term for doll is ang-á 尪仔, and in Japanese I believe it's (o)ningyo (お)人形 (as still used by older Taiwanese women cooing over my daughter) so it's pretty certain that 娃娃 is Mandarin (as in the French name of the shop).

I think (and my wife agrees) that most people would read this entire name in Mandarin, so "wáwa/wáwá de chá". Given the general Taiwanese aversion to the neutral tone in multi-syllable words, my hunch is that the second option would be more prevalent.

My (recently modified) view on の is that it has spread from simply being a stand-in for the Taiwanese possessive ê to also being a "cutesy" stand-in for Mandarin "de". Even monoglot Mandarin speakers in Taiwan have internalised it, and I think it's no longer a strong marker of Taiwanese text. In my estimation this is a fairly recent phenomenon, but I don't have anything to back that assertion up other than gut feeling.

As the chewy "pearls" in bubble tea are made predominantly from tapioca (at least in the original Taiwanese version), I presume that the two teas are one and the same. Certainly the Mandarin zhēnzhū nǎichá 珍珠奶茶 is the same.

According to the interpretation of Michael and his Taiwanese wife, the whole sign of this Taiwanese bubble tea shop should be read as Mandarin, not as Taiwanese, and the mystery character isn't really a mystery after all.

Hey, cactus wawa, where are you when we need you? When you composed the text of your sign, were you thinking in Taiwanese or in Mandarin? When you drew that enclosure around 茶, were you aiming merely to emphasize it or to turn it into a polysyllabic graph? How do you pronounce の? Where have you gone, cactus wawa? Please come back.

[Thanks to Nathan Hopson, Richard Cook, Ken Lunde, Henning Kloeter, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Hiroko Sherry, Fangyi Cheng, Grace Wu, Melvin Lee, Sophie Wei, Chia-hui Lu, and Rebecca Fu]


  1. Tom S. Fox said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 12:16 am

    “The biggest problem is the character after の. It is not in Unicode, much less in any commercial font. It appears to be sui generis.”

    Or it’s a flipped and rotated e.

  2. Vance Maverick said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 12:42 am

    I came to say what Tom said — note it's green, like 'cactus wawa', and plausibly the same leaf pattern.

  3. John said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 12:58 am

    Quick note about 娃娃 – as a person's nickname, the pronunciation in Taiwan will almost certainly be wa3wa2, following the tone pattern for 爸爸, 媽媽, etc., discussed a previous post.

  4. Jared said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 2:47 am

    My theory:

    The French part (because wawa is at the end) might imply that the Chinese/Japanese part should be read right to left. If you translate the の to French it may be "du", and if you assume that the weird character is encircled for emphasis, that leaves you with chadu wawa. Its not too much of a leap to transform the sounds "cha" to "ca" and "du" to "tu", which leave catu wawa. That only leaves one more small step to cactus wawa.

  5. Tom said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 4:06 am

    The graph の is very common on Mandarin signage in Shanghai these days. It stands in for the genitive markers de 的 and zhī 之. For example, there's an internet cafe near my apartment, the sign for which is written as 龍のE世网络休闲会所: fascinating to me since it uses four scripts (traditional characters, simplified characters, hiragana, roman letters)! A photo can be seen here:

  6. Vasha said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 4:56 am

    So the の inSinitic languages is a little bit like the English ampersand &: originally a way of writing "et" in Latin manuscripts, in English we read it as"and".

  7. John said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 6:04 am

    Also, for some support for Michael Cannings's wife's interpretation that the enclosure is only for emphasis: This Japanese ramen chain uses, in the last character of its logo, the character 嵐 with a similar enclosure around it. To my knowledge everybody still calls it 花月嵐.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 7:48 am

    Last night when I went to sleep, I never imagined that there would be so many good comments on this complex post the next morning. But this is Language Log, so I shouldn't be surprised at the high quality of the observations of our readers.

    @Tom S. Fox

    Yes, indeed, so maybe the の is functioning simultaneously as ê, and perhaps other parts of the two versions of the name are also doing double duty.

    @Vance Maverick

    Sharp eyes you have.


    Good memory!

    "More on tonal variation in Sinitic" (9/1/14)


    Ingenious! "cactu(s) wawa"


    Incredible! Your jpg is invaluable!


    You're right. In terms of its ability to be pronounced differently in various languages, & is as polyphonic as Indo-Arabic numerals, and now の seems to be acquiring that same property — at least in East Asia.


    Indeed! In fact, the website you cited even explicitly annotates the 嵐 inside an enclosure as ARASHI (see the ruby rōmaji annotation right beneath the handwritten character in the header). BTW, although the website for this RAMEN KAGETSU ARASHI has a very Japanese flavor (so to speak) to it, most of the writing is Chinese and it is based in Taiwan.

  9. Michael Cannings said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 8:00 am

    I think the first two commenters have misread the post – the の is not in dispute – Victor Mair was talking about the character afterwards, i.e. 茶 inside a frame.

