Why is the ROC govt trying to make Taiwanese look like Singaporeans?

Names of people in Taiwan have had a default format for many decades. For example:

  • Lee Teng-hui
  • Chen Shui-bian
  • Ma Ying-jeou
  • Tsai Ing-wen

The similarity, however, is not in use of a single romanization system. None of those names share the exact same romanization system or combination of systems:

  • Lee (common phonetic spelling) Teng-hui (Wade-Giles)
  • Chen Shui-bian (Hanyu Pinyin!)
  • Ma Ying (Wade-Giles, probably) jeou (Gwoyeu Romatzyh)
  • Tsai (bastardized Wade-Giles) Ing (ad hoc spelling) wen (Wade-Giles, probably)

But, different as those people are and different as the romanization systems used are, all of those names share an obvious pattern that marks them as belonging to someone in Taiwan: the hyphen joining the two parts of the given name, and the use of a lowercase letter for the second part of the given name.

Around twenty years ago, during Taiwan’s romanization wars (when President Chen wanted to impose Tongyong Pinyin upon Taiwan and a great many foreigners and others reacted with dismay and disgust), a popular claim of the Tongyong supporters was, “If Taiwanese use Hanyu Pinyin for their names, no one will be able to tell Taiwanese from Chinese anymore.”

This, however, was, like most claims of Tongyong supporters, not true. (It was also pretty funny, given that the most powerful supporter of Tongyong Pinyin was Chen Shui-bian, whose name is unambiguously Hanyu Pinyin but whom no even remotely knowledgeable person would ever mistake for someone from the PRC). The style used for names in China is “Familyname Givenname” (no hyphen). All Taiwanese have to do to keep their names distinct is to preserve the hyphen (assuming they even desire to use Hanyu Pinyin, which is not now nor has ever been required here for personal names).

This is easy:

  • PRC vs. TAIWAN
  • Li Denghui vs. Li Deng-hui
  • Chen Shuibian vs. Chen Shui-bian
  • Ma Yingjiu vs. Ma Ying-jiu
  • Cai Yingwen vs. Cai Ying-wen

But a few years back the government of Taiwan announced that it would be issuing a new style of the national ID card. Based on the mock-ups the government supplied, these cards would include romanization (yea!), but romanization in a very un-Taiwanese style (argh!).

mock-up of two possible styles for Taiwan's new national ID card

What’s especially odd, though, is that the romanization clearly follows the style of names in Singapore, not Taiwan.

Here, for example, are the names of some prominent Singaporeans:

  • Lee Kuan Yew
  • Goh Chok Tong
  • Lee Hsien Loong

Again, the standard pattern for Singaporean names is easy to discern … and clearly distinct from the standard pattern of names in Taiwan.

Why is the government doing this? Switching from Taiwan style to Singapore style makes no sense — not historically, not practically (separating given names makes it harder to tell what’s the family name and what’s the given name), and not politically.

And why on earth is “林” being romanized on the card as “LING” rather than as “LIN”, and “森” as “SHENG” rather than as “SEN”? Typos in not one but both of the only two personal names given do not inspire confidence.

Her name should be given, in descending order of preference, as
CHEN Xiao-lin
Chen Xiao-lin

I had been hopeful that the cards and their new style had simply been killed off and so the problem had been effectively eliminated years ago. But according to a recent Taiwan News story, the “eID scheme is halted but not scrapped.” So this nonsense might still happen.

The only good thing I have to say about the Pinyin on the mock-ups (other than its existence) is that it is at least not prohibitively tiny, which is a common problem.

By the way, hyphens can appear in some names in Hanyu Pinyin — but not in the way many people may first guess. Two-syllable family names are written solid, not hyphenated (e.g., Ouyang and Sima, not Ou-yang and Si-ma). Rather, hyphens exist in standard names in China in Hanyu Pinyin in cases where someone decides to adopt her spouse’s name but also preserve her maiden name. So, if a Ms. Wang marries a Mr. Li but wants to have both names, she becomes Ms. Wang-Li (or Ms. Li-Wang).

Here’s what Taiwan’s national ID cards look like presently:

Taiwan national ID card -- front

Taiwan national ID card -- back

Further reading:
Contractor seeks NT$526 million in compensation for Taiwan’s halted digital ID plan. Taiwan News, May 8, 2023.

