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Issue: 607   Date: 04/11/2002

Chinese Newspapers Discard Up-Down for Left-Right Reading

St. Louis Chinese American News (Scanews) keeps the traditional format, but will apply the new format on some pages to meet the needs.

Chinese Newspapers Discard Up-Down for Left-Right Reading

March 25, 2002, New York Times


The world of Chinese-language newspapers in America has been turned upside down. Actually, it is just the text that has been completely flipped and reversed, although that has made for plenty of confusion all the same.

Within the last few months, the country's biggest Chinese-language dailies, all based in New York, have radically altered their printing formats. Instead of hewing to the decades-old tradition of printing the text vertically, from right side to left, the newspapers now read like their English-language counterparts with the text horizontal, from left side to right.

The newspapers also open up in reverse, so what used to be the front page is now the back page, and vice versa. And one daily paper has even abandoned traditional Chinese characters, so famously associated with ancient texts and paintings, in favor of the simplified ones that were introduced by the Beijing government in the 1950's.

Officially, the newspapers say that many practical reasons lie behind the changes. Chief among them are the ease of printing English terms like the critically important immigration law known as 245i, as well as an acknowledgment of New York's recent surge of immigrants from China, where newspapers are read horizontally, from left side to right.

But as hundreds of thousands of readers try to reorient themselves to a fundamental routine of their daily lives, the transition so far has been uneven, producing a range of visceral reactions to the new reading reality, one in which left is now right, horizontal is vertical and front is back. Some say that they feel liberated and are reading the newspaper again for the first time in years. Others, by contrast, speculate that a political conspiracy may be afoot to court Beijing at the expense of Taipei.

Still others say that their eyes hurt from trying to read the paper.

Appreciated another way, imagine the uproar if an American paper suddenly decided that all text would be printed from right to left and that columns would run horizontally instead of vertically. Or if newspapers in Hebrew or Arabic, which read from right to left, decided to do an about-face.

"I don't like it," said Pauline Chu, an immigrant from Taiwan who is president of the Chinese-American Parents Association in Flushing. "I don't know where to look; it's hard to tell which section to look for things you want to read. Your eyes - it's kind of exhausting."

But Ms. Chu gets no sympathy from Nan Lin, who immigrated from Fujian Province in China in 1995. For years, she was frustrated with the Chinese-language press here because she was uncomfortable with the style, and unfamiliar with many traditional characters they used.

"It was so hard to read that I didn't care whether I read the newspaper or not, which was terrible because before it was more important to read than to eat," said Ms. Lin, who works in a factory near Chinatown and also teaches the martial art of wushu. "But now, I'm very happy. I'm reading
the newspaper every day. This is great."

Any time a newspaper experiments with changes - be they graphic design, color photographs or new sections - complaints from readers are inevitable. But for many Chinese, the newspaper is an especially crucial and sensitive staple of life.

In Taiwan, families often subscribe to two or three newspapers. In the United States, Chinese-language newspapers, not television, provide for many the bulk of their information and the only link to current events in Asia.

For years, most people of Chinese origin in America had immigrated from Taiwan or Hong Kong after the Communist revolution in 1949, and were often anti-Communist or generally supportive of Taiwan's long-ruling Nationalist Party. As a result, the newspapers here relied on the traditional system of complicated characters known as fantizi used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and not the system of simplified characters called jiantizi used in post-1949 China.

Even The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, used traditional characters in its overseas edition until about five years ago. But at least the text read from left to right.

"It used to be, from left to right meant a left-wing newspaper, and pro-Communist China," said George Hua, president of the New York Association for Peaceful Unification of China.

But in recent years, there has been a surge in immigrants from China, both the highly educated and the undocumented poor. And circulation figures - hard as they are to confirm - reflect such changes, with the biggest paper, World Journal, which is owned by a Taiwan conglomerate, claiming a readership that is now half from Taiwan and half from China.

Three years ago, The China Press, which is owned by local investors and is perceived to be more pro-Beijing than the other papers, switched from vertical to horizontal publishing. Some people were upset. But even more were irked, said Fan Dongsheng, the paper's president, when, in November, the paper switched from traditional to simplified characters.

"Some readers say, `You're not respecting me, and you don't want me to read,' " said Mr. Fan, who is originally from Beijing. "Some readers also say the simplified characters are uglier."

But since that rocky start, the paper's circulation has jumped by 20 percent, attracting immigrants from China who had previously shunned newspapers in traditional formats, Mr. Fan said.

In recent months, the two biggest Chinese dailies in America, World Journal and Sing Tao, have also unveiled new format changes.

At Sing Tao, a healthy dose of initial reader complaints notwithstanding, newspaper executives say that they feel satisfied that they made the right decision to publish left-to-right columns. Indeed, the paper is beefing up its China coverage, with more China-related news, entertainment and sports, as well as plans to devote a half-page of news solely to Fujian Province.

For now, there are no plans to introduce simplified characters because too many readers would object, said Robin Mui, the paper's chief operating officer, who is also president of the Chinese Journalists Association. "But maybe down the road, I would not guarantee that we would not change it," Mr. Mui said. "We have a lot of immigrants from mainland China, and those are our new target readers."

Still, the occasional barbs that greeted Sing Tao and The China Press were nothing compared with the reaction when World Journal changed formats during the Chinese New Year last month.

Some readers charged that the paper, now 26 years old, had sold out to the Communists, said Marco Liu, the paper's editor in chief. And some were so upset that they canceled their subscriptions, or began to look for alternatives to the daily, which claims a readership of 50,000 in the New York area and 390,000 around the country.

But the reasons for change were straightforward, Mr. Liu said. There are, for starters, technical considerations, since the paper uses computer software that is manufactured in Beijing. It is also much more convenient to incorporate English terms or numbers familiar to readers here - like, say, 9/11 or Operation Anaconda - when printing horizontally.

"We are not a Taiwanese newspaper," Mr. Liu said in an interview at the newspaper's headquarters in Whitestone, Queens. "We are not a Chinese newspaper. We want to position ourselves as an American newspaper."

Still, Mr. Liu expressed guarded optimism that readers would adapt. After all, several papers in Taiwan are now printed horizontally - especially the evening papers, which list stock prices in the Western style. The same applies to most Chinese-language Web sites, and many of the free weekly newspapers found in Chinese hubs like Flushing and Edison, N.J. And besides, many of the paper's ads have run in left-to-right fashion for years.

Yet so far, the reaction has been mixed across the region.

Ren Rong Pan, a lawyer in Manhattan who grew up in China, loves the changes. He is excited not just for himself, but also for his children, who have grown up in suburban New Jersey.

"This style belongs to the old generation," he said of the previous newspaper format. "If we want to keep kids interested in the Chinese language, we have to make it easier for them."

Then again, consider the tribulations of Wenbin Zhang, a native of Tianjin, China. Mr. Zhang used to work for The Tianjin Daily as a driver, and enjoyed the newspaper culture there. Then, when he came to the United States about eight years ago, he had to make the rough transition to learn the traditional characters, and read in the opposite direction. And now this?

"This is very annoying," he said, while eating lunch recently in Flushing. "I don't know whether I've bought the right paper, or which way to read now. It's like turning North and South America upside down."

In recent months, the two biggest Chinese dailies in America, 
World Journal and Sing Tao, have unveiled new format changes.


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