    Also, I agree with John when he says in practice Taiwanese people will say wa3wa2.

  10. DMT said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 9:06 am

    The hiragana character の often appears on product packaging in Hong Kong, where it usually stands in for 的/之(/嘅!) and seems to be a conscious attempt to evoke the prestige associated with "Japaneseness", but involving less effort on the part of the packaging designers than writing actual Japanese. (Quite often the phrases containing の are nonsensical if you try to read them as Japanese.) I'm not sure how HKers vocalize this character if they have occasion to do so. (no? dik1? zi1? ge3?)

  11. Akito said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 10:12 am

    According to this page, Ramen Kagetsu Arashi in Taipei is the first overseas franchise of this Japanese noodle shop that started in Koenji in Tokyo's Suginami Ward. The parent company is Globeat Japan Inc.

  12. Jakob said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 10:35 am

    Interesting post, and interesting comments, as always! I could kick myself for not having stepped in and asked there and then what it was all about. Assuming – gasp – that the author of the sign is not a regular LLog reader, I suppose there is no way of solving the mystery beyond the astute analyses given by VHM and the commenters.

    The "emphasis" reading of enclosed characters is new to me, so I learned something here. I rather liked my initial musing (like VHM's) that 茶+口=茶园/馆, i.e. one of those polysyllabic characters. But I guess without access to the writer's full reasoning we'll never know for sure.

  13. Alex said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

    Wawa means wild goose in some Algonquin languages. As you work in Philadelphia, you are probably familiar with the convenience store of the same name, which is named after a place called Wawa in the area. Canada also has a place called Wawa, so perhaps the names are connected?

  14. FM said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

    A linguistic note concerning 珍珠奶茶: its English name is an example of recently arisen dialect variation in the US. In most states it does seem to be known as "bubble tea", but it's "pearl milk tea" in the SF Bay Area, and "boba" (with or without "tea") in LA.

  15. Jessica Kim said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

    Fascinating post! I guessed that maybe the 茶+口 might refer to a tea house, but that was just because I think of 口 as being able to refer to an enclosure, thus "the place where the tea is" or something like that.

    However, this all comes from my knowledge of Japanese, which I am not fluent in, and you guys are way more knowledgeable about this than I am. ^.^

  16. JQ said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 1:28 pm


    In HK, の is pronounced 之, never 的 or 嘅.

    の is something that is written first then read out later.
    嘅 is something that is spoken aloud then written down.
    的 is used when you want to be excessively formal.

  17. michaelyus said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 3:20 pm

    I would take the ⿴囗茶 character in the same way that 圕 is read 圖書館, which was covered a few years ago on this blog. It means that 囗 is evolving into a new kind of logo-grapheme!

    The "incorrect" stroke order of that character I would see in a similar light to the non-standard stroke thicknesses of the の (the thicknesses of which really does make it look like an "e"): inconsequential to the reading.

    And since when did the choice of English names need to hold any relation to the Chinese (or vice versa)? The two could have been chosen completely independently of each other.

  18. Paul Clapham said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

    Here's another mystery… "cultus wawa" sounds to me very much like "cultus wawa" which means "worthless talk" in Chinook Jargon, which was a pidgin language used about 100 years ago in western Canada and the northwestern US. That may or may not be a coincidence.

  19. Paul Clapham said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

    Oops… should have said "cactus wawa" sounds like "cultus wawa".

  20. Cameron said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 4:32 pm

    I recall reading an article several years ago that referred to a Japanese phrase translated as "cactus woman". Apparently this metaphor meant something like low-maintenance. Perhaps the cactus woman concept caught on in Taiwan?

  21. DMT said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 4:44 pm

    @JQ: "In HK, の is pronounced 之"
    And in Japan, 之 is pronounced の!

  22. DMT said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 5:03 pm

    (Of course, 之 can also be pronounced これ、ゆき、etc….)
    But JQ's comment prompts me to ask – how commonly, and under what circumstances, does zi1 之 occur in normal spoken Cantonese (apart from fixed phrasal contexts like 十分之一)? I would have assumed it was at least as rare as dik1 的, but I realize this assumption might be completely off the mark.

  23. Richard W said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 5:47 pm

    The "character after の" is rather similar to the Land of Tea Symbol …
    … created by ShounenSuki

    See also the image at the top of this page:

  24. Victor Mair said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 8:46 pm

    In the first sentence of the second website that Richard W sent, the Land of Tea Symbol (the character for tea inside a circular boundary, as pictured at the top of the first website that he listed), is explicitly explained as Cha no Kuni 茶の国 ("Land of Tea").

    Note that in bronze and seal script the enclosure radical is drawn with rounded corners, the angular corners that developed later being a function of writing with a calligrapher's brush.

  25. Fluxor said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 10:30 pm

    The sign seems perfectly normal to me. I interpret the enclosure around the 茶 to be purely decorative. In fact, if one looks at the fonts used for 娃娃 and 茶, it is clear that the enclosure does not correspond to either font, making it stand out even more as something used purely for style or decoration.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 11:14 pm


    What? "purely decorative"? So you disagree with those who say the enclosure is for emphasis?

