Taipei to spend NT$300 million making MRT signage worse

Taipei MRT station
Commonwealth Magazine (Tiānxià zázhì) recently interviewed me for a Mandarin-language piece related to the signage on Taipei’s MRT system.

As anyone who has looked at Pinyin News more than a couple of times over the years should be able to guess, I had a lot to say about that — most of which understandably didn’t make it into the article. For example, I recall making liberal use of the word “bèn” (“stupid”) to describe the situation and the city’s approach. But the reporter — Yen Pei-hua (Yán Pèihuá / 嚴珮華), who is perhaps Taiwan’s top business journalist — diplomatically omitted that.

Since the article discusses the nicknumbering system Taipei is determined to implement “for the foreigners,” even though most foreigners are at best indifferent to this, but doesn’t include my remarks on it, I’ll refer you to my post on this from last year: Taipei MRT moves to adopt nicknumbering system. Back then, though, I didn’t know the staggering amount of money the city is going to spend on screwing up the MRT system’s signs: NT$300 million (about US$10 million)! The main reason given for this is the sports event Taipei will host next summer. That’s supposed to last for about ten days, which would put the cost for the signs alone at about US$1 million per day.

On the other hand, the city does not plan to fix the real problems with the Taipei MRT’s station names, specifically the lack of apostrophes in what should be written Qili’an (not Qilian), Da’an (not Daan) (twice!), Jing’an (not Jingan), and Yong’an (not Yongan) — in Chinese characters: 唭哩岸, 大安, 景安, and 永安, respectively. And then there’s the problem of wordy English names.

Well, take a look and comment — here, or better still, on the Facebook page. (Links below.) I’m grateful to Ms. Yen and Commonwealth for discussing the issue.


Taipei MRT moves to adopt nicknumbering system

“He’s much too unreasonable,” interrupted the Mathemagician again. “Why, just last month I sent him a very friendly letter, which he never had the courtesy to answer. See for yourself.”

He handed Milo a copy of the letter, which read:

4738 1919,

667 394017 5841 62589
85371 14 39588 7190434 203
27689 57131 481206.

5864 98053,

“But maybe he doesn’t understand numbers,” said Milo, who found it a little difficult to read himself.

“NONSENSE!” bellowed the Mathemagician. “Everyone understands numbers….”

— from The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

The Taipei MRT system has announced that it may be adopting a nicknumbering system for stations within the system.

Bad idea.

And, really, it should be obvious even to city officials what a bad idea this is, given what a complete failure the city’s previous attempt at a nicknumbering system was. (The old attempt, from 2000, had Ma Ying-jeou adding things such as “4th Blvd” to road signs rather than simply fix the signs to use correct Hanyu Pinyin. But the MRT system has used Hanyu Pinyin for years, so foreigners aren’t complaining about a lack of that in 2015.)

I have, however, been complaining for many years about mistakes in the names of some MRT stations and how the MRT system has chosen some bad names. To no avail. But when a politician with no particular history that I’ve seen of giving a damn about what foreigners in Taiwan want decides to grandstand his half-cocked notion, the authorities behind the MRT system jump to implement it, no matter what the supposed beneficiaries might want. Shame on them.

Indeed, this particular politician’s history is of opposition to what foreigners want in terms of signage, as shown by his partisan remarks in favor of Tongyong Pinyin (which is widely despised by Taiwan’s foreign population) and against Hanyu Pinyin (which is almost universally preferred). So I see ample reason to question his motives here.

This new nicknumbering system, by which MRT stations will be assigned additional names (e.g., “R13” and “O11”, for one particular station) is being touted as something aimed at helping foreigners. But I know of no foreigners who have needed any great help on the MRT system — at least not since the city finally implemented Hanyu Pinyin many years ago. Certainly there has been no great outcry from foreigners for any change of this sort. Instead, the nicknumbering system is simply a bad idea that will make things worse, not better. And it will be expensive to implement — money down the drain.

Let’s look at the fragment of the nicknumbering map that the Taipei City Government included with its post.

Taipei MRT nicknumbering map fragment

Try to ignore the horrific clutter for the moment.

Note the red line (which also has a line number … that no one uses except for the MRT system itself in its announcements, something implemented in the previous bad idea from the MRT system). Anyway, along the red line, Da’an Park (which the MRT system wrongly labels “Daan Park”) is nicknumbered “R06,” Da’an as R05, and Xinyi Anhe as R04. That would make Taipei 101 / World Trade Center station R03; and Xiangshan, which is presently the terminus, would be R02. The problem here is that at least two more stations are already planned for that end of the line: Songde (松德) and Zhongpo (中坡); that would mean the final(?) station would need to be oddly nicknumbered R00, though there are no other zero stations given elsewhere. And if any stations are added after that, either the whole system would need to be renumbered or the numbers would need to head into negatives. Absurd! Such is likely also the case with other lines.

This is the sort of thing that strongly indicates that the authorities haven’t really thought this through. They’re just going forward anyway, which is foolish.

