1.      Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to investigate into the unique position of Hong Kong, both geometrically and culturally, as a blender of Western and Eastern cultures, and analyze design principles for multi-lingual and multi-cultural information and communication design.

Having a history as a British colony for over 150 years and located in the heart of Pan Asia, Hong Kong has become an interesting hybrid of Western and Eastern cultures where new forms of visual communication have been evolved and developed. New words, new letterforms, contradicting reading patterns and unique graphic icons are designed with characteristic of both cultures.

The situation is becoming more complicated after hand-over to Mainland China after 1997. Hong Kong is moving from bi-lingual to tri-lingual city if not multi-lingual. Simplified Chinese has been added to the list of common written language under English and Traditional Chinese. The information hierarchy and visual balance in typographic design becomes great challenges for information designers.

2.     New Language in multicultural society

In Hong Kong, both Western and Eastern cultures have been imported, merged, mixed, combined together in various aspects like customs and manners, festivals and living styles. Among these aspects, the exchange and blending of language is the most obvious one in our daily life with the combination of Cantonese, Chinese, English and Japanese.


2.1.         Exchange and Blending of Languages

Despite the fact that over 95 percent of local citizens are Chinese who speaks mainly Cantonese and Chinese, Hong Kong is a multi-linguistic society. Apart from Cantonese speaking citizens; there are immigrants migrated from Mainland China and Taiwan who speak Putonghua and Mandarin, there are foreigners from Western countries who speaks mainly English; and there are considerable amount of workforce from the Pan Asia regions. Hong Kong is just like a united nation. Having four TV channels in Hong Kong, among which two of them are English channels, reflects the co-existence of different cultures. Also there are television programs dedicate to Japanese and Korean people in Hong Kong. In a multilingual society like this, there would have constant interaction between different languages.

It starts when new imported objects from one culture do not have relevant counterpart in another culture. People will use direct phonic translation and find words of similar pronunciation to call those objects. Examples are like bus, taxi, egg tart, toast, store, etc., which have phonetic translation of Chinese, while Kung Fu, Zen, Dim Sum, Coolie and Gweilo is the English words with Chinese origin. Today, we are so accustom to those translated words in Chinese, that we do not aware that they are imported.

Besides this direct replication of phonic words, there are words that are more involved in the building of new language. One example comes from the word ‘Starter’. ‘Starter’ is a little component of florescent lamp that is the key to automatic starting mechanism. Old Hong Kong people call the starter 士撻. Since the word starter carries the meaning of igniting something, the word 撻 has been used to describe the starting of a romantic love affair (撻著). Another example would be the word ‘charge’(叉). ‘Charger’ is a tool for refilling power of electricity(電) for rechargeable battery. The word ‘叉電’ has become a verb to describe refreshing oneself after long hours of works.

In the book entitled “Languages in Contact: Findings and Problems”, Uriel Weinreich made a distinction between different types of bilingualism:

  1. The co-ordinative type of bilingualism applies to individuals who have two functionally independent systems.
  2. The compound type of bilingualism applies to individuals who have two linguistic signs.
  3. The sub-ordinative type of bilingualism applies to individuals who have dominant in one language. They have two linguistic signs but only one unit of meaning, which is that of the dominant language.

Hong Kong is of the sub-ordinated type of bilingualism where Chinese/Cantonese is the dominant language. Hong Kong people speak Cantonese with their family, and learn Chinese literature at school. Since the oral and written forms of Chinese share many commonalities, it is easy for local people to learn and master both. Being a mandatory school subject, local people also learn English as well since their early age of being. However unless they are studying at Catholic Schools with foreign teachers or work in big international companies with foreign boss and colleagues, they will have little chance to practice the foreign language. In turn they can only remember and employ individual technical terms and jargons whenever applicable.

Bilinguals cannot find their words in non-native context, even with their mother tongue. The words that do come to their lips are those belonging to the other language. This is the phenomenon known as interference.

