If you see the building in Shenzhen festooned with the intriguing words 'Lie Fallow Agora', you may wonder what it means. One day I finally looked at the Chinese characters. But of course! Lie fallow: not working, nothing to do, leisure. Agora: agoraphobia, fear of open places, from the Greek for marketplace. It simply means 'leisure market' and the place is, indeed, a huge massage parlour.
Foreigners visiting the mainland can't help but notice the idiosyncratic English (also known as Chinglish) words dotting the landscape. For me, this use of the language - which is almost always a little bit off the meaning of the Chinese characters - is one of the most endearing features of the great joy-fest that is the Middle Kingdom.
A hill trail in Guangdong province has signs that bear the warning: 'No tossing' (don't throw rubbish) and 'No striding' (don't run). When you reach the top, a stern admonition tells you: 'No parapeting' (do not sit on the edge). You might enjoy a dinner of 'The Farmer is Small to Fry King', or perhaps 'Benumbed Hot Huang Fries Belly Silk'. These dishes may seem a bit frightening until you discover you're actually eating fried home-style king prawns or tripe with Sichuan peppercorns.
What a joy it is to peruse this kind of menu. Unfortunately, a few years ago, before the Beijing Olympics, the authorities attempted to get rid of 'crazy English', as they called it. This led to the much-mourned loss of the popular Beijing sign 'To Take Care of Safety: the Slippery are Very Crafty', which was replaced with 'Caution: slippery ramp'.
I can understand that the newly made modern state of China doesn't want tourists to stand around laughing and taking photos of its signs. But don't they see that this is something wonderful to behold, and that we are not laughing at them but near them?
I wrote an article about this for the Beijing newspaper Elite Reference, whose Chinese title means exactly that: 'elite' and 'reference'. Yes, even books written in classical Chinese nowadays as well as all newspapers and magazines must have some English on their cover, although there's not a single word in English to be found within.
In my article, I begged the authorities not to get rid of all the crazy English, simply because it's so wonderful. And please don't think this is me being patronising: it's just part of the mainland experience and long may it live. Anyway, that newspaper printed my entire article and so far it seems as if the old adage is holding true: heaven is high and the emperor far away. Outside Beijing and the other big cities, crazy English still holds sway. Enjoy!