Date
13 December 2017
A sign in Chinese (left) inside a Japanese restaurant reads "please reuse glasses". An MTR warning in simplified Chinese warns against trespassing into the track area. Photos: HKEJ, Internet
A sign in Chinese (left) inside a Japanese restaurant reads "please reuse glasses". An MTR warning in simplified Chinese warns against trespassing into the track area. Photos: HKEJ, Internet

When warnings fail

Recently, I had a fantastic self-drive holiday with my family in Hokkaido.

While I was enjoying a soft-serve ice cream at a cafe in New Chitose Airport in Sapporo, a notice caught my attention.

It was written in Chinese, saying “the one-off life of the cup does not exist!”

Pseudo-philosophers would find the line intriguing. This reminds me of the fact that life is a one-way journey where we commuters could live in the world only once. It could be understood as a “one-off” existence.

Thanks to consumerism, many utensils are given the same fate, too; they are produced for use once.

Anyway, what does “one-off life does not exist” mean? It sounds like a zen concept.

My son, who has learned some Japanese, told me that it could be a hilarious result of Google Translate. The intended meaning should be “these are not disposable products”.

As the cafe is small, the water dispenser and cups are placed on top of a tiny wooden cupboard, which also serves as a rubbish bin.

I bet there are some Chinese tourists who drink the water and throw the cup into the bin, killing off these lovely cups after being used just once.

Since the notice was only in Chinese, with no Japanese or English versions, probably only Chinese tourists have driven the owner mad. He was desperate to express himself in red bold characters with a big exclamation mark.

Speaking of warnings or reminders, the Hong Kong public space is never short of them.

A few months ago, I started to take the MTR more often, and I found myself being bombarded with escalator announcements in Cantonese, Mandarin and English.

The audio track comes with no breaks between languages, and the tone is so sharp that it made me anxious. What people could do is to turn off their ears.

Then, there’s the visual bombardment from minibuses. On one occasion, I could count seven copies of “maximum speed of this vehicle is 80km/h”, four identical reminders of “please inform the driver of your stop” and one, “if the engine is too noisy; please shout”.

Are these working? Some might, and some absolutely not, especially those never-ending shouty reminders.

On top of word choice, tone and style, typography plays a role in warning design.

What impressed me most was the warnings on Hokkaido’s highway, which are indeed wordless.

For example, to wake drowsy drivers and prevent them from veering from the lane, the road comes with tactile marks that would give a squeal of tyres when they are off the track.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 13

Translation by John Chui

[Chinese version 中文版]

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