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NT$30 Million Spent on System Codification

Why Are Foreign Visitors Still Getting Lost on Taipei’s MRT System?


Why Are Foreign Visitors Still Getting Lost on Taipei’s MRT System?


How is “Yongan Market” pronounced? Foreigners not conversant in Chinese could easily mistake the phonetic spelling for a phrase in Mandarin that could cause significant embarrassment, and still end up missing their station as well. For people who are lost in the Taipei Metro system, proper spelling is more important than assigning a code to each station.



Why Are Foreign Visitors Still Getting Lost on Taipei’s MRT System?

By Peihua Yen

Donna is a Canadian studying Chinese in Taiwan. She chose to live near the Da’an MRT station for its convenient location. Yet the first time she met with her landlord, she was an hour late because she was unable to find Da’an Station on an English-language map, which indicated the station name as “Daan”. They way she pronounced the name, it sounded like the single character da (“big” or “great” in Mandarin), rather than the compound name Da’an (da + an), the standard Romanization rendering.

Foreign visitors and travelers are on the rise in Taiwan, and seated in a car in the MRT (Taipei’s metro system) listening to announcements of each station’s name in Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, English, and sometimes Japanese, one can see plenty of evidence of the considerate nature of traditional Chinese cultural values. This is done out of consideration for people from different backgrounds, as well as the desire to be more international.

Taipei’s MRT system is clean, comfortable, and convenient, which is one reason why Donna chose to study Chinese in Taipei over Beijing.

Yet Donna’s is not an isolated case, and many foreign visitors are still in the dark about MRT station names and signs. In response, Taipei City Council members suggested that Taipei adopt a coded naming system to aid international travelers and make the city more user friendly. Subsequently, following a trip to Japan, where he surveyed the Osaka subway system, Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je decided to invest NT$30 million to institute a coding system, similar to that of Kaohsiung, to help make Taipei’s MRT system more “international”.

In 2016, the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation (TRTC) formally finished putting station and route codes into place, using color coding to distinguish different routes. For instance, Taipei Main Station, situated at the intersection of the Red and Blue lines, is given the code R10 (or “tenth station on the Red line”), as well as BL12 (“twelfth station on the Blue line”). All station codes were expected to be completed in time for the opening of the Universiade.

But to foreigners in Taiwan, codes are only of minor importance compared to simply using the correct phonetic spelling.

Donna was unable to find Da’an station because the phonetic spelling of the station’s name was rendered as “Daan,” rather than the correct form of “Da’an.” So what is so important about a single apostrophe?

Professor Victor H. Mair, of the University of Pennsylvania, is a leading worldwide authority in Hanyu Pinyin, the most widely used system of phonetic spelling or Romanization of Mandarin Chinese. During a phone interview with CommonWealth, Professor Mair noted that without that single marker, people unfamiliar with Chinese are unable to properly divide the title into syllables, thus easily causing them to mispronounce it. Accordingly, he stresses that it should be clearly marked in Hanyu Pinyin.

In addition to holding the distinction as the world’s foremost authority on Hanyu Pinyin, Professor Mair is a well-known Sinologist, expert scholar on Dunhuang excavations and manuscripts, and linguist. He is currently a professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. Mair, who has been called the most progressive and forward-looking contemporary Sinologist in the West, sang the praises to CommonWealth of Mark Swofford, currently a resident of Taipei, as a global authority on the principles and rules of Hanyu Pinyin, and tone marks and other related markup language.

Swofford told our correspondent that several stations on the Taipei MRT system use incorrect rendering in Hanyu Pinyin that can potentially lead foreign visitors to mispronounce or be unable to sound out the names out at all. For instance, the proper Hanyu Pinyin for 永安市場站 should be Yong’an Market Station, yet it is currently rendered as “Yongan” Market, which he demonstrated can be unintentionally misread as an offensive phrase in Chinese.

Another example of incorrect phonetic spelling is 唭哩岸, which should be “Qili’an” with an apostrophe. However, without the apostrophe, “Qilian” can be divided syllabically to become “Qi Lian”. As to when and where to use an apostrophe, Swofford relates that according to the rules of Hanyu Pinyin, if a syllable other than the first syllable begins with a vowel, such as a, e, or o, it should be preceded by an apostrophe, as in Da’an and Jing’an.

After obtaining a degree in English literature from the University of Oklahoma, Swofford taught English in China for several years, during which time he conducted extensive research on Hanyu Pinyin. Today he is the webmaster of the world’s most widely used website devoted to Hanyu Pinyin, and has served as a member of a committee on Hanyu Pinyin convened by the Ministry of Education.

The Taipei MRT system adopted the Hanyu Pinyin system to render station names in “English” in 2004, yet many station names continue to use improper Hanyu Pinyin. There is also confusion between phonetic spellings and meanings of certain station names, such as Xiangshan station, which literally translates as Elephant Mountain in English.

Ms. Yang Li-hua, Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation public relations section chief, relates that MRT station names follow the usage principles for Chinese phonetic spelling set forth by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of the Interior’s standard translations of place names, which the Taipei city government then used to formulate guidelines for English translations of place names. These were then used as the basis for the translations of MRT station names.

Yang relates that, whereas there were once six different sets of Romanization systems for Mandarin, since the adoption in 2004 of Hanyu Pinyin, the TRTC has followed the city government’s operational guidelines for Hanyu Pinyin, which concentrate on the spelling of place names, but do not contain any mention of syllabic markers.

As for the station coding system embarked on this month, TRTC relates that it is responsible only for adding codes on this project, and not for revisions to the Romanization of metro system names.

With a sizable sum of NT$30 million having been spent on the project, domestic traveler Ms. Kuo remarked that the addition of station codes has absolutely no impact on her, except perhaps for making everything a little more complicated.

However, in the effort to gain more overseas visitors, rather than spending a lot of money to codify the metro system, the money would be better spent on an overall rectification of MRT station names, Hanyu Pinyin, and signage, as helping visitors understand and spell the words properly is the most user-friendly international practice.

Foreign travelers often view the people of Taiwan as its “most beautiful scenery”. Over 30 percent of Taiwan’s population is concentrated in Taipei, and the Taipei MRT system plays an important role as a goodwill ambassador, transporting this beautiful scenery. Correctly indicating the names of the various MRT stations in the Taipei metro system is like putting a smile on the scenery. (Read: Sign Designs for Global Travelers)

Translated by David Toman
Edited by Sharon Tseng