Social distance posters in various Asian scripts

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At first I thought these might have come from Singapore or some other Southeast Asian country, but upon closer inspection, I see that they are from the Hong Kong Department of Health, which was confirmed by Fraser Howie, who sent them to me.  They are respectively in Hindi, Indonesian, Thai, Nepali, Bengali, Sinhala, Urdu, Vietnamese, and Tagalog.  Upon further reflection, it is clear that the content of the posters is directed at the foreign domestic helpers who comprise five percent of Hong Kong's population.  One of their favorite activities when they have time off from their jobs is to gather in groups in public places, sitting on the ground or on benches to chat and often to enjoy what to me seems like a picnic.

Here's the English version of these posters:

New requirements to reduce gatherings

    • Maintaining social distancing is key to delay the spread of COVID-19 in Hong Kong
    • The prohibition of group gatherings with more than four people in public places commences at 0:00 am on March 29 for a period of 14 days (i.e. till April 11)
    • Any person who contravenes the regulation shall be liable to a maximum fine of $25,000 or imprisonment for six months


For those who are interested, the Chinese version of these posters may be found here.

Here's the website of The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region for fighting the virus (kàngyì 抗疫).  You can see that the same nine languages are featured on this website.

Selected readings


  1. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 2:22 pm

    Given the complete lack of Dravidian languages and the presence of Hindi and Urdu, my first guess would have been Dubai or Abu Dhabi, not a SE Asian country.

  2. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 2:27 pm

    When did green for go or yes and red for stop or no become so universal? Also, checkmark for yes (or done) and X for no? It doesn’t seem likely that X for no arose coincidentally in countries using several of the scripts shown above.

    Did X for no come from traffic signs as automobiles became more common?

    Did the use of red for stop and green for go also come from U.S. or western traffic signals, from the use of red and green lights in marine navigation, or from some other source?

    I thought colors for good luck, mourning, celebration, religious seasons, or other displays were not that uniform across cultures.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 2:35 pm

    Not from navigation, Barbara, where they traditionally signify port and starboard. And thinking of Leo's comment in another thread (concerning the non-portability of 04-02-2020), what you call a "checkmark" I call a "tick", and what you call an "X" I could easily picture when you write "a checkmark" !

  4. zafrom said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 5:39 pm

    Fascinating, thank you. Apparently a good thing that I am not in the target audience for the posters, because I am counting 14 days — "0:00 am on March 29 for a period of 14 days (i.e. till April 11)" — as lasting till 0:00 April 12. Or does "till April 11" mean "till the end of the day April 11"?

    My California county had, for me, a similarly baffling time listed — "no later than 12:00 a.m. on Wednesday, March 18, 2020". Another county more helpfully required "no later than 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, March 17, 2020".

    While spending too much time trying to spot the subtle differences between the drawings (fingers and toes are currently in short supply?), and wondering why the mobile-using camera-speaker has what looks like an English-language wall calendar, I was heartened by other details. One woman has an opened book in front of her, and some diners have what look like helpfully long arms.

  5. Chips Mackinolty said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 6:08 pm

    … and here is a (growing) number of short films in Aboriginal languages of the Northern Territory of Australia:

  6. Chips Mackinolty said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 6:11 pm

    … and further resources in Eastern and Western Kriol in northern Australia:

  7. Chips Mackinolty said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 6:18 pm

    … and further resources, posters in Eastern Kriol:

    These posters have also been translated into Anmatyerr, Warlpiri, Yanyuwa and Bininj Kunwok

  8. Anthony said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 7:30 pm

    Red, green, and yellow for traffic lights come from railroad signals.

  9. Bathrobe said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 8:23 pm

    In Japan, the tick is usually replaced by a circle. (Since a circle or double circle is used in appraising/correcting students' calligraphy, I assume it comes from East Asian tradition).

  10. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 11:37 pm

    Thanks, Philip. I encounter “tick” when I read British news or fiction, but I didn’t think to use it because in the northeastern U.S. where I live, ticks are insects. And if I “tick someone off” then I have made them annoyed or angry.

  11. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 2:17 am

    It’s always been my understanding that the choice of green as the code color for positive things and red as the code color for negative things was more or less inevitable, since green is the predominant color of healthy vegetation, which directly or indirectly is a prerequisite for life under normal conditions, whereas red is the color of spilled blood and therefore associated with death

  12. bks said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 7:04 am

    Professor Mair: Can you give us some insight into the situation in Taiwan where, despite having a population larger than New York State, they have only 355 cases and 5 deaths?

  13. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 7:37 am


    Impressive, indeed! All the more so since Taiwan achieved this admirable record without any assistance or collaboration from WHO and China. Most people who are studying the spread and control of the coronavirus think it's the result of Taiwan's fundamentally sound, strong healthcare and medical science.

  14. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 9:37 am

    Continuing what I said previously about the significance of red and green: While I've long been aware of the variability of color symbolism from culture to culture that Barbara Phillips Long mentions above, I always assumed that the Western significances of red and green, and perhaps of blue as well, were more primitive, elemental, and obvious than competing significances–such as, notably, the Chinese treatment of red as symbolizing good fortune, etc.–and that the Western significances were destined to prevail as the world moved towards more of a universal culture. I viewed Chinese color symbolism as an outlier, the eccentric result of China's millennia-long anfractuosities of cultural development. Perhaps that was too ethnocentric of me, though? I wonder, how have the Chinese felt over the last century or so about the use of their favorite color red for stop lights and the meaning "no"?