    Note that the person who wrote that special character took pains to keep it the same size as the two 娃 at the beginning. This, to me, is evidence that they wanted it to be treated as a single unit, i.e., a single graph. If they wanted the enclosure to be purely for decoration or only for emphasis, they could have just used a typeset 茶 and then drawn a box or circle around it. Instead, they wrote the whole character, including the 茶 inside the enclosure, by hand.

    And why did they write the の by hand and with green paint? Purely decorative? If we're going for "purely decorative", then why not write 娃娃 by hand and do something special for those two graphs as well? What if the person who made the sign wanted to call attention to the の because, as several commenters have suggested, of its multivalent quality?

    "normal"? If it's "normal", why did the signmaker have to go to the trouble to write the last two characters by hand? If it were "perfectly normal", the signmaker would simply have used typewritten script for all four symbols: 娃娃の茶. That would be "perfectly normal". What we have is actually far more interesting, and less "normal" than that.

  27. Akito said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 1:30 am

    Could 娃娃(の)茶 simply be a phonetic for Thai wawa cha? WaWa Cha is a Thai restaurant chain that offers tapioka milk tea.

  28. Chas Belov said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 2:56 am

    @FM: As a San Francisco Bay Area resident, I've had the opportunity to watch the terminology for bubble tea/pearl milk tea/boba change over the years. This is going by memory, not by citations, so this could be wrong/subject to the recency illusion/etc.

    When tapioca drinks first appeared, they were commercially called pearl milk tea. In recent years, calling them bubble tea became more common. And recently, there has been a tapioca drink business called Boba Guys.

    When tapioca drinks are served by non-Asian businesses, something that has been happening for the last several years, they are pretty much always called bubble tea.

    That said, the term boba has been well known and has been used in Bay Area colloquial speech probably at least since 2000. I do have a cite for that for 2003 in that the winning Mr. GAPA (Gay Asian Pacific Alliance) for that year ran under the name Bobalicious and I know I knew at the time of that event (which I attended) that he was referring to the tapioca drink (and expected his audience to know).

  29. Chas Belov said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 3:06 am

    That said, I believe I once caused mild offense at Hydration in San Jose by ordering from a female counter person whatever they called their beverage with "boba." Note that boba is slang for "breasts."

  30. Simon P said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 4:10 am

    @DMT: Yes, 之 is used in Cantonese about as much as in Mandarin. Only in certain expressions. The standard posessive is to use a measure word, i.e. 我隻手 (my hand). You can also use the particle 嘅, but that's more commonly used when there's no object, i.e. 隻手係我嘅 (the hand is mine). 我嘅手 is grammatical but not typical, at least in HK Cantonese, though you will often find it in learning materials.

    And yes, の is always read as "zi1" in HK, never "dik1" or "ge3", AFAIK. Not sure why.

  31. Akito said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 5:29 am

    "Could 娃娃(の)茶 simply be a phonetic for Thai wawa cha?"

    It looks like it's the other way around. The Sukishi Group says they were inspired by Taiwanese tea drinks when they added Wawa Cha to their brands. (Apparently, Sukishi = sukiyaki + sushi.)

  32. John Swindle said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 6:28 am

    In Google Street View I see either an August 2011 or a June 2012 image, depending on the vantage point. The August 2011 image shows the main sign shrouded. The June 2012 image shows it in all its magnificence.

    Both images, however, and more clearly the August 2011 image, show a door at the left (SW?) corner of the building with a vertical sign in the window saying "娃娃X茶", where "X" represents either a blank space or something I can't make out.

    So the main sign should indeed be read left to right, following the order of the vertical sign, and the final character in the name wasn't (or wasn't always) thought of as representing something polysyllabic.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 7:31 am

    Another morning, and I wake up to more good comments, for which thanks to all of you for the excellent sleuthing.

    During the night, I dreamed about what could be more "perfectly normal" than 娃娃の茶. By the time I had gone to the bathroom to gargle, I came up with "wáwá de chá 娃娃的茶". By the time I had finished gargling, my head was filled with thoughts of "wáwá de cháguǎn 娃娃的茶館". If we're talking "perfectly normal", then the latter is perhaps more normal than the former. But I don't think that cactus wawa was into normality at all, not when she wrote 娃娃の茶(+囗).

  34. Guy said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 9:22 am

    I think one fallacy is to assume that English (or perhaps in this case, French) names are translations of the original Chinese name. It’s very common in Taiwan/Hong Kong that translated English names are chosen for phonetic or aesthetic value and bear little relation to the Chinese meaning. For example there is a very popular Taiwanese series called 我可能不會愛你 (“I might not love you””) but it’s official English title is In Time With You. The owner is just as likely to have chosen Cactus for the name because he/she likes the color green.