To deal with this problem, the skill employed by bilinguals is called code switching. There are two basic concepts of code switching. The first is borrowing, where a word or expression from one language is used in the other but in a “naturalized” form, that is, it is made to comply with the rules of grammar or pronunciation of the second language. One example is the Cantonese version of “Do you understand?” “你un唔understand呀?”. The Cantonese way of asking the question is “你明唔明呀?” So the word ‘understand’ is divided into two to cater for the grammatical and phonetic structure of Cantonese. This type of hybrid language we call it ‘Chinglish’, a spontaneous combination of Chinese and English.

The second skill is language choice, where the speaker changes from one language to another according to the person he is speaking to. One of the advantages of knowing two languages is that bilinguals can gain communicative benefits from both language and can share ideas and information effectively with other bilinguals. This can be used to explain and interpret the rise of new language on the web environment. Youngsters are trying to establish their own community by creating a language, which can only be understood by members of their own tribe.


2.2     Basic structure and Principles of Chinese Characters

Before discussing about the rise of new language on the Internet, I would like to talk about the fundamental concept of Chinese characters. Chinese characters are evolved basically from pictographs that represent objects, actions, events and sounds since 5000BC. Every Chinese character has its own meaning, or even has more than one meaning. This is very different from roman alphabets where the meaning of words comes from the combination of letters but not from individual alphabet.

The various types of character were first classified in 100 AD by the Chinese linguist Xu Shen, whose etymological dictionary ‘Shuowen Jiezi’ divides the script into six categories, the ‘liùshū’.

1. Pictograms (象形字 xiàngxíngzì)

2. Pictophonetic compounds (形聲字/形声字, Xíngshēngzì)

3. Ideograph (指事字, zhǐshìzì)

4. Logical aggregates (會意字/会意字, Huìyìzì)

5. Associate Transformation (轉注字/转注字, Zhuǎnzhùzì)

6. Borrowing (假借字, Jiǎjièzì)

There are approximately 47000 Chinese characters, most characters are pictophonetics1. Although some letterforms and strokes were simplified and removed occasionally in the history, but the Chinese characters are basically in its stable form since Qin Dynasty. 2


2.3     Development of ‘Martian’ Characters

The history of Chinese Character development has a dramatic twist when the Internet becomes popular. Young online surfers attempt to establish their own community and social groups as a rebellious gesture against the adult society. ‘Martian language’ (火星文)appears as a new sub-culture language on the Internet, mostly for fun, and partly to allow the messages to get away from filtering process systems in some country. But most important of all, this can be considered part of a statement used to achieve differentiation purpose and to articulate cultural identity.

Martian characters are a mixed usage of emoticon and Chinese characters when typing with computer and digital devices. The characters can be classified into:

  1. Homophonous, wrongly written character:For example, 好 will be written as 巧 both pronounce like ‘how’. 靚女will be written as 令女 , both pronounce as ‘ling liu’. 禾刀唔豬 pronounce as我都唔知呀which means ‘I don’t know’.
  2. To break down a word into two to occupy more text space: use 口牙 instead of 呀, use 奚隹 instead of 雞, and use 車欠石更 instead of 軟硬. This works very well for Traditional Chinese since characters are composed from different forms, which are individual characters by themselves.
  3. By combining sounds of two words and represent the sound with one character: For example: in 醬很好阿! 醬 sounds like combining sound of 這樣. Also in 表這樣做! 表 sounds like combining sound of 不要. And 3Q pronounce like Thank you.
  4. Cantonese phonetic transcription: use “wo ng g nei kong mud ar” which sounds like 我唔知你講乜呀. Also use “NEI TING YET HUI NG HUI? Instead of 你聽日去唔去?
  5. Use character with some features resembling the required character: For example, use 尒 instead of 你, use 曖 instead of 愛, use 侑 instead of 有, use 莪 instead of 我
  6. Mixed usage with Emoticon:

—    Eg.  (/≧▽≦) (≧▽≦) (≧3≦)/  ╭∩╮_()︿﹀)_╭∩╮

—    Eg.  😉   😀  😛  :-O  😎

—    Eg.  ^_^ happy,  T_T sad with tear,    -_-b  sweating,  =_=” can help

—    Eg.  ○| ̄|_  Orz, orz, OTZ, OTL  depressed

2.4     Creation of New language is dictated by the context and available technology

Martian language in Hong Kong does not pop up suddenly from nowhere. Just like any other ways of communication, the evolvement of Martian language has gone through different stages, in parallel with the development of computer. The earliest form of computer-based pictograph may be ASCII Art form developed in early 1960s, and widespread in the late 1970 and early 1980.