Malaysian state moves to boost Hokkien

Penang, Malaysia, is reportedly moving to adopt the Penang dialect of the Hokkien language as a thing of “nonmaterial cultural heritage” (fēi wùzhì wénhuà yíchǎn / 非物质文化遗产).

In Taiwan, Hokkien is also known as “Taiwanese” and “Hoklo.”

The chairman of the Penang Tourism and Creative Economy Affairs Committee said that to preserve Hokkien in Penang, the government there would support a “Speak Hokkien” campaign and allocate funds to NGOs and other groups for activities promoting Hokkien. He also hopes organizations will host competitions not only in Pinyin(!) but also in speaking topolects.

Topolects are an important part of the legacy of Chinese culture, he said.



Other Sinitic topolects (fangyan) could also be considered for nonmaterial cultural heritage status, he said.

Whether this really happens, and whether it will be enough to make a difference, remains to be seen. But at least it looks like someone influential in Penang is working hard to move things in the right direction.


If you ever find yourself stuck on how to pronounce English

It’s times like this I especially miss John DeFrancis. How he would have loved this! It’s partially an example of what he dubbed “Singlish” — not Singapore English but Sino-English, the tortured attempt to use Chinese characters to write English. He details this in “The Singlish Affair,” a shaggy dog story that serves as the introduction to his essential work: The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. (And I really do mean essential. If you don’t have this book yet, buy it and read it.)

Here are some lyrics from a popular song, “Count on Me,” by Bruno Mars, with a Mandarin translation. The interesting part is that a Taiwanese third-grader has penciled in some phonetic guides for him or herself, using a combination of zhuyin fuhao (aka bopo mofo) (sometimes with tone marks!), English (as a gloss for English! and English pronunciation of some letters and numbers), and Chinese characters (albeit not always correctly written Chinese characters — not that I could do any better myself). Again, this is a Taiwanese third-grader and so is someone unlikely to know Hanyu Pinyin.

lyric sheet, as described in this post

“If you ever find yourself stuck”



ever ㄟㄈㄦ ei-f’er



yourself Uㄦㄒㄧㄦㄈㄨ U’er xi’erfu




“I’ll be the light to guide you.”






the l[e]



to tu






“Find out what we’re made of”



















“When we are called to help our friends in need”

What when

























ChatGPT writes poetry in Pinyin, sort of

I asked ChatGPT to “write a poem in Mandarin using Pinyin.”

Its first response took the form of a sonnet:

qīngchūn yǒu tài duō de mèngxiǎng,
xīwàng yǒu yīgè xiǎng zhù de dìfāng.
yīgè rén zài huáshān shàng,
tā de mèng yǒu tèbié de chàng.

zài fēngláng zhī xiàn,
tā yòng bàozhǐ zhànwàng huāliàn.
yǒngqì bǎ dōngfēng zài shǒu,
zài yùndòng zhōng fàng sīwáng zhī hòu.

mèngzhōng yǒu tài duō de jìhuà,
yǒnggǎn bǎ tāmen dōu chéngshí huà.
yǒngyuan bùyào bèi shìjiè suǒ bǎozhòng,
zhǐyào huílái bùwàng jiùshì yīzhǒng.

qīngchūn yǒu tài duō de mèngxiǎng,
wǒmen yīqǐ xiǎng zhù zhè yīqiè de dìfāng.

That one won’t win any prizes, but the result was still much better than the one produced when I asked ChatGPT to make another:

Sì jiāo qíng yuán, xìng fú suì suì,
Chūn fēng yè sè, ruò dàng huā kāi.
Dōu shì shuāng shǒu, shuāng shǒu yī,
Xīn lián xīn shì, shuāng xīn xī.

Qīng sè yǔ tiān, yǔ zhuǎn yǔ duō,
Cǎo yuǎn shān jǐn, dōu xīng huā tuō.
Yuè liàng guāng míng, míng yǔ ruò,
Qíng qíng yǔ hǎo, yǔ zhōng yǔ.