For that matter, why are there zeros marked in the numbers below ten? (For example, why “R04” rather than “R4”?) Putting zeroes next to the capital letter O (for the orange line) is certainly not going to help clarity either. For example, are people going to get “O05” right at a glance? I doubt it.

Let’s get back to the matter of clutter. This is a real problem. The more information crammed into a map, the less clear the individual elements are.

And unlike distinct station names, nicknumbers are not easy to remember. If any foreign tourist asks someone how to get to BL13, for example, people likely won’t know how to answer them. Nicknumbering is thus the opposite of helpful, which is likely part of why almost no subway system in the world uses this, other than Tokyo, whose system is much larger than Taipei’s.

Also, I can’t help but wonder how they are planning on handling this in the announcements within the cars. Those announcements are in four languages (Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and English), which takes some time to get through. Adding nicknumbers in all of those languages is going to make for never-ending talking on the announcement system — and that’s without even figuring in the nicknumbers of transfer stations as well.

I note that, to date, the comments in English to the city’s Facebook post on this are more than twenty to one in opposition to the new system. Is anyone in the city government paying attention? I hope that readers here will add their own comments to the city’s Facebook page on this. (I’m not on Facebook myself.)

The last time the city of Taipei implemented nicknumbering for anything, this was met with near-universal derision from those it was supposedly designed to help. Most people in Taiwan’s foreign community quickly recognized it was a terrible idea — really, really terrible — which unfortunately didn’t stop Taipei from cluttering up the city’s signage with largely useless information. I would have thought that the city would have learned its lesson by now.

Ma Ying-jeou gives a thumbs-up in front of a nicknumbering system street sign in Taipei
This photo from 2000 shows an almost perfect storm of bad ideas supposedly meant to help foreigners. Ma Ying-jeou, during his days as mayor of Taipei, gives a thumbs-up to a road sign with his new nicknumbering system. And above the sign for 4th Blvd is a street sign from Chen Shui-bian’s tenure as mayor. It’s in the much-hated Tongyong Pinyin romanization system — or what was Tongyong Pinyin until the designers of Tongyong Pinyin changed the system (e.g., zh –> jh) and made a lot of their own signs wrong. And to top it off, it employs InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion, another annoying bad idea that still infects the street signs of Taipei.

Here, Taipei City Government officials, is what most foreigners need and want: correct Hanyu Pinyin. For the most part, that’s what the MRT system already has. Don’t screw it up.


new Taipei MRT stations and wordy names

detail of a map of the Taipei MRT system, showing 'Nangang Software Park' and 'Taipei Nangang Exhibition Center' on the brown line, connected by bus to 'Nangang' on the blue lineTaipei will soon open a dozen new stations on its mass-transit system, the MRT. Most of the stations will be in the relatively newly developed district of Neihu, with a couple in the Nangang district. It’s the latter two stations I want to focus on:

  • Nangang Software Park
  • Taipei Nangang Exhibition Center

Basically, these names suck.

The most obvious problem is that they both are unnecessarily long, which is not a negligible consideration for not only signage but also the MRT’s announcement system, which is in four languages: Mandarin, Hoklo, Hakka, and English. (It takes a while to get through all of those.)

Also, “Nangang Software Park” (Nángǎng Ruǎntǐ Yuánqū 南港軟體園區)? There is no other software park around the MRT system. Just “Software Park” would work better as a name for the station. Accurate, but also short, simple, and distinctive — just what such a name should be.

BTW, this software park is the source of the name for Taipei’s still-not-corrected Park Street signs.

Worse still is “Taipei Nangang Exhibition Center”. First, calling it even “Nangang Exhibition Center” would be bad enough for the same reason that “Nangang Software Park” is unnecessarily wordy: there’s no “exhibition center” anywhere else on the system.

But “Taipei Nangang”? Ugh. That may work in Mandarin, but it’s lousy English. It follows the same unnaturally inverted pattern and redundancy that gave us “Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport,” or, as I like to call it, Chinglish International Airport. (But I do like it better than “Revere the Dictator Chiang Kai-shek International Airport.”)

Here’s a photo of the exhibition building itself (not the MRT station — though those are the MRT tracks behind the barrier in the foreground).


So “Taipei Nangang Exhibition Center” probably is the official name of the complex. But that really doesn’t matter because (1) the MRT station certainly does not have to have the exact same name and (2) the name is just plain stupid.

Above, I mentioned that names for MRT stations should be “accurate, but also short, simple, and distinctive.” Sticking “Taipei Nangang” in front of “Exhibition Center” makes the name clumsy and less distinctive, especially since the two MRT stations closest to “Taipei Nangang Exhibition Center” are called “Nangang” and “Nangang Software Park”.

Nangang, Nangang, Nangang — yeah, we get it: They’re in Nangang.

Perhaps the MRT would like to change other names to be similarly useful. For example, instead of “Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall” we could have “Taipei Zhongzheng Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall;” and in place of, say, “Xindian City Hall” we could have “Taipei County Xindian Xindian City Hall.” (More about the Xindian City Hall station in another post.)

