“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

‘Going for a Chinese’ in the 1930s, the 1950s, whenever…

Posted: April 6th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

OK, so this is one of my semi-regular really rather anal posts and as we were talking telly yesterday (Underbelly Razor and its Chinese nods) here’s some more. I really liked The Hour, the BBC drama (made by the production company Kudos – and more about them soon on this blog) set in amongst the BBC news department and a fair amount of intrigue in the 1950s (Suez Crisis time). I just sat back and let it wash over me as I tend to do with these things (even Downton Abbey, which got a bit ridiculous in series 2 you have to admit – all those tingling toes!!). Still, I couldn’t help noticing that some people pointed out various problems with Abi Morgan’s script, notably (as this is the China Rhyming blog) the use of the phrase “going for a Chinese”. A number of people, apparently including some language historians (according to the Daily Telegraph here), believe this phrase to date from some time post-1956. Maybe…but I’m not so sure.

Just today I kicked back and decided to take a few hours out to indulge one of my great pleasures – reading Eric Ambler spy novels from the 1930s – and settled in with a cup of tea, a biscuit and Ambler’s brilliant Cause for Alarm (hey, if Pico Iyer can read and re-read Graham Greene over and over, as he says he does in his well worth reading The Man Within My Head, then I can read and re-read Ambler). Ambler wrote Cause for Alarm in 1937, it was published in 1938 and redefined the spy novel in Britain. It also, early on, happens to contain a scene where the hero of the book, Nicky Marlow, takes his girlfriend Claire to a Chinese restaurant run by Cantonese in London, and they eat with chopsticks – an engineer and a secretary. Now, they don’t actually say “going for a Chinese” but it doesn’t seem to me particularly inconceivable that they would have. And, if they didn’t say “going for a Chinese” what did they say that wasn’t’t an impossibly long and convoluted way of saying “going for a Chinese”? Any ideas welcome.

First US edition cover

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2 Comments on “‘Going for a Chinese’ in the 1930s, the 1950s, whenever…”

  1. 1 Shanghai61 said at 5:33 pm on April 10th, 2012:

    “Going for a Chinese meal” perhaps, as the simplest, non-anachronistic version.

    On a slightly-related note, I grew up in Birmingham in the 50s, and there weren’t a lot of Chinese restaurants around, but there was one on Warwick Road in Shirley. It was called (inevitably) “The Shirley Temple”.

  2. 2 Paul French said at 5:36 am on May 27th, 2012:

    Good news – the Shirley Temple still exists – http://www.flickr.com/photos/brettwilde/2229884707/

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