The name of ASCII art comes from the fact that the art form is composed with the 94 printable characters defined by the ASCII Standard from 1963 3. ASCII art can be created with any text editor and fixed-width font, such as Courier or Courier New.

The simplest form of ASCII art is usually named as Emoticon or Smileys. They are image combined with 2 or 3 characters that express various kinds of emotions or facial expression. More complicated form of expression can be achieved by using multiple lines and more characters,b( ̄▽ ̄)d.

When the use of computer becomes more and more popular in the East, the art form migrates from the West to the East and becomes even more complicated. Since Chinese and Japanese languages are encoded using double-byte character codes, it allows a much greater variety of characters. Users take advantage of this and create more diverse emoticon and images that are unique in the East. The most famous one is the Kaomoji from Japan (translated as Face character). It is also known as Verticon (^_^) so as to differentiates from the emoticon of the West (:-P) that needs to be read by rotating viewer’s head. All these were developing on the Internet through the collective effort of web users, but users may not aware that they have actually contribute to the creation of a new hybrid language

The evolvement from ASCII art to Emoticon to Martian language also reflects the fact that Creation of new language is somehow dictated by the context of communication and available technology. On one hand, as mentioned earlier in this section, people create the new language, partly for fun and excitement, but most important of all is to make their statement to achieve differentiation from adult society, to create their own community and to articulate unique cultural identity. As a result one of the many characteristics of Martian language is that it is difficult to read and recognize by ordinary people, and this defect is done purposely. In fact this characteristic contradicts to the usual requirement of a Language as a communication tool. But this is exactly what the users want in creating a unique language that can only be used within their own online tribe.

On the other hand, creation of new language is dictated by available technology. Martian language cannot be created if there is no double-byte coding system available. That explains why Martian language or Kaomoji show their faces in the East. (The relationship is like Morse code and telegram)


3.    Lost in Translation

3.1     Languages are born different

There are fundamental differences between Western characters and Chinese characters. English is read/written from left to right, top to bottom, whereas Chinese can be read/written from left to right or from right to left depending on the overall orientation of the work. Chinese text can also run vertically from top to bottom, then from right to left. This will lead to confusion when it comes to bilingual environment. In situation where Chinese is the dominant language, we can see that English words will run vertically from top to bottom too, and is totally unreadable. If a title is written horizontally in Chinese calligraphic style, it should be read from right to left. But if it is a bilingual situation with English, the reading directions will be confused. A worse scenario will be since Chinese characters are logograms, it is very likely that we can still read a new ‘meaning’ from the reversed direction. This will create even bigger misunderstanding.

Furthermore, Roman alphabets have ascenders and descenders, while Chinese do not. However ascender and descender are not constant features for all alphabets. So this becomes an unpredictable variable when we put the two language text together. The visual line spacing between text line of Chinese and English varies drastically when on one line of English text there is ascender & descender and when on another line of English text there is no ascender & descender. Therefore when a list of bilingual names appear on the highway road sign, the correct relationship between the names may be altered by the visual effect of wrong line spacing. This may lead to wrong turns of drivers or even cause serious traffic accident.

Not all languages are equal in Information Design. It is important to understand that even when they are direct translation, they are carrying different weights of information. If they are put together with equal visual weight, they will be interpreting as different information of the same level. This observation contradicts to the perception that even if they are of different languages, they should be treated equally because they are direct translation and are carrying the same meaning. Visual hierarchy is crucial to diversifying information and improves readability. This can be achieved through careful adjustment of type size and color, and viewers can notice immediately one set is the original information, and the other set is the translated message. These phenomenon of inequality draw our attention when we are planning the design project for our students especially when doing Wayfinding projects, which usually involve bilingual treatment.


3.2  To read and to be read

In the early days of export business of China, many products from Mainland China have their product names translated into Chinese Phonetic Alphabets and printed on the packages. It raises the question: “Who is the potential reader of the information?” For Chinese people, no matter if they can read or are illiterates, the translation is irrelevant; and for foreigners, they can only know the pronunciations of the name of the product through the phonetic alphabets but not the actual meaning of the name. It makes sense if this appears on the book cover of illustrated books that teach children the pronunciation, but there will have no purchase if the customer does not know what is inside the packaging. How can you guess that there is Stinky tofu inside when you read only (臭豆腐 choudoufu) on the packaging?

