This small piece of text was found in the main street of an inner-city area of Antwerp, Belgium. It is handwritten in ‘Chinese’ (though this will need to be qualified). In English translation, the text reads “apartment for rent, first class finishing, water and electricity included, 350 Yuan per month”, followed by a mobile phone number. The text is mundane, and unless one has a particular interest in it (as sociolinguists do), it is easy to overlook. When we pay closer attention, we discover a very complex object, and here are some of the issues:
(1) The text is written in two forms of ‘Chinese’: a mixture of the simplified script which is the norm in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the traditional script widespread in Hong Kong, Taiwan and earlier generations of the Chinese diaspora.
(2) The text articulates two different styles or voices, that of the producer and that of the addressee(s), and the mixed script suggests that their styles are not identical. In all likelihood, the producer is someone used to writing traditional script, while the addressee is probably from the PR C.
(3) The latter point is corroborated by the use of ‘Yuan’ rather than ‘Euro’ as the currency, and
(4) the mixed character of the text suggests a process of transition. More specifically, it suggests that the producer (probably an ‘older’ diaspora Chinese person) is learning the script of the PRC, the unfinished learning process leading to the mixing of the scripts. Thus,
(5) this text points towards two very large-scale phenomena: (a) a gradual change in the Chinese diaspora, in which the balance of demographic, political and material predominance gradually shifts away from the traditional diaspora groups towards new émigrés from the PRC; (b) the fact that such a transition is articulated in ‘small’ and peripheral places in the Chinese diaspora, such as the inner city of Antwerp, not only in larger and more conspicuous ‘Chinatowns’ such as London. So this text bears the traces of worldwide migration flows and their specific demographic, social and cultural dynamics, brought down to the lowest, most local level of social activity.
© Jan Blommaert & Ben Rampton