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Style Plaza or Amorous Square?

Earliest version 2003 (Undated)

There are sites around the Internet poking fun at the strange English that can be found in Asia (for example here, here, and here). While good for a laugh these sites often miss what is most interesting -- the linguistic and cultural factors that lie behind such mistakes. Here we look at a facility known variously in English as 'Boao Asia's Style Plaza', 'Asian Amorous Square for Hainan Boao', 'The Amorous Feelings Public Square in Boao Asia', 'Boao Asia Amorous Feelings Square', and 'Boao Asian Customs Recreation Plaza', and why these strange English names have come about.

Boao is a small township on the east coast of Hainan facing the South China Sea. Formerly just a fishing village, it has been catapulted into the limelight in recent years as the seat of the Boao Forum for Asia, one of China's first (so-called) non-governmental organisations that has been billed as Asia's answer to Davos. Domestic tourist buses now come in their droves, bringing visitors to see the Forum's original convention centre as well as the sandy spit at the mouth of the Wanquan River.

One facility has been built in Boao specifically to accommodate these tourist buses. It is known as:

Bóáo Yàzhōu Fēngqíng Guǎngchǎng

This has been translated as:

The official sign
The original sign at the entrance to the car park
The traffic sign that later appeared immediately outside the entrance
The café
The sign giving parking charges

While some are better than others, the five different English versions are all comical in their own way. The mystery is why the same Chinese expression can have such different translations in English. This can only be solved by having a closer look at the Chinese.

Place name. The second character, Áo, refers to a mythical creature similar to a turtle but with the head of a dragon. Modelled on the 'Boao Forum for Asia' (博鳌亚洲论坛 Bóáo Yàzhōu Lùntán).   A trendy word commonly used for commercial real estate projects, a translation of the equally trendy English word 'plaza'.

The meaning of 风情

The main problem is the third word 风情 fēngqíng, which literally means 'wind feeling'. Now, 'wind' in English is mainly associated with the movement of air but fēng in Chinese (traditional character = ) has a whole range of associations, from 'practice', 'custom', and 'tendency' to 'news', 'scenery', 'style', 'attitude', 'demeanour', 'elegance', 'taste', 'refinement', and 'romance'. Take the following words, for example:

风光 fēngguāng
'feng + light'
'scenery, scene, view, sight' 风闻 fēngwén
'feng + hear'
'learn through hearsay, get wind of'
风景 fēngjǐng
'feng + scene'
'scenery, landscape' 风采 fēngcǎi
'feng + manner'
'elegant demeanour, graceful bearing, literary grace, integrity'
风操 fēngcāo
'feng + conduct'
'character and conduct, personal integrity' 风格 fēnggé
'feng + standard, pattern'
'style, manner, mode'
风度 fēngdù
'feng + degree'
'demeanour, bearing, manner, poise' 风流 fēngliú
'feng + flow/style'
'refined and tasteful; unrestrained in spirit and behaviour; romantic, amorous, licentious'
风味 fēngwèi
'feng + flavour'
'special flavour, local colour' 风骚 fēngsāo
'feng + coquettish'
'coquettish, flirtatious'
风神 fēngshén
'feng + spirit'
'bearing, demeanour' 风趣 fēngqù
'feng + interest, wit'
'humour, wit'
作风 zuòfēng
'do + feng'
'style, style of work, way' 风纪 fēngjì
'feng + discipline'
'conduct and discipline, discipline'

The word 风情 fēngqíng is as rich as if not richer in meaning than the words above. A recent Chinese-English dictionary lists the following meanings, based on the standard Xiandai Han'yu Cidian dictionary of Chinese:

New Age Chinese-English Dictionary
1. Information about wind-force and wind direction
2. (Formal) Bearing, demeanour
(usage examples include 'manner')
3. (Formal) Thoughts and feelings
4. Flirtatious expression, amorous feeling
(usage examples: 'play the coquette', 'coquet temptingly', 'be coquettish', 'flirt')
5. Lifestyle; local conditions and customs
(usage examples: 'cultures and customs', 'style')

The relevant meaning in this case is the fifth, 'local conditions and customs'.风情 fēngqíng in this particular sense is actually short for 风土人情 fēngtǔ rénqíng, where:

Together the two cover the physical and human characteristics of a place. However, 'local conditions and customs' hardly does justice to the rich connotations of the Chinese. Fēngqíng carries within it everything that can be experienced about a place: the scenery, the climate, the culture, the architecture, the food, the clothing, the handicrafts, the music, the speech, the folkways, the earthiness, the elegance, and the friendliness that give each place its own peculiar flavour different from any other. Fēngqíng conveys a deep appreciation, delight and enjoyment of all these aspects. There is no word in English quite like it.

Needless to say, fēngqíng is ripe for exploitation by the tourism industry, which tends to package a few well-known, clichéd aspects of local culture into rather tacky, artificial commercial operations targeting tourists. Thus, one might have a 苗族风情村 Miáo-zú fēngqíng cūn ('Miao folkways village') that creates a potted version of Miao culture and sells cheap artifacts to tourists.

Unlike other places marketing their local culture, Boao has a unique claim to fame as the seat of the 'Boao Forum for Asia'. This is exploited by the developers of the plaza to give the impression that it is a place where the richness of Asian culture can be appreciated, befitting its location near the Forum. The name possesses a certain allure for the would-be visitor, who is likely to be intrigued by what might be found here.