  35. Simon P said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 11:17 am

    I don't know about the Taiwanese, but I've seen enough mainlanders with "English names" like "Frog" and "Apple" not not be surprised if "Cactus" is simply the name of the owner, as VHM implies. So the French/English name of the store is simply the name of the owner: Cactus Wawa Li (or whatever). Couldn't 娃娃 be a given name? But of course the Chinese name could't just be the name of the owner (which would then just be 娃娃, since "Cactus" is not part of her Chinese name), so she added a の茶, following a common Taiwanese/HK trend of using the の character to represent the posessive article, and either circled the last character for emphasis, or cleverly constructed a new polysyllabic character.

  36. Rubrick said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

    "He couldn't do it because there was too much junk on the desktop."

    I think your Senior IT Specialist may have been pulling your leg. I'm not exactly an IT expert, but I'm hard pressed to think of a scenario in which too much junk on the desktop would prevent an OS upgrade.

    It resulted in a fascinating post and some no doubt much-needed housecleaning, though, so kudos to him!

  37. Victor Mair said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 3:04 pm

    From Steven Owyoung:

    Miscellaneous comments and observations: I recall seminars on Chinese calligraphy in which poems and writings by the literati contained an occasional character that was fabricated by the author. Someone in class made a small collection of them by the end of the semester. Wai-Kam Ho was scrupulous about looking up each and every character, familiar or not, before making a translation. He enjoyed "deciphering" the fabrications he found along the way. At times, Wen Zhengming made up characters when he wrote his beautiful, small standard script inscriptions to his ink paintings.

  38. Fluxor said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

    @Prof. Mair: My interpretation of the box surrounding 茶 is that it is decorative. Could it have been for emphasis? Sure, that's possible. Decorative and emphasis often go hand in hand. But nothing about that sign really stands out to me as being anomalous as far as store front signs with a Taiwanese emphasis goes. As you've already mentioned, the usage of の is certainly not unfamiliar in Taiwan. The use of の on store fronts is also well established in both HK and Taiwan, and to a lesser extent on the mainland. I'm sure you've seen plenty of 優の良品 stores in your travels as they are quite prominent at airports. Thus, the use of の is neither original nor surprising.

    I disagree the last two characters were done "by hand". The font for の looks like a mirrored & rotated 'e' using the same leafy font as "cactus wawa". Any simple graphics software can do the job in seconds in the hands of a competent graphics designer, whom I'm sure has access to all sorts of fonts. The 茶 in the last character (as well as 娃娃) looks like a fairly standard "Kai" font (楷體字體). The enclosure around 茶 looks like the character 囗 in a "childish font" (兒童字體、童年字體) that was superimposed around 茶. Again, this can be accomplished rather quickly with graphics software.

    As to why the owner didn't use the leafy font for 娃娃, it could very well be that there is no such leafy font available for Chinese characters so the person stuck with a standard font, or that the owner just wanted the characters to be of standard font for design reasons. Who knows, but regardless of the design choice that was made, my opinion is that for the vast majority of the intended audience, the sign will not scream out to them "look at me, I'm weird".

  39. Belial Issimo said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 6:42 pm

    I have nothing of value to contribute to this fascinating discussion directly regarding exegesis of the characters, but would just share two observations found on Google:

    1. Cactus Wawa has, or had, a Twitter account, comprising a single plaintive tweet on 2 April 2012, "Do you like bubble tea ? Check out Cactus Wawa !"

    2. The restaurant is indexed in some Chinese site called heremaps under the name "Oriental Cactus."–124f25dv-9a38704feffc4ffe987b5ca0143e4355

  40. Victor Mair said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 7:16 pm

    @Belial Issimo

    Many thanks for digging up those two great links.

    Maybe somebody (an acolyte of Edward Said?) told her that "oriental" should be avoided and / or that she should make it sound more French and / or that "wawa" (perhaps her nickname anyway) is cuter than "oriental".

    I don't think she wanted to come across as weird, but rather as special / distinctive.

  41. Akito said,

    November 4, 2014 @ 11:08 am

    I'm not at all certain, but perhaps the 茶+囗 symbolizes "tea in container"? Then its combination with 娃娃 makes sense, as these 卡哇伊娃娃茶包 (cute doll tea bags) show.

  42. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    November 4, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

    A few internet finds:

    1. Here is a YouTube video about the Cactus Wawa Teahouse, filmed inside it:

    2. The teahouse used to call itself 娃娃茶 on Facebook:娃娃茶/232891640074254

    3. An earlier Facebook page of theirs was called 娃娃の茶 instead. Its traces remain:娃娃の茶(Cactus)_Montreal_105492762870517

    4. Sadly I don't know Chinese, but this seems to be a post about the same establishment. Google Translate cannot parse the title, 台式-娃娃的茶(cactus):

    5. This seems to be a discussion in which people are talking about the Cactus Wawa Teahouse and are unsure if it's called 娃娃屋 or 娃娃園 or 娃娃茶. Maybe the mystery character has something to do with that:請問montreal有那些值得推見的臺灣菜餐廳嗎

  43. Victor Mair said,

    November 4, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

    From Richard W.