Shēn tián yǔ sǎng, qíng hǎo yǔ,
Liàng yǔ fēn fēn, shǎn chéng yǔ.
Qīng chuān huáng hé, yǔ yíng cháo,
Chūn sè xīn róu, xìng fú mǎo.

Wēn huā yǔ chūn, yǔ xǐ xīn,
Sān yuán sì jì, yǔ zhōng shuāng.
Chūn tiān xìng fú, zhuǎn yǔ shuāng,
Qíng huā yǔ jīng, yǔ yīng huáng.

That opaque mo no syl la bic mess is infected by the spirit of Literary Sinitic, which Pinyin isn’t designed to handle.

I’m hopeful that ChatGPT will get trained properly on the rules of Hanyu Pinyin — both the short-form rules of Pinyin and the longer (and superior) work of Yin Binyong — and so will be able to produce proper Pinyin. But maybe wǒ yǒu tài duō de mèngxiǎng.

As one of my heroes, Hu Shih, wrote one hundred years ago,

Nǐ bùnéng zuò wǒ de shī,
zhèngrú wǒ bùnéng zuò nǐ de mèng


NB: I should probably remind everyone, should you wish to include Chinese characters or Pinyin with tone marks in a comment, be sure to encode them first or they’ll end up scrambled here. (Not my fault. Sorry.)

Mother-effing noodles

More than sixteen years ago I wrote in some detail on how what has been dubbed China’s “national swear” (i.e., tāmā de / 他媽的 / tamade — lit. his mother’s) is sometimes rendered with one of the syllables bleeped out, especially the middle one (ma).

In today’s example, though, ma has been replaced not by an X or another symbol but by its English translation: mother, with the first syllable given in Pinyin, yielding “Ta Mother” (though, properly speaking, it should be “Ta Mother’s”; and that singular for “noodle” is a bit odd too).

I spotted the Ta Mother Noodle store in Xindian, Taiwan, from a bus about a week ago. I wasn’t able to get a good photo before the bus rounded a corner, so I’m making do with one from Google Street View. According to Google, the store has closed permanently; but at least for now, its signage lives on.

History podcast episode on loanwords

Formosa Files logo

Formosa Files, the internet’s most informative podcast on the history of Taiwan, recently focused on the topic of language and loanwords: Local Language Loanwords: A Lovely Hot Pot of Fujianese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, English, and More (season 3, episode 5). Lots of linguistic goodness, so give it a listen, and stick around for some of the many other episodes.

Although I, like Eryk, have never found jiayou (lit. “add oil”) much to my taste, the word has already made it past the gatekeepers and into English.

Formosa Files is also on Spotify and other popular content providers.

Further reading:

Taipei MRT’s new in-car signage sucks

photo of the new-style video screen above the door of the Taipei MRT (subway system).

For the past few months, one can occasionally spot trains along the Taipei MRT’s blue line (aka the Ban-Nan line, for the Banqiao–Nangang line of the subway system) sporting a new style of above-door announcements. (Perhaps some of the other lines have these as well; but I’m not on them as much and haven’t spotted new signage on those yet.)

The MRT has signs above the doors to let people know what the stops are coming soon. Or at least that’s what the signs are supposed to do, what they need to do in order to help passengers. Alas, that crucial function appears to have been overlooked when designing the new signs, which are all bling-bling and little useful substance.

In fact, they’re so bad that I’m almost surprised they don’t feature cutesy cartoon characters — something that would make the disaster complete.

The photos in this post of the new signs were taken from the seat with the best vantage point of the video-screen sign. Some zoom was used to get the important part of the image to stretch from one side to the other of the photos. In short, the parts of the sign passengers need to read likely appear even smaller in real life than they may look in the photos. Of course, I could have positioned myself immediately in front of the signs and gotten better photos. But the point of signage isn’t what can be seen if one is standing close to and directly in front of it; rather, good signage needs to work for viewers from farther away and at an angle as well. So the proximity and angle represent a compromise on my part rather than the farther vantage point from which many riders will experience the signs. In other words, for many riders, the signs will look even smaller and less clear than shown in these photos.

And, as we’ll see, smaller is definitely not a good thing.

