Startups: Technology for the gentleman

Written by Julen Madariaga on January 25th, 2010

All this G talk of the last days has brought me a lot of readers from the tech world, and I feel a responsibility towards them now to report the latest innovations. That is why yesterday during my Sunday walk I decided to stroll into the local public lavatory, where the latest developments are always cooking in the field of signese.

A bit of background: signese is the Chinese humour contained in public signs before they are translated to English. It is not Chinglish, it goes much deeper into our cultural differences, and it is funny because it shows an unexpected approach to life. Look at this sign below, it is a classic of toilet signese, a sign that hangs above millions of urinals in China, from the Summer Palace to the smallest alley in Shanghai:


A small step for man, A great leap for civilization

Approximately 50 million urinals carry this sign in the mainland. I wonder if somebody has told Neil Armstrong in his old age that his famous and well rehearsed line is remembered today by 1/5th of humanity as a hygienic measure for urinating gentlemen.

Bad aiming skills in the toilet is a common ill in all societies, any lady will tell you that. But in China the problem is most acute, and sub-urinal ponds are part of the landscape. Some ascribe it to the natural optimism common in most Chinese males. I prefer to think it is a matter of multi-tasking abilities: speaking on the phone while smoking a cigarette is not the best way to ensure full control.

In any case, the Ministry of Health prefers to not leave anything to chance, and already a tech startup is taking care of this:


Until this new product hits the market, please one step forward.

I just hope the developers are thoughtful enough to give it hands-free capabilities, ashtrays and Bluetooth.

PS. Speaking of technology, I know, if I am going to take blogging seriously I better get rid of this phone and get one that can take proper pics. The problem is I am torn between that and the best dictionary of Chinese in the World, that runs in my second hand Palm from Taobao.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Jan
    Robert Woo

    Translating Wen Ming here as civilization creates some funny effects, but really inaccurate. It should be something on the line of civility, politeness, manners, that kind of thing. Civilization is too big a word for any sensible mind.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Jan

    “Really inaccurate” is a bit of a stretch, but it is one of these cases that are hard to translate. Since it does allude to Armstrong’s saying, it does make some sense to go with “civilization.” It’s more a problem of what to do with nouns that sounds grand in English when the word classes are floating in Chinese.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Jan

    Robert, you are right about Wenming, the words you give are more precise. But my intention was to translate the overall feeling of the phrase, which is hardly rendered in:

    “one little step forward, one big step for civility”

    Then again, that is MY own feeling, I am not so sure all the Chinese users of public lavatories see a parallel with Armstrong :)

    [Reply to this comment]

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