The reality is considerably less glamorous. So far, the plaza features little more than a large parking lot and a line of stalls selling cheap clothing, fruit, coconuts, local trinkets, drinks, and ground coffee. Some Thai elephants were brought in at one stage but have since been removed -- too expensive to maintain.

View from the entrance - June 2003 (deserted due to SARS)
View over the development. Stalls are located near blue-roofed structure at far mid-right.

While 'local conditions and customs' is the primary meaning of fēngqíng in this case, the name is vague enough to allow for other interpretations. In particular, the third definition, 'Amorous feelings, flirtatious expressions', hovers enticingly in the background. At least one Chinese speaker has told me that 风情广场 fēngqíng guǎngchǎng carries connotations of a 'romantic place'. Although this may be a minority interpretation, it lends the name a certain air that goes beyond the mere appreciation of local customs.

Armed with this knowledge of the meaning of 风情 fēngqíng, let us see what the translators have done.

The translation of

What is clear is that each translator, diving into his/her Chinese-English dictionary, has alighted on a different English word to render fēngqíng.

Amorous Square, Amorous Feelings Public Square, and Amorous Feelings Square derive from the fourth meaning, 'amorous feelings, flirtatious expressions'. One can only speculate why this particular word was chosen. One likes to think that the translators gave scrupulous consideration to each meaning in turn but decided that 'local conditions and customs', despite its obvious suitability, was too long and ungainly, causing them to opt for 'amorous' with its attractive romantic associations. The reality is probably somewhat different. More likely, 'bearing', 'demeanour', 'conditions', and 'customs' yielded rather vague and uninteresting Chinese equivalents in the dictionary. 'Amorous', of course, was found to be connected with 'love', a word that everyone can relate to. Thus was born the 'Amorous Square'. One does wonder, however, why 'feelings', which is usually a well-known English word, was not chosen instead.

The official name, Asian Customs Recreation Plaza uses the word 'customs' from 'local conditions and customs'. It's not totally clear where 'recreation' springs from. Perhaps the owner had an intuition that 'customs' by itself lacked punch, prompting him/her to spice it up with 'recreation'. Or else he/she decided that 'plaza' was too bald; it should be a 'recreation plaza'. At any rate, the gratuitous addition of 'recreation' may not do much for the English but does hold a certain appeal for the Chinese as it is the standard translation of 娱乐 yúlè (in traditional characters 娛樂), a ubiquitous term applied to karaoke bars, dance halls, bowling alleys, billiards parlours, game centres, mahjong parlours and other assorted facilities where people like to have 'fun'. The fact that the Customs Recreation Plaza has no identifiable recreational facilities is beside the point.

The translator who came up with Style Plaza either uses a better dictionary or has actually given the name some thought. The New Age Chinese-English Dictionary lists 'lifestyle' as a meaning of 风情 and uses 'style' in one of the definitions. Perhaps the translator had access to computer software that threw up the English word 'style' as one of its definitions. Alternatively (and less plausibly), the translator found the dictionary definition unsatisfactory and turned his/her attention to the generic meaning conveyed by the character fēng. As we have seen, this character is broadly associated with style, elegance, and taste. Having decided that 'style' is the best English word, he/she chose the name Style Plaza. Although no closer to the reality of the square, this is at least a better attempt at translating the name than the other three.


Boao Asia

The remaining problem is one of word order: how can 'Boao' and 'Asia' be woven into the English name? Three versions follow the original order of the Chinese: Boao Asia's Style Plaza, Boao Asian Customs Recreation Plaza, and Boao Asia Amorous Feelings Square, although they are unable to agree on whether it is 'Asia's plaza', an 'Asian plaza', or 'Asia square'.

Asian Amorous Square for Hainan Boao leaves 'Asia' where it is, at the beginning, but intriguingly makes 'Hainan Boao' the beneficiary of the plaza. The naming is possibly derived from the English name of the Forum itself, 'Boao Forum for Asia', which is a forum for the benefit of Asia. Perhaps appropriately, the 'Amorous Square' turns this on its head, declaring that the square is for the benefit of Hainan Boao!

In the café signboard, perhaps overwhelmed by the length of the name, the translator has pushed 'Boao Asia' to the end of the name as a geographical location: Amorous Feelings Public Square in Boao Asia.


How should it be translated?

Now that we've scoffed at the way the Chinese have translated the name of the square, the inevitable question is, could we do any better? The answer is, probably not. 风情 is almost untranslatable into English. 'Boao Asian Conditions and Customs Plaza' doesn't quite cut it. We might attempt to capture some of the spirit of Chinese with a name like 'Boao Asian Elegance Square', but this is almost as risible as the versions above. 'Boao Asian Ethnic Square' might be closer to the point, but the development hardly lives up to the name.

'Boao Asia Traditional Plaza' and 'Boao Asian Culture Plaza' (or 'Cultural Plaza') are somewhat more acceptable possibilities that are suitably vague while retaining the warm fuzzy connotations of cultural richness.

But the best suggestion comes from a Chinese aquaintance: Why not just call it 'Boao Asian Plaza' and have done with it? After all, the word 'Asian' already implies some connection with Asia and its cultures but leaves suitably vague exactly what aspect of the square is actually Asian. Adding 'ethnic' or 'cultural' only belabours the point and raises false expectations. So ironically, the best way of translating 风情 might be to leave it out.


Footnote: 风情 in Japanese and Vietnamese

Out of interest, let's have a look at the meaning of the word 风情 fēngqíng as it has been borrowed into Japanese and Vietnamese.

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