    Here's a larger, front-on view of the restaurant:

    If you wanted to check with the original owner, who presumably had the sign made, she was gone by May 2011:
    "New owner… Not as good. Stephen Lim · May 20, 2011"

    A long, fond review is here:
    The reviewer writes: "One time, I read through Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita in its entirety; overstaying my welcome is not something I’m proud of, I’m merely mentioning that it doesn’t seem to be a problem for the staff at Cactus."

    Speaking of Lolita, the enclosure around the 茶 character is somewhat similar to the enclosure used in the Lolita font:

    Other reviews here:

  44. Victor Mair said,

    November 4, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

    Hearty thanks to Giacomo Ponzetto and Richard W. for the many links concerning cactus wawa.

    The fifth item cited by the former does indeed refer to the teahouse as Wáwá yuán 娃娃園 ("Wawa Garden").

    On "garden" in Chinese restaurant names, see:

    "Tasty Chinese"

    "Me Old China"

  45. Richard W said,

    November 4, 2014 @ 6:57 pm

    The YouTube video mentioned by Giacomo Ponzetto, at the 42-second mark identifies the manager of the restaurant (as of April 2012) as Rocky Kang, and there is a Rocky Kang on the following LinkedIn page

    I believe it is the same Rocky Kang who managed Cactus Wawa, because the LinkedIn page says that he is a marketing manager at "sinorama group", and the following Facebook page for Sinorama Group has a photo of a person who looks like the restaurant manager in the Cactus Wawa video clip. He has that distinctive goatee beard, for example.

    The LinkedIn page has a "Send rocky InMail" button, so if you still want to contact someone connected with the restaurant to ask about the meaning of the sign, or find out who the original owner was, Prof. Mair, then the option is there … :-)

  46. Richard W said,

    November 4, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

    Oops! … I forgot to give the Facebook link:

  47. Victor Mair said,

    November 4, 2014 @ 8:19 pm

    I'm not a member of Facebook and don't know how to use it, so would someone else please contact Rocky Kang, give him the title and URL for this post, and ask him if he knows the meaning and pronunciation of the mystery character 茶(+囗), indeed of the whole name 娃娃の茶(+囗). Even better, ask him if he could help put us in touch with cactus wawa, or whoever was the original owner of the shop before him.

  48. Richard W said,

    November 4, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

    I volunteer to do it. I think it's best if Rocky isn't contacted by multiple investigators with the same inquiry :-)

  49. Richard W said,

    November 4, 2014 @ 9:52 pm

    I couldn't send a direct message via LinkedIn without "upgrading" my (free) LinkedIn account. However, I sent a message to Rocky via the SinoramaGroup Facebook page. I'll let you know if I receive a reply.

  50. Alyssa said,

    November 4, 2014 @ 10:50 pm

    There's another, more mundane mystery here as well. Does "cactus" modify "wawa", or the other way around? Officially, restaurant names in Montreal are supposed to be in French, and French word order would imply the latter. But if wawa is a person's name, then what is a wawa cactus? Or should we assume that the store owner just picked a name that sounds good in English and didn't worry about it making sense in French? Actually, that might explain where the "cactus" part comes from – maybe the owner was just looking for a nice "nature" word that's spelled the same in English and French?

  51. Richard W said,

    November 5, 2014 @ 11:32 pm

    Rocky Kang's reply:

    the pronunciation is "wá wá de chá" means the doll' s tea. The "chá" means tea, the reason I put a "口” around it like a wall, it means the tea is grown up in a garden, organic, and good quality. BTW THIS picture brings back some good memory , thank you

  52. Victor Mair said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 12:31 am

    Thanks, Richard W, for contacting Rocky Kang, and thanks to Rocky for replying.

    So the enclosure doesn't seem to have a specific pronunciation, but it certainly has meaning, a lot of meaning ("wall –> garden, organic, good quality"). Furthermore, Rocky tells us that the whole thing (娃娃の茶[+囗]) — including the kana の — is pronounced as Mandarin, not as Taiwanese or something else.

    There are still some things that puzzle me, however, and they have to do with the history of the teashop. From what Rocky says, it sounds as though he devised the cactus wawa sign, including drawing the enclosure around the character for tea. But I'm not sure how that squares with the information we have that the teashop came under new ownership after it was called "cactus wawa". And then there's the fact that, near the beginning of the marketing video (put together by the new owner, and that seems to be Rocky, since he plays the key role in the video), there's a shot of the front of the shop with the cactus wawa sign blackened out. No one has mentioned that fact before, but I watched the video many times, and I always felt sad that the wonderful cactus wawa sign was no longer visible. Then — bearing in mind that the shop had gone through a whole series of name changes — to hear Rocky close his note to us with this poignant sentence, "BTW THIS picture brings back some good memory , thank you", I can only think that there is some deeper story to all of this, and I have a strong suspicion that it involves none other than cactus wawa.

