Feb 242009

My son is learn­ing Man­dar­in, so when I went to Hong Kong recently, I asked what I should bring back. His teach­er sug­ges­ted a Man­dar­in dic­tion­ary; it soun­ded like a good idea to me. Find­ing one to buy ended up being more of an odys­sey than I expec­ted though.

The hotel had an English-language Yel­low Pages, which seemed like a good place to start. Bad assump­tion — there was a cat­egory for Book­bind­ers, and one for Books — Whole­salers, but no retail books. Even if they had had a list­ing there, it’s doubt­ful it would have done me much good. It turns out that the Hong Kong Yel­low Pages lists addresses in terms of the name of the build­ing the store is in (e.g., Prosper Com­mer­cial Build­ing, or Tai Sang Build­ing), with no hint as to which part of Hong Kong it might be in, let alone which num­ber on which street. I guess they expect people to know which build­ing is where.

One of my tour­ist guides men­tioned that Dymocks (which I always think of as an Aus­trali­an store) is near the Star Ferry ter­min­al, so after the required trip on the ferry (well worth it), I stopped off there. They didn’t have any Man­dar­in dic­tion­ar­ies, so I bought another book and asked the cash­ier where to find one. Her answer? “Com­mer­cial Books, on Sug­ar Street, ask when you get there, every­one knows it”. So I went down to Sug­ar Street, walked along it twice, up and down stairs at the Com­mer­cial Build­ing, before find­ing the actu­al book­store is called “Com­mer­cial Press” and it’s on Yee Wo Street, near the inter­sec­tion to Sug­ar Street. Close enough I guess, I did find it even­tu­ally.

Of course, I don’t speak any Chinese lan­guage, so I needed help to find what I wanted. I com­pletely bam­boozled the first book­store employ­ee I asked for help, she couldn’t believe she under­stood what I was ask­ing for and asked someone else for help. They showed me lots of books on learn­ing Man­dar­in, and English-Mandarin dic­tion­ar­ies, before finally believ­ing that may­be I did want a Man­dar­in dic­tion­ary with no Eng­lish and show­ing me those. 

As an aside: if you see a book in Hong Kong with a large num­ber on a stick­er on it, the num­ber is the per­cent­age of the nor­mal price that you pay, not the final price. So if the stick­er says “85”, you don’t pay $HKD 85, you pay 85% of the nor­mal price (which is on the back of the book). This can, ahem, be quite a dif­fer­ent price.