Skip to main content
Lux Online Home Themes Artists Work Education Education Tours Help Search
article_title.gif Artist's home page Artists essay index page
Translators' notes

A computer monitor supplies a third screen, not a means of active engage- ment but an additional viewing mechanism, appearing to make transparent the workings of the piece via an overall 'timeline'. The technology used to create the work and control different devices (two DVD players and a CD player, 'switching each one on and off, locating specific sections within a disk to create a dialogue with the different elements of the work'), is sophisticated yet unable to 'converse' with seamless jumps: 'It takes a couple of seconds to "locate" and "trigger" the next bit of footage. As it jumps, there is a break in transmission' (Tan and Willmoth, 2002).

Digital media is utilized in extrapolation of video's

potential to become a conceptual technology, one that can look at the history of the image, of sound/sense articulation in language and speech, and of narrative through a refiguration of space and a multiple mapping of time. (Turim, 1990: 342).

On closer inspection, the timeline reveals itself to be something of a comforting 'ruse', its structure artificial, its simplifications belying discrepancies and lapses in timing between the representation and encounter of image/sound events. Like the contents of an accompanying 'research book', presented without 'beginning or ending or index' (Tan and Willmoth, 2002), supplementing, coinciding with, and distracting from other parts of the work, this third screen offers only an illusory unifying meta- narrative: far from transparent, the black background, at once flat and fathomless, simply conceals and swallows the excesses.

Is it a coincidence that we name the most inventive, innovative and homely uses of language as pidgin? (Papastergiadis, 2002)

From 'pidgin' to 'pigeon' and back again - the slippage suggests the latter as metaphor for the former, language as carrier, bearer or messenger of meanings picked up and dropped intact, a mode of delivery. However, the recurrence of ruptured speech-acts and indeterminate sounds evokes language as an always already interrupted transmission, dispossessed of its source. Tensions between such formulations are intimated in the juxtaposition of 'carriers' - carrier pigeons, aircraft carriers, carrier waves. Unlike pigeons and aircraft, which may be prescribed routes and destinations, the electromagnetic waves modulated to carry a signal in, for example, radio transmission, guarantee no single, final point of arrival. Birds take off, planes come in, compelled or instructed by a necessity to 'home', to return to/from a/loft. Contrasting predetermined schedules of departure and return, sounds diffuse in multiple directions, after in(de)finite, indeed infinite courses. As meanings slide, deferred with each reverberation, the notion of language as 'true' carrier is countered by an associated potential as harbinger of disease, infection, pollution and corruption, and simultaneously undone by its homonym - for 'pigeon' can also mean a decoy. [8]

Preoccupations with precursors and beginnings pervade dictionary definitions of 'pidgin'. Peppered with firsts, chief, secondary, minor, denigrated as 'trivial' and 'derivative' (Steiner, 1975: 44), its very name is thought to be a 'corruption', a Chinese mispronunciation of 'business' (Sebba, 1997: 26). In their ever-increasing proliferations, pidgins deflect and defer questions of origins, attesting rather to relations of trade and power concomitant with contexts and processes of colonization and globalization, as suggested by the non-exhaustive or exclusive classifications or 'broad types' proffered by linguists:

1. Military and police pidgins
2. Seafaring and trade pidgins and creoles
3. Plantation pidgins and creoles
4. Mine and construction pidgins
5. Immigrants' pidgins
6. Tourist pidgins
7. Urban contact vernaculars (Sebba, 1997: 27)

The earliest known European pidgin ('Sabir' or 'Lingua Franca') is of military origin, thought to have emerged after the late 11th century with the Crusades (Sebba, 1997). Its retrospective designation arises however out of the 'mispronunciation' classifying one of the oldest varieties of English-lexicon, non-native secondary or auxiliary 'makeshift' languages, necessitated by and historically intertwined with economic relations between European colonial and Chinese imperial powers. In turn, with possible roots in an earlier Portuguese pidgin used around the Macau from the mid 16th century, Chinese Pidgin English, or CPE, emerged and developed into a regional 'lingua franca' (Welsh, 1997: 46). [9]From the establishment of a trading station in Canton (Guangzhou) in 1664 to the opening of several treaty ports to foreign trade following the Opium War around 1843, CPE - comprising 'a vocabulary of English, Chinese, Portuguese and Anglo-Indian words arranged according to Cantonese syntax' (Welsh, 1997) - came to serve as a 'socially neutral' common language, facilitating communication between Europeans and Chinese 'at arm's length'. [10]

