Sex, Ship, Six, Sleep

Imagine a door with four locks, behind which is hidden a secret message. Now imagine yourself running through a maze looking for the keys to the four locks. When you have all four keys, you have to turn them in the right order to open the door. And when the door finally swings open, you discover that the secret message reads: “Sex, Ship, Six, Sleep.”

This is what the above nightmare looks like in Mandarin:

Hong Kong tekst

For all I know, you may have to turn your monitor on its side to read these characters properly. I really had no idea what I was getting into when I asked author and artist Julie O’Yang to tell me, in her own language, about her favourite sight, sound, scent and taste in Hong Kong. In addition to the above Chinese characters, she sent me their phonetic versions – xing2, yun2, liu2, shui3 – and explained that the numbers refer to the four different tones in Mandarin. She also sent me her favourite photo of Hong Kong, with a cryptic caption:
“What she sees is herself.”

Hong Kong

During my subsequent quest, blood was spilled, clothes were torn and the neighbourhood woke to the terrible cry: “Curse you, Julie O’Yang!” Eventually, I capitulated and submitted the phonetic versions of the characters to Google Translate one by one, which produced a stir-fry of possibilities, including the words: sex, ship, six and sleep. I also submitted the four characters together, as a phrase, and got: “Of sleep and Six.”


After a night of sheer torment, I decided to take a different approach, based on something I had discovered the previous day. Google Translate automatically converts the phonetic xing2, yun2, liu2, shui3 into digital Mandarin characters that look like this if you enlarge them:

HK image

My solution was to copy and paste each of the above digital characters into Google Images. I was a bit hesitant about the first, xing2, because I knew it was supposed to mean “sex”. But the images proved to be sensual, loving and romantic, rather than sexual, with Chinese couples lovingly intertwined on rumpled sheets.

When I submitted the second character, yun2 (ship?), I got many different pictures of transportation, including ships and aircraft.

The third character, liu2 (six?), produced images featuring various representations of the number six, in the form of people and objects.

And the fourth character, Shui3 (sleep?), generated lots of images of people sleeping.

Even now, with all these clues at my disposal, I am not much closer to the truth. I’m not even sure which of the characters refers to sight, sound, scent or taste. My best guess is that Julie may be referring to the sight, sound, scent and taste of aircraft manoeuvring between the buildings to land at Hong Kong airport. “I love the sound of aircraft disturbing my sleep at 6 a.m.” This incorporates sex/love, ships/aircraft, sleep and six. But I’m probably horribly wrong.

That said, I call on Chinese readers to please explain what it is that Julie loves about Hong Kong. And if anyone knows where I can learn Mandarin in Amsterdam, please let me know, so that I can retain my sanity by avoiding that part of the city in future.

(Julie O’Yang is a novelist and visual artist. Her short stories, poetry and articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers worldwide. A Kindle version of her latest novel Butterfly will be available this year around Christmas. Please click here to visit her site.)

Richard de Nooy

Posted by: Richard de Nooy |
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