In China there are also bad translations from Chinese to English without considering the context, or simply are wrong translations. An example is干炒牛河. It means ‘Stir-Fried Beef Rice Noodle’, but is translated literally to ‘Fuck Fry Beef River’. In Simplified Chinese, 干 means ‘dry’, but also means ‘to have sex’; 河 is a kind of rice noodle, but also means ‘river’. Then there are ‘The week beats the fish soup’, ’The day type fries the black winter’?! You can imagine the scene of a translator, by using translating software, translates the names, word by word without knowing the actual meaning of the names and how they are used in context. This is an unimaginable joke in the era of global communication, and it alerts us that knowing the context is very important for comprehensive information design.

Hong Kong has its own complex contextual information structure because of its high urban density and mixture of population from all over the world. Like other modern cosmopolitan cities, Hong Kong is overflowed with information and visual signals, and many of them are more of visual noise than useful information. Information designers have to develop new tactics and methodologies in design so as to maintain the accuracy and relevancy of information itself.

There are experiments in putting multiple languages together, and hope to design something that can communicate across culture but at the same time to maintain cultural identity. Designers and artists have tried hard to mix, combine, deconstruct and reconstruct Chinese and English. Someone try to convert English word into Chinese Characters; use hieroglyphic icons to replace actual writing of message; someone promote the use of Chinglish. No matter what we are experimenting, the ultimate purpose is to facilitate the effectiveness of communication as well as maintaining the cultural characteristics.


4.     Conclusion

In the debate of Globalization Vs Localization, what is the balance between preserving strong local culture characteristic and at the same time being understandable for audience of another culture? For example, what could be done for tourist who has only limited time to learn a new language? Could we design a hybrid language that is good enough to be used as a learning tools for tourist? Now may be a good time to evaluate the possibility of using new form of language in a wider perspective, such as emoticon, Martian language and Chinglish 4, etc.

Hong Kong has her reputation of being flexible and adaptive. Hong Kong people, with their wisdom and energy, extract essential parts of western and eastern cultures and blend together in any ways they see fit. This is interesting and especially obvious in local living experience and daily life of Hong Kong citizens. After all, Hong Kong is not just a place where East meets West, but rather it is a place where vital multi-cultural energies can live, co-exist and grow, and this becomes an important characteristic of Hong Kong spirit.



  1. Pictophonetics: characters containing two parts where one indicate a general category of meaning and the other the sound.
  2. Being pictographs, the graphic forms of characters are good for story telling and readers can “guess” the meaning of words by simply looking into the graphic forms. However Simplified Chinese Style drastically reduced total number of characters by combining words of similar pronunciation, and simplified the letterform by removing strokes, but the characters lost the quality of storytelling because they are not longer pictographs.
  3. American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), ASCII includes definitions for 128 characters: 33 are non-printing, mostly obsolete control characters that affect how text is processed, and 94 are printable characters (excluding the space).
  4. In an article called “Chinglish: The New World Language” by Larry Feign, the author expressed that Chinglish, instead of being “bad translation” or “misuse” of English, “Chinglishisms consist of beautifully clever bilingual slang constructions. It is not a language that needs to be corrected for it is neither random mistakes nor signs of lazy learning. Chinglish is a distinct language that does not confine itself to conservative linguistic criteria. In merging the two mega-languages, Chinese and English, the two languages that are most widely spoken or used in the world, Chinglish is the most powerful language in human history, uniting billions of speakers in mutual comprehension. And we here in Hong Kong will be at the vanguard, the Vatican of Chinglish, the New World Language.”


Languages in Contact: Findings and Problems. New York, 1953. Reprint, Mouton, The Hague, 1963.

Edith Harding-Esch and Philip Riley(2003). The Bilingual Family: A handbook for Parents. Cambridge University.

Larry Feign. Chinglish: The New World Language. Culture Hong Kong, no. 25, Jan/Feb 2007 (pp. 4-6)