Multilingual map heralds subway to unite a city
Himy Syed examines a tattered subway map written entirely in phonetic Chinese characters.
Without understanding a word, he draws a translation for Queen’s Park station right on to the pavement in front of the Bickford Centre, a language school for adults.
“People come from all over the city, here, to learn English,” says Syed, 40. “This is my way of saying ‘Welcome,’ ” he says, adding that he wanted to do something for the school after a lockdown drill in May 2009 led the community to think the area was under siege.
The fringe mayoral candidate and self-described Torontopreneur is finishing a roughly 24-metre-wide, multilingual subway map. At his concrete canvas, just southwest of Christie station, Syed says he can feel the rumbling of underground trains. His map weaves other languages — Korean, Greek, Hebrew, Ethiopian, Farsi and Russian — among familiar station names in English, but the artist was surprised to discover some students preferred the latter.
“They were enthusiastic about everything being English,” said Syed, who added that, conversely, “residents who grew up here were enthusiastic about having all the other languages.”
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Reactions are as diverse as the people who see the painting.
Passersby stop and snap pictures while others don’t even look down. Some are excited to see familiar languages while others complain about those not represented. Sometimes children skip the length of the track, stepping on stations as if they were lily pads. And still others spend the afternoon, chatting with Syed as he works.
One bystander, a Mandarin-speaking student named Zhi, spent more than an hour advising Syed on the finer points of spelling stations in phonetic Chinese.
“He said he would write Queen’s Park as ‘ins park’ ” in simplified phonetic Chinese characters, which are read the same in Cantonese and Mandarin, said Syed, “I don’t understand why, but I trust him.”
Sue Motahedin of the TTC customer service advisory panel called the painting fun and unexpected after a spontaneous visit. She snapped a photo of her dog sitting by the map, and said she would bring her own kids to examine it.
“I think it helps promote transit,” Motahedin said, “It shows how transit can be a part of a community via art, too, and not just in a physical sense.”
“I see this as another creative reflection of pride of ownership of our city and our transit system,” she said.
Because the station names are drawn in chalk, Syed says the languages used are negotiable. He often erases and rewrites as passersby stop to offer suggestions and translations of their own.
Of course, because of all the street-side conversation, the project has been an incremental, ongoing process. Syed has spent roughly 30 hours since last summer on the map, which has been — miraculously — spared by bad weather and vandalism.
Staff at the Bickford Centre have seen him working and have implied their permission by allowing him to continue undisturbed, says Syed, a candidate for mayor of Toronto and one-time director of the Canadian Muslim Civil Liberties Association.
When asked, one school official was nonchalant. “It’s nice, but I don’t know how useful it is,” said Jin Jiang Du, the Bickford Centre’s site manager. “I realize that a lot of urban artists are doing this kind of thing. As long as it’s not obstructing anybody, it’s fine with me.”
At the end of a long day, Syed dips a roller into thick white paint and traces over the Korean Bloor/Yonge station, the small Toronto City Hall pin on his shirt gleaming in the sunlight.
“I’ve done many, many works throughout the city very quietly,” said Syed, just shy of smiling mischievously. “I just do it and it’s done, and it’s there for that neighbourhood.”
Although his map represents the many different cultures and tongues, Syed envisions a transit system that unites its riders. He thinks the image of a transit of Babel is appropriate, since the TTC is itself in transition and so much of what happens will hinge on good communication.
“With all the misunderstanding within discussions about transit recently, we’re all trying to decipher and understand what transit means today and what the TTC will be tomorrow,” said Syed. “In a way, we’re all trying to speak the same language.”