  53. Richard W said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 12:58 am

    @Victor Mair "there's a shot of the front of the shop with the cactus wawa sign blackened out"

    I wondered about that, too, but the sign is visible in the shots at the start and end of the video clip, and the shot where the sign is blacked out (in the middle of the video clip) is subtitled "About competitors". It appears to be a Google streetview photo that shows the cafes next to Cactus Wawa, so I supposed that it might have been blacked out by editing the photo in order to highlight the competitors: the adjacent shops.

  54. Richard W said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 1:24 am

    Actually, I see from Google Street View that the sign was indeed painted over or shrouded at some point.

    And John Swindle wrote "In Google Street View I see either an August 2011 or a June 2012 image, depending on the vantage point. The August 2011 image shows the main sign shrouded. The June 2012 image shows it in all its magnificence."

  55. Jongseong Park said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 5:12 am

    Some typography-minded observations:

    The の is clearly a re-purposed "e", flipped and rotated, from the same typeface as the "cactus wawa" part, and even has the same green pattern suggesting curled leaves. This is the sort of typical quick fix you see when people don't have fonts in a foreign script readily available, like mirroring R in an existing Latin typeface to represent Cyrillic Я.

    娃娃 and 茶 are in a typical kaishu (regular script) typeface. The squarish enclosure of 茶 on the other hand doesn't show an obvious typographical origin. If it does come from a typeface, it would come from a distinctive monolinear sans serif handwritten 囗, mirrored horizontally.

    If the enclosure was meant to be part of the character, it would have been simpler to use the 囗 and a digitally scaled 茶 from the same font. Why go through the trouble of picking another, stylistically very different font (assuming that the 囗 comes from one in the first place) and flipping it so that it is difficult to interpret as a 囗 following stroke-order logic? Enclosing glyphs in circles or squares is very widespread in Japan or Korea (e.g. ㉮), and it wouldn't surprise me to see something similar for a Taiwanese sign.

    Since a square enclosure could be readily interpreted as part of the character in Chinese, to emphasize that it is not, you would make it stylistically different from the enclosed character. Even the fact that it looks like a flipped 囗 may be specifically to prevent its interpretation as part of the character. A simple geometric square would look like a Chinese character element in a sans serif typeface, but the rounded top left corner specifically resists that interpretation. None of this is definitive, but it contributes to my overall leaning towards interpreting this as a simple enclosed 茶 and not a new character.

  56. tsts said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 6:03 am

    Note sure if this helps, but there is a tea called Xian1Ren2Zhang3Cha2 that is usually translated as "cactus tea" even though there is no cactus involved. See e.g.,

  57. Victor Mair said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 1:00 pm

    Some additional notes:

    The 茶 inside the enclosure is definitely from a different font than the 茶 at the bottom left of the sign.

    It seems that, before the 茶 was inserted inside the enclosure, it was slightly shrunk so that the whole (囗+茶) would have the size of a single graph comparable to the size of the two 娃 at the beginning of the line.

    The size of the 茶 part of the 囗+茶 character is definitely smaller (shorter and narrower) than the two 娃 at the beginning of the line.

    I'm not even sure that the 茶 part of the 囗+茶 character can be considered as coming from the identical font of the two 娃 at the beginning of the line. The latter seem more kaishu-ish than the former, where the strokes — although made to look as though written with a calligraphic brush — are more spindly and stick-like, with less attention to the pressing down and lifting up of the brush tip (which causes differential width of individual strokes at the beginning and end) than for the two 娃.

    In the street view of August, 2011, which shows the cactus wawa sign clearly covered over with two long, broad strips of black material, the lettering on the glass door to the left (next to the alley entrance) reads (dots are for positioning only):

    Cactus ..娃


    The place where we would expect a の, ㄟ, e, or 的, etc. is blank.

    Jongseong Park's analysis of the "re-purposed 'e', flipped and rotated", is right on target, and irrefutably supports the view of our first two commenters, Tom S. Fox and Vance Maverick.

    The photograph shown at 1:19 of the Social Media video indisputably shows the cactus wawa teashop from a different angle (at about a 45 degree angle to the right) and with the blackened sign that I mentioned in a previous comment. The two stores that appear to the right of the cactus wawa teashop are the same ones that we have seen in other views of the premises.

  58. Belial Issimo said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

    In an effort to see if I could unearth contact information for the original owner (Mlle. Cactus? Mlle. Wawa?) I tried searching Cactus Wawa in the Québec business entity registry (, which has a somewhat searchable database. Unfortunately it appears to be searchable only by name or registry number, not by address.

    There is no Cactus Wawa; too many "Cactus" entities for me to go through (perhaps someone else has the inclination); and 21 entities with "Wawa" including a couple of sushi places, a convenience store (or auto repair shop, I suppose – wouldn't that be cool to take your car to Wawa Auto Repair), and a dog groomer (La dolce WaWa, styliste canin). So Cactus Wawa must have been the Québec equivalent of a dba and the business was registered under a different official name. Maybe if someone could find a pdf of the menu it would show the NEQ (company registration number) and the trail could be taken up from there.

