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  • Writer's pictureJody Ferguson

Shanghai Slang

In the opening pages of my novel, Above the Water, the protagonist Harry engages in dialogue with some Chinese merchants in what is known as pidgin, a Chinese corruption of the English word ‘business.’ Pidgin was the lingua franca for Westerners in China before World War II. Below is an excerpt from an early draft of my book:

In Shanghai Harry quickly came to learn the local pidgin language, a mish-mash of English, Spanish, Chinese, and Portuguese. This was the argot of the international community in Shanghai to facilitate interaction between Westerners and Chinese.
Pidgin was necessary on a daily basis to speak with houseboys, rickshaw drivers, coolies, taxi drivers, Chinese dance hostesses, or most any Chinese person you met in the International Settlement or Frenchtown. Harry enjoyed bantering in pidgin, especially with his house boy Willy. Some examples of the slang included: “walkee” (to go), “that side” (there), “this side” (here), “what side?” (where is it?), “me no savvy” (I don’t understand), “man, man” (wait a bit), “chop, chop” (come at once), “maskee” (never mind), “can do?” (will you do this for me?), “catchee” (have, got, bring), “bime buy makee pay” (I’ll pay later—a very important phrase), “wanchee all same that” (I would like this), “one piece” (a, an, one), “tinkee” (to think), “catchee me one piece rickshaw” (get me a rickshaw), “catchee me one piece washman” (get me a laundry man), “topside” (upstairs), “bottomside” (downstairs), “all plopa” (alright, very good), “blong” (to belong to, to own, mine), “chow, chow” (to eat, or eating), “hab got?” (is there? do you have any?), “tiffin” (lunch), “what fashion no can?” (why not?). Putting these strange phrases into sentences was a daily puzzle that Harry very much enjoyed.
For example, the sentence “Me look see one piece man catchee chow chow,” meant: “I saw a man eating.”
There was one joke that went around Shanghai about British husbands disappearing into the Shanghai Club for hours at a time, often to escape their overbearing wives. Women were strictly forbidden from going into the Shanghai Club.
A laconic Chinese porter at the Shanghai Club picks up the phone and a British woman asks to speak with her husband—without even giving her name or her husband’s name.
Woman: “That blong Hall Porter? Well, my wanchee savvy, s’pose my husband have got, no got?”
Chinese Porter: “No, missy, husband no got.”
Woman: “How fashion you savvy no got, s’pose my no talkee name?”
Chinese Porter: “Maskee name, missy, any husband no got this side anytime.”

Another joke making the rounds described a house owner in Frenchtown who owned no cat, yet he kept seeing an item on the monthly household bill that read, “cat chow five dollar.” One day he finally summoned his houseboy and with much irritation he asked him, “What thing every month blong five dollar cat chow? Me no blong cat. Me no wanchee see any more cat chow five dollar.”
The next month the bill read: “Cat chow five dollar. One piece cat ten dollar.”

Images: Sapajou Selected Works Earnshaw Books


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