Three-language Punning

by Translation Guy on October 24, 2011

Bilingual puns are even lamer than monolingual puns. But don’t the bilinguals love them. And it gets worse. Trilingual puns, which by definition too clever by half, are the lamest of all, but are now the basis for an ad campaign in Hong Kong.

Sarah Mishkin reports in the Financial Times: Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog, wants to expand its audience in Hong Kong but it faces competition from Facebook, which is banned on the mainland. Not only that, but the site from Mandarin-speaking mainland China must win over the local Cantonese-speaking population, who write Chinese differently and sometimes mix in a little English for added “cool” factor.

The answer: boldly colored wraparound ads on 150 buses that shout out “Wei!” (“Hey!”) in pixelated roman letters. [See bus above.] Weibo means “microblog” in Mandarin, but “wei” also happens to be Cantonese slang for “hello”.

The ad’s tagline – “Come to Weibo and share your enjoyment” – is equally punny. Rather than write out in full the Chinese characters for “share your enjoyment” (pronounced funheung in Cantonese), the first syllable, “fun”, is written in English, followed by the Chinese character for enjoyment.

For the ad’s bilingual target audience, the wordplay intends to emphasis the fun aspects of personal blogging and gives the mainland Sina brand a jolt of Anglo-Hong Kong hipness.

Despite its official presence, one thing that Mainland Mandarin isn’t in Hong Kong is hip. Most Hong Kong-ites speak Cantonese at home, and about 40% of ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong speak English fluently, but lots more code switch between Cantonese and English, mixing the two grammars and vocabulary as the whim strikes.

When the Beijing government booted the Brits in 1997, the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administration Region) adopted the “biliterate and trilingual” (兩文三語) policy. Under this policy, Chinese and English remain official languages, with Cantonese acknowledged as the de facto official spoken variety of Chinese in Hong Kong.

But when it comes to the printed word, Hong Kong uses Chinese as written in Mandarin, which is quite different from spoken Cantonese in grammar and vocabulary.

There is another set of characters used for written Cantonese, which is gaining popularity in newspapers and magazines for quotations and sections dealing with entertainment and local issues.

Traditional Chinese characters are widely used to write Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, and are the de facto writing standard in Hong Kong. However there are some special simplifications to written Chinese in Hong Kong in addition to Mainland-style Simplified Chinese. Nevertheless, Hong Kong-alese feel a sense of cultural attachment to tha  told fashioned traditional Chinese which means that character choice in Hong Kong will never be simple.

Funny, right? Trilingual puns are always funnier when accompanied by a detailed discussions of language administration and orthography. And I haven’t even worked in the whole Opium War bit. Side splitting.


  1. Robert Link says:

    I can keep up with the best of them with puns, but triligual? I have to surrender.

  2. I think some of the best go with restaurants – Thai Me Up or the Wild Thaiger in Phoenix.

    • Ken says:


  3. Florence says:

    My wife’s family is from Europe and everything is a biligual pun to them. I’m lost most of the time and just smile along.

    • Ken says:

      I wouldn’t sweat it. They probably aren’t funny, anyway, with all respect to your in-laws, oof course.

  4. Porkchop says:

    I, too, think of traditional things when I think of China. I am surprised that they are changing so fast.

  5. I think I saw a bus like this when I was there! Weird.

  6. Emme says:

    I love puns and I use them a lot, but usually just the English variety.

  7. This reminded me of a joke when I was a kid about a snail in a race with an W painted on it and someone says look at that S car go! Ha, Ha!

    • Ken says:

      Ha, ha, huh? I don’t get it.

  8. Turtle says:

    Does Spanglish count?

  9. Aaron Woods says:

    I just did a Google search on bilingual puns and found some pretty good ones!

    • Ken says:

      Thanks for not posting.

  10. I think it was a good decision to keep Chinese and English as official languages. The way things are going in this country maybe we should do the same?

    • Ken says:

      I didn’t know Chinese was an official language in the US.

  11. PJ Stratford says:

    a decade ago most would be lost, but with todays young, I think they get it at first glance.

  12. Papito says:

    I’m not sure if Translation Guy really thinks these are funny.

    • Ken says:

      I’m not sure either.

  13. Anna Owens says:

    China is communist, why not get rid of Cantonese and just go with Mandarin? Or vice versa?

    • Ken says:

      All the best communists speak Mandarin, Anna.

LiveZilla Live Chat Software