  15. Christian Weisgerber said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 1:19 pm

    Since I was supposed to travel to Taiwan around this time (I live in Germany), I kept an eye on the news there (via over the last few weeks. Taiwan has—so far—managed to contain the outbreak, with community transmission limited to small, well-understood clusters. Like Singapore and Hong Kong, they have been prepared for something like this since SARS in 2002–3. I doubt that their success is due to a single "silver bullet" measure but the one that has stuck out to me is the extensive contact tracing. Whenever a new case shows up, they try to identify any and all contacts. That can mean finding a hundred people. (One report mentioned 449 contacts, but that may have been a typo.) Each one is contacted and has to self-manage, i.e., avoid going out, measure temperature twice daily and keep book, etc. Known cases are swiftly isolated. For each new case, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) reports how they became infected. Returning travelers now have to self-quarantine. This is checked by the police. Quarantine breakers are hunted down, fined up to a million Taiwan dollars (~30,000 EUR), and forcefully confined.

    In short, Taiwan's success is due to tremendous effort.

    I probably helps that Taiwan is an island. I mean, this is a country where the exact numbers of illegal aliens is reported (presumably calculated from visa overstays).

  16. Not a naive speaker said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 2:39 pm

    Might somebody explain what the difference is between the Hindu and Urdu posters from a language angle (except for the script)?

  17. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 10:41 pm

    @M. Paul Shore: I don’t have any good theories about the origins of green for go and red for stop, but one issue I have with it these days is that red-green colorblindness is more generally known. Relying on a red-green distinction without other cues poses problems for many colorblind people.

    In U.S. signage, green has become heavily used by banks, probably because U.S. currency is mostly printed in shades of green. This source said green is “associated with stability” and that is why it the U.S. continued to use it for currency:

    Many reds are associated with ripe fruits, which might explain why the blood/red/danger/stop associations are not the sole meaning of red colors.

  18. Andrew Usher said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 7:51 am

    Christian Weisgerber:
    That explanation of Taiwan is appreciated. I have no reason to doubt its truth. Note that that not unreasonable approach requires certain preconditions: that it start early enough it the course of the outbreak, that it be implemented and enforced thoroughly and uniformly throughout the nation, and that all people entering/re-entering the country also be subject. Without those it would fail.

    When I suggested (more than once) that China possibly could have stopped the disease before it spread globally, things of that nature were what I had in mind. We could call those quarantine-type policies. They can be justified if they do work, despite seeming harsh, because (in the cases where they work) they apply only to a limited number of people, for a limited time per person, and because of that can be kept up as long as needed without facing ruin. It is obviously quite a different situation in America and Europe where even if such a regime could be pulled off it is too late to start one.

    Not a naive speaker:
    It's Hindi, not Hindu, for the language, and yes the script is the main difference (and relevant for signs).

    On tick vs. checkmark – both have acceptable etymologies. Either 'tick' or 'check' can be used for the verb (to make such a mark), and the latter is borrowed from the more general sense of 'check'. While the canonical checkmark is the symbol in those posters, it can mean any handwritten mark used for the purpose.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  19. Lisa RR said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 4:13 pm

    Bit worried that some of these domestic staff don’t even have as much space as their own bunk bed.

  20. Bathrobe said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 4:22 pm

    @ Barbara Phillips Long

    With all due respect, your reasons for not using “tick” don’t hold much water. The reason you used “check” is not homophony with undesirable words. “Tick” is used for those insects right across the English-speaking world, without affecting the use of “tick” in Mr Taylor’s sense in places where it is so used. Your use of “check” has a perfectly natural justification: you are from the US and that is normal US usage. The only thing on which you might be faulted is your failure to give a nod to the alternative usage in your comment, given that this blog is read by people all around the world, but I suspect that is not something most people would take into account. (Oh, you forgot “tic” — different spelling, same pronunciation.)

  21. Bathrobe said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 4:48 pm

    BTW, British English has the pejorative expression “boring little tick” (used of people one finds insignificant and boring). The existence of this should be an additional strike against the use of “tick” for “check” in the UK. In fact it makes not one iota of difference.

  22. ajay said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 6:09 am

    Not from navigation, Barbara, where they traditionally signify port and starboard.

    Well, maybe from navigation, actually. Because steam ships give way to the right.
    Imagine two steam ships on converging courses at night. The captain of the ship on the right will see a green light (on the starboard side of the other ship) and will therefore continue on his course and speed, knowing that he has the right of way. The captain of the ship on the left will see the red light on the port side of the other ship, and should therefore change course and/or slow down.
    Or, as it was taught to me as a very young cadet, "If to starboard red appear/It is your duty to keep clear".

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 6:44 am

    Fascinating, Ajay — something my nautical forebearers never passed down to me, or if they did, I have completely forgotten it with the passage of time.

  24. Andrew Usher said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 6:52 am

    However, if both ships are passing in the normal direction, they will both see red (to port). So it's not automatically green = go, red = stop, there.

    On the last subject, perhaps the only surprising thing is that it's just 'tick' and not 'tick mark'; did the noun come first over there? Quite plausible given the history of 'tick', though obvious the first marks do be so described would not have looked like check-marks.

  25. ajay said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 4:06 am

    Andrew – good point. If they're passing in opposite directions, then the should both see red – because you're supposed to pass port to port.

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