  59. Richard W said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

    Cactus Wawa's manager said in the Social Media video "I need to figure out a very efficient way … to get people from [competitors' stores, "80% of [whose] customers are white people"] to my store." That might help to explain why the sign, with its Chinese characters, was covered over.

  60. Jongseong Park said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 6:30 pm

    @Victor Mair: I'm not even sure that the 茶 part of the 囗+茶 character can be considered as coming from the identical font of the two 娃 at the beginning of the line.

    Actually, these are definitely from the same font, namely DF Kai which is bundled with many Microsoft products. You can preview what 娃 and 茶 look like in this font in the following link (the latter especially is a giveaway in the treatment of the bottom vertical stroke):

    You're right in your observations that the two glyphs have slightly different apparent stroke weight and stroke treatment. But with tens of thousands of glyphs, I guess it can be rather difficult to maintain a consistent look across all characters in a Chinese font.

  61. Richard W said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

    @Jongseong Park
    That convinces me they're from the same font.
    Here are the characters side by side:

  62. Victor Mair said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

    @Jongseong Park

    I am pleased you agree that "the two glyphs have slightly different apparent stroke weight and stroke treatment."

    Also, although neither you nor Richard W nor anyone else has mentioned it, I assume you agree that the person responsible for the sign went to the trouble of shrinking down the the 茶 part of the 囗+茶 graph so that the resultant glyph would be the same size as the two 娃 at the beginning of the line.

  63. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

    Another curious find. Cactus Wawa had a much more cactus-like past. Here is what I take to be a scan of its old business card:

    And here is the page it comes from, where the image is a link to the Cactus Wawa Facebook page:

    Also, it turns out Cactus Wawa was the second establishment. E.g.,

    Perhaps the original establishment was called Cactus, its successor 娃娃茶, and that yielded Cactus Wawa as a portmanteau.

  64. Victor Mair said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

    @Giacomo Ponzetto


    On the third site you cite, "Cactus" in one or another formulation / reincarnation is mentioned several times. And one commenter has this to say:


    mainsqueeze Apr 30, 2008 06:27 AM

    There's a Cactus on Mackay between Ste-Catherine and de Maisonneuve, on the east side. It's the same owners as the old cactus in China Town.


    From this we know that one of cactus wawa's used to be in Montreal's Chinatown.

    I love the business card you found. It's got a real big CACTUS in the center, tall and green!

  65. Richard W said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    I had no doubt that the 囗+茶 character was intended to look as if it were of the same font size as the 娃 characters, but I took some measurements to confirm that 茶 was shrunk.

    The image to which I preveiously referred* shows
    1) In the top half: DFKaiSB Regular 娃娃 茶 (same font size for all three characters)
    2) In the lower half: A screenshot of 娃娃 囗+茶 as seen in the shop sign


    I measured the height of the characters in that image in pixels:
    Top half:
    娃 64; 茶 74

    Bottom half:
    娃 75; 茶(within the enclosure) 63

    By my calculations, the 茶 within the enclosure was scaled down to 73% of the height it would have had if it were of the same font size as the 娃 in the shop sign.

    I calculated the scale factor as follows: 63/(75x(74/64)).

  66. Richard W said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

    I didn't take horizontal measurements, but it would appear to be a similar scaling factor horizontally (around 73%).

  67. Richard W said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

    Some comments on both the old and new Cactuses here:

  68. Richard W said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 6:11 pm

    It seems the old Cactus was located above ground level:
    "one of my firend works at chinatown right under the cactus"

    and the following comments about Cactus also refer to "climbing the stairs":

  69. Jongseong Park said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 6:54 pm

    Huh, I thought the scaling down of the 茶 compared to the 娃 would have been blindingly obvious. But as someone who spends a lot of time looking at typefaces and obsesses over their design details I sometimes forget that normal people don't notice the same little things I do.

    Most CJK (Chinese/Japanese/Korean) fonts are collaborative products. When you're dealing with thousands or even tens of thousands of glyphs, and especially if there are multiple people designing glyphs, it's not always easy to maintain absolute consistency in the Chinese characters, since there are no shared baselines for most of them. There are all sorts of optical corrections necessary to achieve an even look, and it's not easy to get it right. So it doesn't surprise me that people could look at two characters from the same font and think they don't belong to the same font.

  70. Victor Mair said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 8:26 pm

    At least one of the early commenters made it sound as though the 茶 part was just a regular character with an enclosure drawn around it purely for decoration, but I have been at pains to point out that considerable effort was made to shrink the character down and then put it in an enclosure to make it seem the same size as the two 娃 at the beginning of the line.

    As we know from Chinese characters being called fāngkuàizì 方塊字 ("square glyphs") and from the gridded paper used for practicing characters being divided up into squares, it is not surprising that Richard W's calculations yielded a 73% reduction in both dimensions (vertical and horizontal).

    The latest findings about precursors to cactus wawa in Montreal from Giacomo Ponzetto and Richard W reveal that the word Cactus was used alone for awhile. Another thing that caught my attention is that the issue of Taiwan vs. China came up in the comments, and not in a political context, but in the context of gastronomy.

