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Breaking Down the Language Barrier

March 03, 1997|GALI KRONENBERG

Qing Nian Tang's calligraphy lessons began at age 3.

His grandfather, a well-known calligrapher, would set young Tang on his lap, place his hand over Tang's, helping his grandson to stroke his first characters. "They were really quite awful," says Tang, now 41, of his earliest efforts using a bamboo brush to write Chinese.

Today, Tang composes his Chinese on an Apple computer. As the art director at InterTrend, an advertising agency in Torrance, he creates ads targeted at Chinese consumers in California for clients such as Disneyland, Sprint and Northwest Airlines.

To understand what a technological leap it is to go from writing Chinese with a bamboo brush to writing it with a computer, remember that unlike the 26 letters of the English language, Chinese has more than 13,000 characters.

For a secretary in Shanghai to peck out a memo is no simple matter. Typists memorize trays crammed with more than 2,000 characters. "In China, being a typist is considered a professional job," Tang says. "You have to have an excellent memory to remember where each of the characters is located."

Nowadays, Chinese software will allow someone to write a word or name like Deng Xiaoping with a standard keyboard and then see the characters appear on a computer screen. At Dae Advertising in San Francisco, the company's president, Wei-Tai Kwok, uses a digitized pen that recognizes Chinese characters and a Chinese dictation kit that converts spoken Chinese into characters.

"This saves us a tremendous amount of time," says Kwok. "As recently as five years ago, we used to have to do all this cutting and pasting and hope that no character would fall off between our office and the printer."

Now, in an instant, Kwok can change a font from a cursive Song Dynasty style to a cleaner Xingshu calligraphy style. A Chinese version of QuarkXPress software allows Kwok to move text so that copy can be read from left to right, right to left or top to bottom. His software also allows him to create documents with both the simplified characters used in China and the traditional characters used in Taiwan.

Tang's own experience illustrates how quickly technology can catch on. Five years ago, when Tang arrived in Los Angles from Beijing, he had never used a computer. Now, he regularly sends e-mail in Chinese to his brother in China.

At InterTrend, Tang's colleagues use foreign-language software to create ads in Japanese, Korean, Tagalog and Vietnamese. "To do Tang's job," says Julia Huang, the firm's vice president, "you need to understand art, a second language and culture, and have expertise in computer graphics."

Despite his specialized skills, Tang says the small number of advertising firms focusing on the Asian market limit the number of jobs open to someone with his background. In China, Tang worked as a critic at a leading art magazine. His salary: $20 a month. But his rent in Beijing was only $1 a month.

It was in Los Angeles at the Chinese Daily News, the nation's largest Chinese-language paper, that Tang learned to use computers and to design ads. Even though Tang says using a computer to write Chinese saves lots of time, he says it lacks the "human feeling" of calligraphy. So earlier this month, Tang decided to add a special flourish to a Chinese-language ad campaign he was creating for J.C. Penney. He took out his bamboo brushes, held them straight up--as his grandfather taught him--dipped them in ink and penned "Happy Year of the Ox."

Gali Kronenberg has worked as a Chinese interpreter and is a regular contributor to The Times. He can be reached at


Bio: Qing Nian Tang

Employer: InterTrend

Job title: Art director

Education: Bachelor's degree from Central Arts and Crafts Institute, Beijing, 1984

Home: San Gabriel

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