Useful Phrases for a Lost Shanghai

[updated with a few more phrases … I couldn’t help myself.]

This afternoon, while researching a topic wholly unrelated to Shanghai dialect, I somehow landed upon Useful Phrases in the Shanghai Dialect (1908), a lost treasure from a lost Shanghai (click for an enlargement).

Published in 1908 by the American Presbyterian Mission Press (which, apparently, had an office in Shanghai), and digitized by google (thank you), this marvelous 113 page phrasebook inadvertently provides a more realistic – and caustic – view into the lives of Shanghai’s early 20th century colonial expatriate community than any period-era film or novel could ever hope to capture. For those interested, you can find the entire text, for free download, at google books. For now, and after the jump, a few select pages to provide a sense of just what’s buried within …

Note: All pages can be clicked for an enlargement.

First, the chapter on coolies (house servants and day laborers):

Next, some useful phrases to use with the washerman:

My favorite is this page of phrases for use with the Amah – or maid. In three short lines it includes an entire domestic vignette:

And for those trips “up-country,” these phrases are essential:

In the days before expat compounds, a little “street Shanghainese” was no doubt helpful:

And finally, as proof that somethings really never change, some useful – still useful – phrases for negotiating prices.

With those phrases mastered, it appears that you would have had a much more interesting choice of goods to purchase than what’s available today:

I could post images from this book all day. Really, I could. But I’ll cut it short with a final image of the back page, advertising several additional Shanghai dialect learning tools, (once) available at the Presbyterian Mission Press Book Room at 18 Peking Road. I’d be interested to know if that address conforms to today’s Beijing Road. Anybody out there know?

[UPDATE: Tom at the cool “Street of Shanghai” site answers the question: yes, Peking Road is the same as Beijing Road.]

[A quick note on copyright: Useful Phrases in the Shanghai Dialect has entered the public domain. The copy scanned by google is in the collection at Harvard’s Widener Library.]


  1. “Youtaning” … don’t think I’m so ignorant of Shanghai dialect that I don’t know what that means. Cute. I found the book online.

  2. Thanks, Tom. I’ve added your answer, and a link to your site, in the post. And I’ve just emailed you about your question.

  3. Kind of awesome. Great blog, by the way. Now I know how to buy wood carvings and boxes of puzzles from a Shanghainese vendor.

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