Illustration: a yip


Some Hongkongers are unhappy that a facility in the West Kowloon Cultural District will be named the Xiqu Centre, arguing that "Chinese Opera Centre" would be more appropriate. However, calling traditional Chinese theatre "Chinese opera" is like calling spaghetti bolognese "Italian zhajiang mian": it's inaccurate and implies it is a lesser or ersatz version of the genuine article - European opera, or Chinese noodles with meat sauce.

If Japanese kabuki theatre remains as is when referred to in English, I fail to see what's wrong with xiqu.

It amuses me to see Chinese Hongkongers who give themselves foreign names such as Johnny or Yumiko go ballistic when a pinyin name appears on a building. It's obvious what's going on here. Some try to explain their pinyin-phobia by arguing that it is "difficult" for non-Putonghua speakers to pronounce. But while consonants such as x, q and c do twist many a tongue, pronouncing pinyin is no more difficult than pronouncing Irish or Czech. Non-speakers will never replicate the actual sounds of words via transliterations but in the case of the ancient Xiongnu people, Chinese transliterations give us a clue as to who they were.

Active from 200BC-AD400, the mysterious Xiongnu founded kingdoms in China and empires across Central Asia but left no written records. Linguistic analysis, however, offers tantalising hints as to who they might have been. The word " Xiongnu" would've been pronounced "hiung-no" in archaic Chinese, leading to speculation that they might have been the forebears of the Huns.