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候机楼 (‘wait plane building’)

5 January 2012

The word 候机楼 (Trad. 候機樓hòujīlóu ‘wait plane building’ took my fancy the very first time I set eyes on it. It was so unmistakably Chinese in form and straightforward in concept. Describing an airport terminal as a waiting building for catching a plane is engaging in its earthiness, suggestive of an era of simple aerodromes where the terminal building was indeed not much more than a waiting room where you sat while your plane taxied in for boarding.

The choice of morphemes is also very Chinese.  hòu is a fancy expression meaning ‘to wait’. Although in everyday life this would normally be  děng, in formal or polite situations 等候 děnghòu or just  hòu are more likely to be used. The character (Trad.  ‘machine’ is short for 飞机 (Trad. 飛機fēijī, ‘flying machine’, i.e., ‘aeroplane’.  (Trad. lóu is one of several Chinese terms for a large building.

If the Japanese had created a similar word based on such a concept (which seems fairly improbable), I doubt they would have come up with 候機楼 kōkirō, which has an incongruous literary Chinese feel to it. They would, I suspect, have created a word like 待機館 taikikan, from 待つ matsu ‘to wait’,  ki for 飛行機 hikōki ‘aeroplane’, and  kan, the usual term for large buildings of various descriptions. The character is not normally associated with the meaning ‘wait’ in modern Japanese, and  sounds positively old-fashioned, being used only in expressions like 摩天楼 matenrō ‘skyscraper’, 船尾楼 senbirō ‘sterncastle’, 望楼 bōrō ‘watchtower’ and historically in the names of restaurants, inns, and brothels, etc.

Adopting a more sophisticated name

A couple of things have since shaken me out of my indulgent reverie over this wonderful term. The first was the discovery that when Beijing Capital International Airport reinvented itself as a sparkling new showcase for the 2008 Olympics, the authorities apparently decided that the humble 候机楼 hòujīlóu wasn’t suitable for their modern international airport. It was replaced by the more sophisticated 航站楼 (Trad. 航站樓hángzhànlóu ‘aviation station building’, which is what road access signage to the airport now uses. ( háng is short for 航空 hángkōng ‘aviation’,  zhàn is the common word for stations, bus stops, etc).

In naming their terminals, the Beijing authorities went one further, officially calling them T1, T2, and T3, based on English. In one glorious leap, Terminal One at Beijing Capital International Airport went from “一号候机楼” yīhào hòujīlóu ‘number one wait-plane building’ to “T1″! Of course, most Chinese in everyday speech use the far more utilitarian 一号楼 yīhàolóu ‘number one building’.

After a bit of research, it became clear that 候机楼 hòujīlóu and 航站楼 hángzhànlóu have become competing names for airport terminals in China. Indeed, Baidu has separate articles on 候机楼 and 航站楼. The official preference for 航站楼 hángzhànlóu is not confined to Beijing. Many airports across China appear to call their terminals 航站楼 hángzhànlóu. Despite this, 候机楼 hòujīlóu still manages to hang on. Recently I had occasion to go through Shenzhen Bao’an airport, where I found that 候机楼 hòujīlóu was still in use in road and airport signage.

Incidentally, getting a handle on prevalent usage isn’t as easy as it may seem. Rather surprisingly, airport websites don’t always talk about ‘terminals’. Wikipedia is an unreliable indicator as it can often reflect the personal usage of the author. For example, while both approach signage and airport signage at Shenzhen airport use 候机楼 hòujīlóu, the Wikipedia article on the airport uses 航站楼 hángzhànlóu, except for one photo captioned 候机楼 hòujīlóu. For Haikou Meilan airport, Wikipedia uses 客运大楼 (Trad. 客運大樓kèyùn dàlóu ‘passenger transport building’, a Hong Kong usage, whereas several years ago, at least, approach signage used 候机楼 hòujīlóu. There appears to be considerable fluidity and interchangeability of usage.

For now, the survival of 候机楼 hòujīlóu in signage shows that it is still a respectable term. Were it to disappear completely from public signage, this would presumably mark its final transition from ‘common term’ to ‘strictly colloquial’.

Bus terminals

My second discovery was in Dongguan, where I found that the term 候机楼 hòujīlóu is used not only for the airport terminal itself, but also for bus terminals providing services to airports. The front entrance of one such terminal was adorned with signs for 候机楼 and ‘Airport Terminal’ in English. In Dongguan, such bus terminals serve both Shenzhen and Guangzhou airports. While I had always assumed that 候机楼 hòujīlóu applied to airport terminal buildings, the literal meaning of ‘wait for plane building’ seems fairly appropriate here, especially as these bus stations can also issue boarding passes to passengers. In Huizhou, the same type of 候机楼 hòujīlóu is called ‘Huizhou Check-in’ at its website.