Here’s a close-up of the above sign, rotated slightly and showing the size of the text as a percentage of the screen height (approximately).

photo of the video screen with the size of the text shown as a percentage of the screen height

The screens themselves are large. But what about the information they need to convey? The names of the stations, the most important information, are small: just 19% of the screen height for the Chinese characters and only 6% of the screen height for the Pinyin. I suppose one could add another percentage point or even two if the descenders are counted as well rather than just the cap height. But even 8% would be utter madness! The Pinyin text is absurdly tiny — and as such is close to useless. How is anyone supposed to read that?! But there’s plenty of space on the screen to make the Pinyin larger, especially if it is given separately rather than in combination with Chinese characters at the same time.

The video screens do cycle through different information, with one screen providing station names in Pinyin and English without any Chinese characters. But it’s almost as if they’re trying to make the signage unreadable. Here’s an example:

photo of a video screen on the Taipei MRT, showing the station names on the blue line in English/Pinyin in small text.

Again, the English/Pinyin names are too small to read — needlessly so. And it doesn’t help the cause of making text large enough to read that the Taipei MRT has some needlessly wordy station names.

But there is one new feature I actually like: listing how many minutes before the next stations. (Note the numbers along the bottom right of the screen.) This is nicely done — if only one could read the names of the stations.

And still more space could be saved if those nicknumbers (e.g., “BL17”) were removed. I have yet to hear anyone ever even mentioning them, at least not in a positive way. And to think the MRT system spent NT$300 million (about US$10 million) on that!

And let’s not forget that Taiwan is projected to become a super-aged society by 2025 — which means an especially large number of people who don’t see as well as they used to. Thus, it is all the more important that the letters are large enough to be read by people with less than perfect eyesight.

Alas, there’s more. The signs, as bad as their design is from the standpoint of the size of the text, have another significant flaw: their use of color.

detail of the above image, as described below

Look at how the name of the next station is presented: in light-blue-gray against an off-white background. There is little contrast between the text and the background, which makes the text very difficult to read. I would have thought that this problem, like the problem of size already discussed, would have been painfully obvious to everyone involved in the design process. Yet for some reason this wasn’t corrected long ago on the drawing board but has instead made it all the way to signage on the MRT itself! That light-blue-gray against off-white makes me just livid.

Another important aspect of color for the MRT is the assignation of colors to the different transit lines. Identifying different lines by color is actually quite useful, and many people refer to the various lines by their color. So how well do the new signs handle this? If you’re familiar with Taipei, try to ignore the names and placements of the lines for the moment. Just this once — because the actual station names are so tiny and damn hard to read on these video screens, and because I’m hoping you’ll try to let your knowledge of the MRT avoid interfering with your objective judgment on this — I’m asking you to refer to the numbers for Taipei MRT stations, stupid though they are.

The lines that intersect with the blue line are marked by vertical bars of color. OK, now look at the image below and answer a few simple questions. You’ll probably have to click on the photo one or more times to achieve the extreme magnification needed to view the sign well.

photo of video-screen signage above the door of a car on the Taipei MRT's blue line, this one showing stop names in Chinese characters and with colored lines to show different line transfer points

Q: Which station or stations intersect with the red line?

A: BL12.

OK, that was easy. Now another.

Q: Which station or stations intersect with the green line?

A: BL11.

Simple enough. But how about these?

Q: Which station or stations intersect with the brown line?
Q: Which station or stations intersect with the orange line?
Q: Which station or stations intersect with the yellow line?

Why the MRT thinks passengers need a regular reminder of what car number they are in is beyond me. Note, too, how those numbers are larger than the station name in English/Pinyin.

The answers are, respectively, BL15 & BL23, BL14, and BL07 & BL08.

How’d you do? And could you even tell that BL15 and BL23 are supposed to be the same color, and that color is supposed to be brown?

Here’s a look at what the current/old signage looks like.

Next : Zhongxiao Xinsheng BL14

  • The style is basic but effective.
  • The letters are large enough to read.
  • The space before the colon is wrong.
  • The contrast between the color of the text and the color of the background is strong, making the text easy to read.
  • The addition of “BL14” is an unfortunate distraction (sometimes less is more); but it’s nothing that the new signs don’t repeat.

In short: By the most important measures, the old signs are better than the new ones. And they already exist, so keeping them won’t cost taxpayers and farepayers anything, unlike putting in expensive new video screens that make navigating the MRT worse.

