There is a corner of the New Territories that Chinese speakers with a love for puns call “Ma Niu Shui” (馬尿水/马尿水) meaning horse urine.
Its proper is name is “Ma Liu Shui” (馬料水/马料水) meaning something like water for horses to drink. It is now more often simply called “University” (大學/大学) because that is what the rail station in the area has been called since 1967. The moment of change from colorful to boringly obvious is pictured above. Happily, the nearby small ferry pier retains the original place-name, Ma Liu Shui, and grade-school puns are still possible.
Is your interest piqued in other Hong Kong place-names and the potential for hidden meanings and secret histories?
Discouragingly, sometimes there is no great story. A place was simply named a typical English name by the British and a set of Chinese characters that mimics the English-sounding name was used for the Cantonese version. For example:
- “Hollywood Road” is “荷李活道” pronounced “Hoh Leih Wooht Douh” in Cantonese.
- “Jordan” is “佐敦” pronounced “Jo Dun” in Cantonese.
Sometimes it’s the other way around and the English name was chosen to sound like the original Chinese name:
- “Laahn Gwai Fong” (蘭桂坊) is “Lan Kwai Fong” in English.
- “Gau Luhng” (九龍/九龙) is “Kowloon” in English and means “nine dragons” after the eight hills behind Kowloon and a Song Dynasty emperor. (Corrected, with thanks to Jonathan Stanley. See his comment below with more information.)
Others places are simply direct translations of the meaning and sound nothing alike:
- “The Peak” is “Saan Deng” (山頂/山顶).
- “Central” is “Jung Waahn” (中環/中环).
- The MTR station “Racecourse” is ”Mah Cheung“ (馬場/马场).
Yawning yet? Now for some more hidden meanings!
The most interesting category for back stories includes places whose English name is completely different from the Cantonese name in both sound and meaning. A world of secret understanding just waiting to be puzzled out! For example:
- “Stanley” is “Chek Chueh” (赤柱), which literally means “red pillar” but figuratively means “bandit’s post.”
- The grocery store chain “ParknShop” becomes “Baak Gaai” (百佳) in Cantonese with a literal English translation of something like “Excellent Hundreds.”
- Militant and stodgy “Admiralty” becomes “Gam Jung” (金鍾/金钟) which means “golden clock.”
Occasionally the English name has a more interesting story than its Cantonese partner, for example:
- “Repulse Bay” which in English is named after early colonial action to repulse pirates from the area, actually loses its luster in Cantonese as “Chin Shui Waan” (淺水灣/浅水湾) meaning simply “shallow water bay.”
The blogger “Lost in Mongkok” also has an interest in hidden place-name meanings and created this MTR map with literal (and sometimes unpoetic) translations of MTR station names (click here for the original readable version).
I’m sure there are many more examples. Please share your insights from Hong Kong or other places!
- Historic Ma Liu Shui photograph: I bumped into this photograph on Susan Bloomberg-Kason‘s blog post “Along the Kolwoon-Canton Railway.” She ran across the picture in a Chinese University of Hong Kong alumni magazine.
- Discussion of bawdy Hong Kong place names: Susan also posted her picture at Gwulo: Old Hong Kong. It spurred quite a discussion in the comments over other crude historic Hong Kong place names. Worth a look!
- Place name back stories: I discovered the interesting tidbits about the names Ma Liu Shui, Stanley and Repulse Bay in various places on Wikipedia, which can be linked to by clicking through the names in this sentence.