    Finally, several commenters mentioned that the employees at the Cactus on Mackay St. never smiled. I think I know who one of the employees they're talking about is.

  71. Richard W said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

    @Victor Mair
    "Richard W's calculations yielded a 73% reduction"
    To be pedantic, it was a 73% scaling factor, which means it was a 27% reduction.

  72. Richard W said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 9:00 pm

    @ Jongseong Park, re "blindingly obvious"
    1) As you say, you can see things that normal people can't, owing to your experience with typefaces :-)
    2) I come from a mathematical background, where (ultimately) nothing except the most basic of axioms is taken for granted in proving a theorem.
    3) I am an editor of a crowdsourced C-E dictionary (CC-CEDICT) and I've found that submitters often make assertions that they think are blindingly obvious, but are nevertheless false.
    4) Optical illusions can play tricks with the unpracticed eye. I would not have predicted so large a linear reduction as 27% just by comparing the characters on the sign with the naked eye.

  73. Victor Mair said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 9:11 pm

    @Richard W

    Thanks for the pedantic, yet necessary, correction about the 73% scaling factor. I meant to say "reduction to 73%" — that would have been awkward, but less wrong than saying "73% reduction".

    I very much appreciate your comments regarding "blindingly obvious" and your mathematical measurements that showed precisely how large the reduction was.

  74. Bruce said,

    November 9, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

    I honestly can't figure out the surprise over the use of の on that sign.

    As noted in several comments above, の is widely used in book titles, ads, etc., in the PRC. No one I know pronounces it as "de"; most everyone knows it is an alternative writing of 之.

    My understanding is that の is simply a 草书 form of 之 .

  75. Richard W said,

    November 9, 2014 @ 7:01 pm

    の is a character in the Japanese hiragana syllabary. According to the Wikipedia article on hiragana, it was, like other hiragana characters, derived from a cursive form of a Chinese character whose pronunciation was similar to that of the derived hiragana symbol, but in the case of の (pronounced "no" in Japanese), the hanzi was 乃 (nǎi in Mandarin) rather than 之 (zhī in Mandarin).

    You can see a cursive form of both 乃 and 之 here:
    In this image at least, 乃 looks a lot more like の than 之 does.

    That was a screenshot taken from this website:

    In terms of *meaning*, の is similar to 之 (and that could explain why it's read as zhī in a Chinese context), but I'm not yet convinced that the *shape* of の comes from 之.

    の is also similar in meaning to Chinese 的 (de in Mandarin), which would explain why the manager of the Cactus Wawa restaurant reads の as "de". (See comment above: "Rocky Kang's reply").

  76. Richard W said,

    November 9, 2014 @ 7:18 pm

    The other thing about "use of の on that sign" that is surprising is that, instead of using the DFKaiSB Regular font used for the Chinese characters, the designer chose to use a flipped and rotated letter "e" from the font used in the top half of the sign. The DFKaiSB Regular font does have a の character that could have been used. It looks like this:

  77. Richard W said,

    November 9, 2014 @ 7:47 pm

    Even if "most everyone knows の is an alternative writing of 之" (i.e. it's blindingly obvious), the following writer claims it is also read as "de".

    Sometimes you can see the の in a Chinese context (for example in book titles or product names). That's an orthographic gimmick only (i.e. to convey a "Japanese feeling"); when people say it, they pronounce it as 之 or 的, not no. […] Actually I also used の occasionally when I was a kid ─ not to save strokes, but just to annoy the teachers (you see I was a very perverse kid)
    – Ghabi (forum moderator)

  78. Victor Mair said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 9:53 am

    It's not unexpected that Taiwan would adopt the Japanese kana の as one of the graphic symbols that may stand for the Taiwanese genitive particle ê [e] (particularly in light of the fact that there is no known character to represent that morpheme), since Japanese influence there was very heavy during the first half of the 20th century. Nor is it surprising that this usage would gradually spread from Taiwan to the Mainland in recent years, inasmuch as this is a pattern that many other Taiwanisms have taken in the last few decades after the post-Nixon opening of China.

    Ditto for the adoption of the Japanese usage of liàolǐ 料理 to refer to "cooking; cuisine" into more general usage in Taiwan, and from Taiwan to the Mainland, as we have been discussing in another recent post:

    "A French Japanese Chinese restaurant" (11/8/14)

  79. Chas Belov said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

    Although I usually see it Romanized as ryori (when Romanizing Japanese).

  80. Richard W said,

    November 10, 2014 @ 5:46 pm

    @Chas Belov
    料理 is a word in both Japanese and Chinese. It's romanized in various ways. For the Chinese word, Pinyin is usually used: liàolǐ. For Japanese, depending on the system used, you may see ryōri, ryouri, or ryoori.

    "ryori" isn't an accurate way to romanize the word because it doesn't indicate that the first syllable is lengthened, but it's a good way to write it for people who aren't familiar with Japanese romanization.

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