Any language that requires both transliteration and translation offers standardisation challenges, and China provides numerous examples. Variations in transliteration from Chinese, and a variety of spellings of Hong Kong and the surrounding region, have occurred since the earliest 16th-century European contact. One such example is a commonly reproduced aquatint of the Pok Fu Lam coast: “The Waterfall at Hong Cong”, from the time of the Amherst diplomatic mission to China of 1816.
Hong Kong/Hongkong spelling distinctions are a staple of dinner-party conversation between long-term residents and newcomers.
Typically, old stagers explain away these contradictions in neatly plausible binary terms: Hongkong, written as one word, was deployed for commercial entities, such as Hongkong Electric and the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. Hong Kong as two words signified an official entity, such as the Hong Kong Government, Hong Kong Police and the Hong Kong Post Office. But until the late 1950s, various interchangeable official and commercial usages remained commonplace.
To aid standardisation, A Gazetteer of Place Names in Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories was published in 1960 regularising place names across the colony. Even small villages were noted, with a census-derived population count, sub-ethnic majority where appropriate (such as Cantonese, Hakka, or a mixed population), and the predominant surname found in the village.
Locations recorded in this government gazetteer bear British place names that have long since become obsolete as Chinese names have been called back into everyday usage. Only a detailed comparison with contemporary maps would now indicate the locations of Mount Fowler, The Mendips and other remote peaks in the New Territories.
However, a few such place names remain in common use, especially those frequented by hikers, such as Sunset Peak, Mount Stenhouse and Sharp Peak.
Crossover confusions continue into Chinese. Officially used characters for Hong Kong literally mean ( 香港; “fragrant harbour”) and this translation has been used to the point of wearisome cliché in book titles and magazine articles for decades. Another set of characters – meaning ( 香江; “fragrant river”) – appears more commonly in mainland-oriented publications. The Cantonese words for harbour and river are homonyms, but use different characters.
Pinyin was first introduced in China in 1958 as a replacement for the 19th-century Wade-Giles romanisation. But until the late 1970s, and broad international recognition for the People’s Republic, the earlier spellings and usages prevailed overseas. For example, “Peking”continued to be used until political correctness – and a decision by the International Organisation for Standardisation in 1982 – imposed the now universal “Beijing”.
Some transliterations, such as Shanghai, did not change with the switch from Wade-Giles to Pinyin. Others did. Until 1982, Xiamen was internationally known as Amoy, the transliterated Hokkien name for that city.
Macao/Macau offers yet another complicated example. Macau with a “u” is the Portuguese spelling and has been widely used in Hong Kong’s English-language publications only since the 70s. The spelling registered with the United Nations, and still used by the local government in English documents, such as immigration forms, is Macao.
Mandarin – the correct English word for the north Chinese dialect formally designated as China’s national language in 1932 – has become internationally known in recent decades as Putonghua, literally “common speech”. The use of Putonghua as a proper noun offers a politically correct kowtow towards Chinese sensitivities; the tongues spoken in France or Portugal are never referred to in English-language publications – here or anywhere else – as Français or Portuguesa.
While Wade-Giles spellings remain in widespread use in Taiwan, political considerations have begun to encroach along with moves towards China’s way of doing things. Certain Hong Kong government websites have recently started to use both Pinyin and Wade-Giles for place names in Taiwan. The Hong Kong Observatory routinely uses “Taibei/Taipei” – another small but telling change.