Meanwhile, the MRT system has still not corrected errors in the Pinyin for the names of some stations.

OMG, it’s nougat

My post about a month ago on another pun for the Year of the Rabbit was in part an excuse for me to note how common “OMG” (oh my God) has become in Taiwan. Indeed, it should be considered not just English anymore but a frequently used loan word, one that is usually written, using the Roman alphabet, as a “lettered word” in Mandarin (i.e., “OMG“). But sometimes “oh my God” shows up in Chinese characters (e.g., 喔麥尬) used as phonetic approximations of the English. And sometimes, as in today’s pun-tastic example, it appears in a mix of English and Chinese characters.

Sign above a storefront reading 'Oh.my.軋', with a 'niu' character (牛) written inside the 'O'.


The “Oh.my.軋” store sells nougat, as one can see from the smaller sign below and to the right of the main sign: “鮮治牛軋糖” (xiān zhì niúgátáng / freshly made nougat).

sign detail, showing 'xian zhi niugatang' in Chinese characters, with the second character being strange, as described in this post

Niugatang is simply a Mandarinization of the English word nougat; it’s transcribed “牛軋糖”. Tang is the Mandarin word for sugar and thus a short form meaning candy.

The use of a stylized version of the character for niu (牛), which rhymes with English’s “oh”, inside the “Oh” of the logo also makes the sign not just Oh my ga but also niu my ga (牛.my.軋). Puns upon puns.

The “Oh.my.軋” uses the ga from niugatang as a phonetic approximation of the English word “god.”

The character “治” is also worthy of note as an example of why Chinese characters are so damn hard. The character has two main parts. The left side has 氵, which is an alternate form of “水,” which is used in writing “shuǐ” (“water”) and many other words. The right side is 台 (tái), which is used in writing the word for platform but which is most commonly seen in Taiwan used phonetically in place names: Taiwan, Taipei (Taibei), Taichung (Taizhong), Taitung (Taidong), etc. So in terms of sound, that’s a shui and a tai. But in this case the phonetic hint commonly given in Chinese characters is 台 (tái). So does that mean the character “治” is pronounced tái?

Nope. Note even close. It’s pronounced zhì. And one just has to memorize such instances.

If you’re thinking, Hmm, shui plus tai? That’s water plus platform. Maybe the character is an ideograph for a pier! Nope. Once again, not even close. That’s generally not how Chinese characters work, no matter how many BS-filled TED talks on Chinese characters, memes, and crisis-tunity claims fill the Internet.

Of course, a character used for pier would make no sense on a sign for nougat. But as we’ll see, there are other things that don’t make sense here.

As I noted above, “xiān zhì niúgátáng” means “freshly made nougat.” But the weird thing is the character being used for zhì isn’t the “right” one. The sign uses “治” rather than the proper and homophonous “製” (zhì). The character used in the sign, however, doesn’t mean “made” but is instead most often seen in terms like zhìlǐ (治理), which is the Mandarin word for manage/administer/govern. Freshly administered nougat just doesn’t have much of a ring to it. So why did the company use that? My guess — and it’s just a guess — is that they wanted to evoke “Taiwan” through the 台 (tai) part of the character. (The company’s website — which has plenty of instances of the character 製 — claims that their nougat is one of the most popular purchases by tourists from China.) My long-suffering Taiwanese wife, however, exclaims that I think too much, and she yearns for the day when I find a more traditional hobby than spotting strange signs and asking her to help me understand them.

Rough guide to pronunciation for those unfamiliar with Mandarin or Hanyu Pinyin:

  • niu. Imagine the yo in Rocky Balboa’s cry of Yo, Adrian! or Dion’s “Yo, Frankie“; then stick an n in front of it.
  • ga. Say the word god, but drop the d.
  • tang. With the a as in father, not as in the English word sing/sang/sung.
  • zhi. Say the word jerk, but leave off the rk. Some people would keep in the r; but that’s not really a Taiwan thing — except perhaps on International Talk Like a Beijinger Pirate Day.

Further reading listening:

  • Gratuitous yo-free Dion link, because Dion is the man! (of course!): “If I Should Fall Behind,” written by Bruce Springsteen.

Company website: