Chinese restaurant shorthand

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Yixue Yang went to the Ting Wong Restaurant 天旺大饭店 in Philadelphia's Chinatown the other day. Here's the order the waiter took down:

If you're not in the Chinese restaurant business, you probably won't be able to decipher what the two dishes Yixue and her friend ordered were:

chāshāo yā fàn 叉烧鸭饭
("barbecued pork and [roast] duck on rice")

niúnǎn fàn 牛腩饭
("beef brisket on rice")

For the first dish, the waiter omitted the second character altogether, elided the "bird" radical from the third character, and elided the "food" radical of the fourth character.

For the second dish, the waiter dropped the first character, the "flesh" radical of the second character, and the "food" radical of the fourth character.

We have looked at similar Chinese restaurant shorthand in previous posts, e.g.:


  1. Simon P said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 2:16 am

    I note both that the translitteration "Ting Wong" seems to be Cantonese but the characters simplified, and the somewhat curious translitteration of 天 as "Ting". The Cantonese reading is "tin1". Or are we dealing with a different topolect?

    If it's indeed Cantonese, here are the Canto readings of the dishes:
    叉烧鸭饭: caa1 siu1 aap3 faan6
    牛腩饭: ngau4 naam5 faan6

  2. tsts said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 8:39 am

    Yes, likely a Cantonese place.

    Concerning the second dish, my understanding is that using nǎn 腩 for brisket is mainly a Cantonese usage, and that Mandarin would use 胸肉 instead?

    Removing the second character in chāshāo is fairly standard (at least in Cantonese) for many dishes, and I guess most people would order caa1 aap3 faan6 without the siu1.

  3. leoboiko said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 10:16 am

    So they're dropping the semantic components and writing the phonetics in cursive shorthand… why, this is basically kana.

  4. m said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 12:58 pm

    I'm wondering if this semi-standard shorthand (according to the linked posts) is analogous to the "Diner Lingo" once in use by short-order cooks and the counter waiters who called out the customers' orders? Diner Lingo was a fairly widespread convention for internal communication (and maybe a way to have a little joke on the customers).

    "Wreck 'em" for scrambled eggs
    "Burn one" for "put a hamburger on the grill"
    "Radio" for tuna salad sandwich on toast

    No need to explain BLT, PBJ, etc. Quite a few websites have collections of these shorthand food names, some credible, some maybe not so much. I have no idea if this is still done anywhere.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

    We may perhaps say that this type of Chinese restaurant shorthand is a proto-embryonic syllabary, but it has a long way to go before it becomes a true syllabary like kana. Indeed, it is still far from reaching the stage of nüshu 女书 ("women's script") of Jiangyong County in Hunan Province, which is a not fully systematized or standardized set of rhomboidally skewed Chinese characters. Nüshu had the potential to become a large syllabary, but it is now virtually extinct as a vital, functioning writing system, being preserved only by a handful of scholars and a few younger women who are learning it as form of cultural heritage.

  6. Neil Kubler said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 9:23 pm

    Interesting stuff. In Hong Kong restaurant shorthand, the Mandarin ji si "chicken threads, shredded chicken" is often written as gai si, with the Chinese character for "chicken" followed by the uppercase Roman alphabet C to stand for the character "silk." (In Cantonese, the pronunciation of si "silk" is, unlike in Mandarin, almost identical to English "C".) [Sorry, on this hotel computer I can't write Chinese characters.]

  7. John said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 12:00 am

    In Hong Kong itself many restaurants have stopped bothering even with this shorthand and just write the dish number from the menu, or the price. Sometimes they have several dishes of the day and then as you sit down, you just shout out A! or B!

    Hence yesterday I received an order slip with just "A+2" written on it. +2 meant that I had to pay $2 extra because I wanted a cold instead of a hot drink.

    As for "Ting Wong", nobody says restaurants have to accurately transliterate their Chinese names (nor does the English name have to resemble the Chinese name at all). Although there is a lazy pronunciation in Hong Kong where /ng/ becomes /n/

  8. K. Chang said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    @Simon P

    The "Cantonese / English" shop names are features in prominent Chinatowns. I'm sure Prof. Mair had many entries on LL before. From San Francisco, I submit:

    "New Lai Wah Florist" on Jackson 新麗華花舖

    It's pure Cantonese, except for that "New" in front.

