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.

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