From the Internet, it appears that the term 航站楼 hángzhànlóu can also be applied to such bus stations, e.g. in Shanghai. This usage is not totally surprising given that, for instance, Tokyo boasts a Tokyo City Air Terminal (T-CAT), which fulfils rather broader functions like checking in luggage.

Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau

Having become intrigued by changing usage in China, curiosity led me to check out the situation in Taiwan, mainly using Wikipedia, keeping in mind its inherent unreliableness. The Wikipedia article on airport terminals itself gives a number of terms: 航站楼 hángzhànlóu航站大厦 hángzhàn dàshà候机楼 hòujīlóu客运大楼 kèyùn dàlóu, and 航廈 hángshà (Trad. respectively 航站樓, 航站大厦, 候機樓, 客運大樓, 航廈).

It appears that Taiwanese airports mainly use 航站樓 (Simp. 航站楼hángzhànlóu, 航站大廈 hángzhàn dàshà ‘aviation station building’, and the abbreviated form 航廈 hángshà ‘aviation building’ (e.g. at Kaohsiung airport), for their terminal buildings. The latter possibly also refers more narrowly to departure lobbies. Interestingly, many smaller Taiwanese airports are officially known as 航空站 hángkōngzhàn ‘aviation station’. It is very likely that this, in contracted form, is the actual origin of the name 航站樓 hángzhànlóu. In other words, the name 航站楼 hángzhànlóu now preferred in China possibly came from Taiwan.

Hong Kong and Macau airports appear to use the term 客運大樓 (Simp. 客运大楼kèyùn dàlóu ‘passenger transport building’. 客運 (Simp. 客运kèyùn ‘passenger transport’ is, of course, opposed to 貨運 (Simp. 货运huòyùn ‘cargo transport’.

Observations

The names for airport terminals provide as good a reflection as any of the way Chinese vocabulary works. The following are offered as personal observations without any serious attempt at backup or justification:

* In Chinese, native morphemes, generally monosyllables, are used as building blocks to create compound words of relatively transparent meaning. 候机楼 hòujīlóu is an excellent example of this. (It has been suggested that  zhàn ‘station’ is originally from Mongolian зам zam ‘road’, but it is still perceived as a native morpheme by the Chinese.)

* Two-morpheme expressions are preferred in Chinese word-building. Even in this case, where three character expressions are involved, the structure is actually 2 morphemes + suffix (e.g., 候机 hòu-jī ‘wait plane’ +  lóu ‘building’). And if the etymology of 航站 hángzhàn ‘aviation station’ as an abbreviation of 航空站 hángkōngzhàn ‘aviation station’ is correct, then this is a very good illustration of this principle. That is, 航站楼 hángzhàn-lóu (2+1) is preferred to the possible but unwieldy 航空站楼 hángkōngzhàn-lóu (3+1).

* The fact that such words are easily analysed lends itself to a certain fluidity in word-building. For example, the substitution of words for ‘building’ like 大厦 dàshà and 大樓 (Simp. 大楼dàlóu in Taiwan and Hong Kong, or the use of expressions like 客運 (Simp. 客运kèyùn in Hong Kong can be accepted by Chinese without much resistance as simply 'alternative forms'. The stripping down to basic forms like 一号楼 yīhàolóu ‘number one building’ in normal speech is a further illustration of this fluidity.

* There is a distinct tendency in Chinese for two terms to exist for the same thing: a ‘fancy’ official term and an everyday one. 航站楼 hángzhànlóu is an obvious example of a preferred official term. What is interesting here is the attempt to spread the more ‘correct’ or ‘fancy’ term in ordinary usage.

Other

To round this off, here is a quick tour of words for ‘airport terminal’ in East Asia.

Japanese and Korean borrow the English word, as in 空港ターミナル kūkō tāminaru ‘airport terminal’ and 공항 터미널 gonghang teomineol ‘airport terminal’ (gonghang=空港).

Vietnamese uses (nhà) ga hàng không ‘aviation station’, where ga is from French gare‘station’, and hàng không ‘aviation’ is related to Chinese 航空 hángkōng. Nhà (literally ‘house’) is used for buildings in VietnameseThis name is often shortened to nhà ga‘station’.

Mongolian appears to use Нисэх буудлын барилга nisekh buudlin barilag (or Онгоцны буудлын барилга ongotsni buudlin barilag), which simply means ‘airport building’. Since there are no airports in Mongolia with multiple terminals, this is a very straightforward and commonsense usage.


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