Pidgin English in Old Shanghai

Pidgin English is a non-specific name used to refer to any of the many pidgin languages derived from English. I am always fascinated by the old Shanghai and want to share some pidgin English of old Shanghai.

I was born in Shanghai, a port city of China. Before World War Ⅱ, the city experienced a period of time full of chaos as well as glories.

Old Shanghai-French Concession

The Britain arrived in Shanghai and set about establishing a presence in the port in November 1843. The Treaty of Nanjing allowed for foreign traders and their families to reside in Shanghai and the British were allocated a piece of land north of the walled Chinese city by the Huangpu River, where they founded the British Settlement. The Americans and the French negotiated similar arrangements as well. In that case, English became the contact language.

Old Shanghai-North Railway Station


During those years, Shanghai began to globalize. Here is a typical weekend for a girl from a bourgeois family living at that time. She had traditional Chinese breakfast, for example, soybean milk with fried dough, which was prepared by her Russian maid; then the Russian chauffeur would send her to Xia Fei Road (Present Huai Hai Road) because she had a date with her girlfriend. They two had her couture tailored and do some shopping, and then have lunch in Peace Hotel on the Bund; after that, they planned to see first-run Hollywood movies in Carlton Cinema. After the movie, decent British High Tea in a fabulous bakery was a good choice to kill the rest time of the afternoon. Their dinner was finished at Red House Restaurant and cook by a French chef.

Old Shanghai-A taxi company called Johnson Garage

Analyzing Shanghai situation by Schneider’s model, during Foundation Stage, the root reason was military outposts and trade. Foreigners spoke their mother tongue and communicated in English, with little exposure to Shanghai dialect.

In Stage Two, local-plus-English came to existence. There were English newspapers as well as Hollywood movies around. Shanghai people began to learn English. There were two famous schools supported by missionaries then, St. John’s University, and St. Mary’s Hall which was a female school, which both mainly focused on English-teaching. Governors, celebrities and bourgeoisie sent their children to those schools. I was so surprised when I heard my friend’s great grandfather, who graduated from St. John’s, speaking beautiful English.

New Shanghai-Bund

In Stage Three, a lot of English words have made their way into Shanghainese, such as马达(motor)、马赛克(mosaic)、水门汀(cement)、吉普(jeep)、摩托车(motorcycle)、开司米(cashmere)、柠檬(lemon)、色拉(salad)、土司(toast)、布丁(pudding)、三明治(sandwich)、白脱(butter)、咖啡(café or coffee)、可可(cocoa)、咖喱(curry)、阿司匹林(aspirin)、麦克风(microphone)、披耶那(piano)、梵啞鈴(violin)、巧克力(chocolate)、啤酒(beer)、酒吧(bar)、沙丁鱼(sardine)、雪茄(cigar)、高尔夫(golf).

These words are still being used today. I don’t think the connection of Shanghai dialect and Pidgin English went through Stage Three. It was dead because of historical and political reasons. World WarⅡ broke out, and China’s government was completely restructured. There were not concessions in Shanghai any more. New government stopped the English schools, the newspapers and entertainment industry.

New Shanghai-Pudong Oriental Pearl TV Tower

By and large, it is important to recognize and acknowledge emerging new English varieties, which proves English is a living language. Otherwise, it could be like Persian and Latin which both have significant impact on history and were treasure to human beings; however, they are regarded as dead languages now.

In the Info Age, we are actually creating new words for various languages online or in our daily life. I got a Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and there is a part named “New Words”. Those words are newly-created words or existing words with new meaning. For instance, ATM, created by banking industry, bar-code, created by FMCG industry, cyber-space, created by IT industry, and Christmas tree which means a congressional bill to which various extraneous clauses are added, typically near the end of a session in order to facilitate their passage.

Learn more about Old ShanghaiTales of Old Shanghai

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5 Responses to Pidgin English in Old Shanghai

  1. Fascinating post! One tiny correction: “cyberspace” was coined by science fiction author William Gibson.

  2. Great post! – Very informative.

    The bund area is a beautiful precinct. I would love to visit again. From the pictures ive seen, it looks like the restoration (finished in March 2010) was very successful.

  3. Found out your webblog via msn the other day and absolutely think its great. Keep up this fantastic work.

  4. Really interesting. It reminds me of Runglish – an emerging language mix of English and Russian. It developed over the last 15 years since USSR fell apart. Whenever I go to Russia, I hear these new words and sometimes they don’t make any sense. I used to be upset by it, but now I can see from your post that it’s widespread in other cultures as well.

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