The success of the website Overheard in New York has spawned similar sites in China’s major cities, such as Beijing, Guangzhou, Changsha, Xi’an and Shanghai. Recent news reports on this phenomenon are referring to Chinese sites, but there are also English sites: Overheard in Shanghai and this site — which is still empty.
Judging from the Chinese reports on the overheard sites, it seems that they are not meant to be as comical as the New York site. Some of them merely record daily happenings, like when a bus driver in Beijing asked a migrant worker that got on a bus with a large piece of glass to buy an extra ticket.
The Chinese sites tend to pop up on the countless BBSs and portals that make up the Chinese blogosphere, though it seems that it all started with Beijing on a Tianya BBS. Of course, if you, like us, are a loyal reader of the New York site, then you know how important a role language plays; even when the dialogues seem fake, there’s something distinctly American about the idiom and something distinctly New York about the people being described. People are just described as “hobo” or “suit” or “tween,” which exploits the comic potential of stereotypes, perhaps at the expense of truthfulness. The point is, much of the humor is culturally specific, and in the case of China, that means that much of what is interesting, funny or compelling about something said by strangers is in the nuances of regional dialect. This is perhaps why Shanghai overheard sites as well as Cantonese based ones find it harder to gain in popularity beyond speakers of the dialect. Here’s one example cited in the report:
Traffic assistant: Can you not see that red light.
Old lady: The road’s empty, no people around.
Traffic assistant: Oh, your house doesn’t have people around either, should I go and live in there?
Even if our translation wasn’t shitty, it would still hold that in 1. In Shanghainese, this would be amusing and 2. in Mandarin, it’d still get a chuckle out of some people, and 3. in English, people would be waiting for the proverbial drum roll.
Going back to the English language Shanghai overheard sites, you can find some of the following gems:
November 22, 2005 by Qiming
“I want to get one of those DVD players made of paper so I can burn it for my afterlife.”
– Writer in Wagas
August 10, 2006 by Qiming
Boy: “I used to be just like you.”
Girl: “Addicted to coffee?”
Boy: “. . . and a woman.”
– The Coffee Bean
Now we haven’t read any of the Chinese sites in depth, and in fact, it’s a bit hard finding them. This is partly because when you do a search on 偷听上海 (touting Shanghai) or 偷听城市 (touting chengshi), the results are mostly news reports about the sites and not the sites themselves. BBS websites are always a bit hard to find if you don’t know your way around because there aren’t enough links to them to guarantee that they’ll show up on the first page of search query results.
In any case, you probably won’t find anything like this:
‘Hoe-Hoe Happy Meals’ Featuring Adult Toys Gave McDonald’s Considerable Market Penetration
Ghetto man: A groopie ain’t nothin’ but a high-class ho.
Ghetto woman: Please, a groopie is a ho with standards.
Ghetto man: Whatever, a groopie’s no different than a prostitute. But I respect a prostitute ’cause she don’t keep it a secret. A prostitute will fuck you for a happy meal. A happy meal! Not even a value meal!
Ghetto woman: Well, maybe all she wants is a happy meal.
Ghetto man: Yeah, for the toy!
–Grand Army Plaza subway station, Brooklyn
Photo from Artanis Knarf.