    Sadly, as businesses ebb and flow, names change. A lot of the shops either adopt a more American name while keeping the Chinese name, thus losing the quirky link between the original American name and the Chinese name.

    On Broadway St. there's a "Sam Rong Cafe". Its Chinese name is 大埠文記茶餐廳 (San Francisco Meng's Tea Restaurant) If you haven't been around this area you wouldn't know that this restaurant used to be "Meng Kee Cafe" (Meng's Cafe) which is related to their original restaurant in 2nd Chinatown at Clement st, San Francisco. on the West Side of town. They changed the American name, but kept the Chinese name, breaking the connection.


    The places that use menu numbers may have computer systems that requires data entry to track dishes served and such.

    @Neil Kubler

    Hong Kong Cantonese is VERY fond of borrowing English letters as well as other words for the appropriate sounds that did not existin Mandarin but needed in Cantonese. There were more than a few articles here on this very subject.

  9. flow said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

    @K. Chang—judging from

    your post (大埠文記茶餐廳 (San Francisco Meng's Tea Restaurant) […] used to be "Meng Kee Cafe" (Meng's Cafe)),

    the entry for 記 at e.g.

    茶記 caa4 gei3 = [粵] (slang) Hong Kong style cafe

    M記 M gei3 = McDonald's

    雞記 gai1 gei3 = KFC restaurant

    my own experience with restaurant names over here in Berlin (e.g. 老友記)

    it would seem that in Cantonese 記 gei3 has somehow acquired the meaning "diner, cafe, restaurant, eating place". Does anyone know how this came about and why of all characters 記 is used here?

  10. Vic said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 7:07 pm

    Offtopic, but related to K. Chang's post:

    When I was a teenager in West Los Angeles, there was a coffee shop called "GABY'S". It closed, and after a while the neon sign had a bit of paint applied, and it became "GARY'S". Another change of ownership, more paint, and it was "GAR'S".

    IIRC, the next owner removed the sign. I just checked Google Street View, and the building has been torn down and replaced by a Yoshinoya.

  11. Chas Belov said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 8:09 pm

    Yes, I see this at my neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Their printed menu is English-only and I had to look up the Chinese.

    黃米 (brown rice, lit. "yellow rice") gets written as 王

    魚味茄子 (eggplant in spicy sauce, lit. "fish-flavor eggplant") gets written as 鱼茄

    魚味西蘭花 (broccoli in spicy sauce, lit. "fish-flavor broccoli") gets written as 鱼介 (I think; I'm not absolutely sure about that last character, as it seems so odd a choice to me, but I'm pretty sure.)

  12. Chas Belov said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 8:11 pm

    Actually, the eggplant might be 魚加. Gives me two excuses to go back and make sure :)

  13. K. Chang said,

    September 25, 2016 @ 10:04 pm


    I've always read 記 as "place", like "Ron's Place" or "Zhang's Place" though you're right, somehow it only seem to be used in relations to a diner-type establishment.

  14. Chas Belov said,

    September 27, 2016 @ 1:37 am

    鱼茄 (with the grass radical) confirmed. I'll go back later this week to confirm 鱼介. The things I do for the Log :)

  15. Chas Belov said,

    September 29, 2016 @ 1:35 am

    I did in fact have a misremembrance of the characters used for 魚味西蘭花.

    Not 鱼介 but if you take the simplifed for 蘭, that is, 兰, change the top two strokes back to the grass radical, rotate the bottom two strokes 90 degrees (and not touching the remaining stroke, which gains a sag at the ends), you get something very much like what they wrote.

    And of course I didn' t have a camera with me.

  16. Matt Anderson said,

    September 29, 2016 @ 8:24 am

    Chas Belov—
    Was it 芥, as in jièlán/gàilán 芥藍 (Chinese broccoli)? I could definitely imagine this further abbreviated to just 介 on some days (or from the hands of some servers).

  17. Chas Belov said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 2:43 am

    @Matt – Ah, that's the missing link. It's western broccoli, but that restaurant doesn't serve Chinese broccoli so there's no chance of a mixup. In this case, it wasn't quite 芥 in that the two middle strokes were replaced by what looked like an upside-down smile – who knows, after a long day maybe – but I'm pretty sure I've seen either 芥 or 介 in the past now that you've provided a reasonable justification for it. I'll have to keep track of which server is taking my order. The one who took my last order for eggplant uses a doctor-worthy scribble, while the one who took my last order for broccoli writes fairly neatly.

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