As a 'contact zone' between not two but, here, at least four languages, pidgin may entail the appropriation and transformation not of a single 'dominant' tongue, but of several coterminous languages. Rather than taking 'first' and 'primary' as designations of some untainted a priori original, such terms maybe read as impositions indicative of hierarchical economic and political relations between synchronic cultures, whose diachronic ranking hazardously disregards the at least two-way traffic already jamming the proverbial streets. Whether one 'begins' with English, Chinese, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish or Arabic, the to-and-fro translation of pidgin intimates the incessant and mutual susceptibility and capacity for invention and 'adulteration'. [11]

Chinglish Pinyin Engrish

CPE is said to have completed a 300-year 'life cycle', falling out of use from about 1900 (Sebba, 1997: 67). It might be argued, however, that the increasingly widespread teaching of Standard English in mainland China over the last century has ironically brought about a certain revitalization of CPE in the form of 'Chinglish', the poor English translations found in many public places, whose erroneous vocabulary and grammar arise in part from combinations of careless spelling, out-of-date textbooks and literal translations of Chinese colloquialisms and idioms. A cause of amusement for foreigners and embarrassment to the Beijing government (who a month after their confirmation in 2002 as host for the 2008 Olympics Games, launched a campaign to eradicate Chinglish by this date), [12] its prevalence is apparent not only as a means of communication between locals and foreigners, but also between locals and peoples from other regions in China (whose dialects may be mutually unintelligible) as a lingua franca.

If 'standard' or 'print' languages come to hierarchically distinguish geographies and subjects, economically and politically empowered or disem- powered according to their ability, or otherwise, to speak the 'standard', they also succeed in rendering other dialects (a social rather than linguistic distinction) inferior (Anderson, 1991). Like 'Standard English', the notion of 'Standard Chinese' serves nation- and economy-building interests, belying a multiplicity of ethnicities and language. [13]

China ... is not a simple, homogeneous nation, and the Chinese language has a complex political relationship to the notion of 'China.' Within China there is not just one language, but a multiplicity of languages, ranging from Tibetan and Mongolian to the majority Han language. Even in the Han language, the spoken form has hundreds of different varieties, many of them as different as Spanish from Italian. The official language, 'Mandarin,' or putonghua, serves the same political function as English once did in the British Isles, to integrate the nation, or as English did for the old 'British Empire.' Like English across the empire, even putonghua, the standard language, is spoken in different ways in different parts of mainland China, which have immediate political readings and effects. And then there are Taiwan and Hong Kong, with their form of the standard language existing alongside other forms of Chinese or other languages. (Hodge and Kam, 1998: 9)

Language is the mate of empire. (Manuel de Nebrija) [14]

A friend performs an interesting slippage, repeatedly referring to PIDGIN as PINYIN - in a sense, pidgin's 'other'. For whereas pinyin denotes a Romanized transliteration of written Chinese characters, authorized in the late 1950s in a drive to standardize Chinese in translation, pidgin (here in its Chinglish variations), by contrast, may be said to arise out of unauthorized translations and ad hoc improvisations, occupying a fluid orality between written standards. [15] Where pinyin serves alongside Mandarin or Putonghua (literally, 'common speech') as a means of homogenizing and solidifying Chinese against the dominance of English (and by extension against numerous other Chinese 'dialects'), pidgin neither favours nor fears the supremacy of any language, sited as it is in the perforated borders in- between.

Since the 1984 signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong's future, contestations over language as a site of power, authority and identity have been particularly evident in controversies surrounding the official medium of instruction in Hong Kong's schools. In spite of the dominance of Anglo-Chinese schools during colonial rule, in which English was designated as the official language of instruction, the government continuously faced issues over the competency of usage and pervasiveness of Chinglish in the teaching-learning process. Concurrently, recommendations regarding the learning of Putonghua have seen a shift from optional extracurricular activity to a core curriculum subject, and as post-reunification trade with China continues to expand, so speculations increase that it will eventually supplant English and Cantonese as the language of instruction, power, government (Postiglione, 1996: 98-123).

Such trends have been met with resistance from those who regard Cantonese, and even Chinglish, as Hong Kong's mother tongue, whose idiosyncracies are seen as crucial to its cultural identity. As Kwai-Cheung Lo (2000) writes:

... the vitality of Hong Kong's language, many believe, lies precisely in its intractability to the taming by standard Chinese.

The language of Hong Kong . . . is a schizophrenic contextual combination of the vernacular Cantonese, the written form of Chinese, and verbal, written, and broken English. Many cultural critics of Hong Kong are proud of this hybrid language, and they see in this linguistic predicament as a positive opportunity both for constructing a critical discourse against pure Chinese national tradition and for problema- tizing the classic binary opposition between East and West. (pp. 185-6, original emphasis)

Go to top of                             page
Home Themes Artists Work Education Education Tours Help Search