But perhaps those names aren’t nearly informative enough. According to the MRT’s way of thinking, people might still be confused about the location. How about, say, “Planet Earth Northern Hemisphere Asia East Asia Taiwan Taipei Zhongzheng Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall” and “Planet Earth Northern Hemisphere Asia East Asia Taiwan Taipei County Xindian Xindian City Hall,” etc.?

I’m happy to report that even the MRT seems to have some reservations about ridiculously long names — at least when those names are in Mandarin. Note the photo of part of the route map (top right of this post). The Mandarin name for “Taipei Nangang Exhibition Center” is Nángǎng Zhǎnlǎnguǎn (南港展覽館), not Táiběi Nángǎng Zhǎnlǎnguǎn (台北南港展覽館). (I didn’t crop any characters from the left of the station name.) So why is “Taipei” in the English version but not in the Mandarin one? Does the city government believe that foreigners are so stupid that they fail to comprehend that the Taipei MRT system is indeed in the Taipei metropolitan area? If so, then maybe they should be giving consideration to my idea of putting at least “Planet Earth Northern Hemisphere Asia East Asia Taiwan Taipei” in front of all the names in the city of Taipei. This could come in in several versions:

  • “Planet Earth Northern Hemisphere Asia East Asia Taiwan, Republic of China, Taipei” — for pan-blue traditionalists
  • “Planet Earth Northern Hemisphere Asia East Asia Taiwan, which is really a country and not a part of China, Taipei” — for the pan-green crowd, and
  • “Planet Earth Northern Hemisphere Asia East Asia China Chinese Taipei Taipei” — for the unificationists and those who like to “q?n Zh?ngguó

Then administrations could have fun changing from one system to another, depending on who was in power.

There’s more to say about this topic (e.g., how the names of stations such as Taipei Zoo, Taipei City Hall, and Xindian City Hall Office do or don’t fit into this pattern). But I’ve already written enough for one post.

And in case anyone is wondering: Yes, I have brought my concerns to the attention of the officials of the MRT. They don’t care. Does anyone have contacts in the media or with politicians?

photo of an entrance to the 'Nangang Software Park Station'

mistakes in Taipei’s MRT system

If Taipei’s MRT (mass rapid-transit) system doesn’t finally get its Pinyin right when the next set of stations opens later this year, I propose that the 永安 (Yǒng’ān / “perpetual peace”) station be renamed 庸暗 (Yōng’àn / “ignorant”) station, in accord with how the error in the romanization of the name has gone uncorrected for several years.

Given the nature of the error, mine is a relatively polite suggestion. The way the station name is written now, “Yongan,” actually much more strongly suggests the distinctly rude “yòng gàn” (用幹 / use fuck). The problem with this and other MRT station names has two main causes:

  1. The first rule of Hanyu Pinyinwords, not syllables, are the basic units when writing in romanization — has not been followed properly. (中文)
  2. Taipei has continued its long and ignoble tradition of leaving out required apostrophes in romanization.

A little more now on the second point. In the bad old days of not so many years ago, when Taipei used bastardized Wade-Giles for signs marking streets and MRT stations, the lack of apostrophes made the majority of such signs unreliable. (The capital city’s appallingly sloppy spelling didn’t help, either.) Since 25 percent of Mandarin’s syllables require apostrophes when written in Wade-Giles, that made for a lot of missing apostrophes — and a huge mess.

Fortunately, Taipei has now adopted Hanyu Pinyin, which, incidentally, requires no apostrophes whatsoever within individual syllables. The system, however, does require an apostrophe between some syllables. Although these are very seldom required — the apostrophe occurs in only about 2 percent of Mandarin words written in Hanyu Pinyin — they’re still a crucial part of the system and cannot be omitted. (I don’t want to overburden this post, so later I’ll add a separate Web page explaining the rules for Pinyin’s syllable boundaries and when to use apostrophes.)

The following MRT stations have their names miswritten at present. These need correcting on all MRT maps, station signage, etc.: 唭哩岸站, 大安站, 景安站, and 永安市場站.

Chinese characters for MRT station name Proper Hanyu Pinyin Incorrect current form How the incorrect current form is read according to Pinyin’s rules
唭哩岸 Qili’an Qilian qi+lian
ㄑㄧ ㄌㄧㄢ (乞憐)
大安 Da’an Daan (This doesn’t have a proper reading. It’s just wrong regardless.)
景安 Jing’an Jingan jin+gan
ㄐㄧㄣ ㄍㄢ (金幹)
永安[市場] Yong’an Yongan (This doesn’t have a proper reading. But it strongly suggests a typo
for yong+gan
ㄩㄥ ㄍㄢ 用幹)

Please, Taipei Department of Transportation and Taipei Rapid Transit Corp., don’t make us beg for mercy (乞憐, qǐlián)! Give us proper Pinyin. We need Qili’an (ㄑㄧ ㄌㄧ ㄢ), not Qilian (ㄑㄧ ㄌㄧㄢ).

I should probably add that the solution is most emphatically not to use InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion, a horrible perversion of proper style that should never have been used in Taipei and should never be adopted elsewhere. All uses of InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion and Taipei’s “nicknumbering” system should be removed from the MRT system when the new maps and signage are made.