Wo Shi Laowai – Wo Pa Shui

This Blog was Invented in Xi'an 5,000 Years Ago

A Chinese Fire Drill…

Posted by MyLaowai on Monday, May 21, 2007

Now, I’m fairly sure that most of you have heard of the expression ‘Chinese Fire Drill’. But what does it mean? Random House Publishing had this to say on the matter:

There are two main senses of Chinese fire drill. One is the broad one, ‘a state or example of utter confusion’. The other, rather specific, is a high-school or college prank where a group of students jump out of a car that’s stopped at a red light, run around the car, and pile back in before the light turns green. Both of these stem from the idea of a fire drill being confused and panicked.

The first sense was first used in the military in World War II. Chinese here is not necessarily a racial sentiment. Several expressions in common use in aviation since World War I, such as Chinese landing ‘a clumsy landing’ and Chinese ace ‘an inept pilot’, derive from the English phrase one wing low, thought to resemble the Chinese language or a Chinese name. The use of Chinese to mean ‘clumsy; inferior’ may stem from these phrases, although there were earlier isolated examples which were based on ideas of the inferiority of the Chinese.

The car-prank sense is first attested in print in the early 1970s, but a number of people have reported its use in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, so it is likely that the phrase was current at the time, but simply was not written down that early.

Whatever the origin of the phrase, and whichever meaning is intended, it is now regarded as offensive to Chinese people, and should be avoided.

And the ever-helpful Wikipedia had this:

The phrase Chinese Fire Drill, in the sense of “a state of utter confusion,” first appeared during World War II. Chinese here comes from British military tradition of using the word to mean clumsy, inept, or inferior. It is likely that this was not intended as a slur on the Chinese people, but rather a play on the phrase “one wing low” which referred to a clumsy pilot and was thought to sound Chinese. Regardless of its origin, it is considered offensive by some.

Fair enough. Late last year I was fortunate enough to actually witness a Chinese Fire Drill, so I’d like to add my own couple of cents to the mix (FYI, at time of writing USD$0.02 = RMB$3057.25).

The location of the event was a suburb of Shanghai – most developed, most modern, most fashion, most diligent, and most delicious city in China (and probably the world) – called QingPu. The Fire Service (a part of the Red Army), had recently taken delivery of the newest and best (and therefore, imported) equipment, and was looking to show it off to an impressed public. They had been practising for weeks, and were all set for the Big Day.

The site for the drill was in front of a large restaurant opposite the local Government building, a huge and impressive structure easily six hundred times larger than any other building in the town (with the exception of the PSB Headquarters, which is even larger). All the top officials were on display, with their plastic water bottles and jam-jars full of piss-weak tea. Some had even gotten changed out of their pyjamas for the Big Event.

The basic premise was that a fire would break out behind a pot plant in the carpark, the entire Fire Service would be called in from around the corner, and the Brave Chinese Fire Fighters would swing into action to extinguish the fire. For reasons of safety, all roads were closed and the fire was simulated by an orange smoke grenade.

I was in the area, and had plenty of time to kill, so I sat back and observed with interest.

The grenade was set off, and within minutes the Chinese Fire Drill was under way. The Fire Service, waiting just around the corner, roared into action. Half of them turned the wrong way and drove off down the road in the wrong direction. The half that went the right way squealed to a halt a hundred yards from the ‘fire’ and began running out hoses. Unfortunately, the hoses weren’t long enough, so they had to reel the hoses back in, drive a bit nearer, squeal to (another) halt, and run out the hoses again. Then someone realised that the water hydrant was the other side of the restaurant, so two hoses were reeled back in, connected together, then run back out again, this time to the hydrant. By now the guys that had gone the wrong way had managed to turn around and had arrived at the scene, and The Brave Chinese Fire Service (great lads, every one of ’em!) started the pumps and began to Fight Fires. Or, at least, they would have, but for the fact that no one had thought to turn on the hydrant. This fact was not immediately apparent to Our Brave Lads, who stood in various postures of puzzlement for some minutes, before some bright spark worked out the problem. Half a dozen lads instantly ran to the hydrant, ran back to the pumper, collected the correct tool, ran back to the hydrant, and turned it on. The hoses, which were lying unattended on the ground, let loose like cut snakes on a hot tin roof, soaking everyone within a hundred yards. Frankly, at that moment, I thought someone was going to be shot (probably me, from the way I was collapsed in hysterics). Somehow, one of the brighter ones managed to get the pump turned off, and the hoses under control. Then the smoke grenade died of old age. There was a hasty conference, and it was decided that the best thing was to send out for another smoke grenade, and try again.

I couldn’t take any more of it, really I couldn’t. My spleen was near the rupture point already. I still get the giggles whenever I think of it. All I can do is refer you back to our friend, Mr Wikipedia:

The phrase Chinese Fire Drill, in the sense of “a state of utter confusion,” first appeared during World War II. Chinese here comes from British military tradition of using the word to mean clumsy, inept, or inferior.

’nuff said.

7 Responses to “A Chinese Fire Drill…”

  1. […] Definitions (4) Han-ticipation (n.): Expectation, intuition, or foreknowledge that something will go seriously wrong, because you are dealing with Han Chinese. See also Cluster fuck (Charlie Foxtrott) and Chinese fire drill. […]

  2. Mariner said

    Didn’t we witness the last part of a Chinese Fire Drill in Xiamen, on the campus of Xiamen university a few years ago? I was under the impression they tried to talk the fire out.

  3. MyLaowai said

    Hahaha! I’d quite forgotten that one! Brilliant!

    And the best part is: IT’S ALL FREE!

    Honestly, you just couldn’t get this kind of entertainment anywhere else on Earth, at any price, and we get it for free on a daily basis!

  4. Mariner said

    Not only free, we get friggin PAID for it. Top that, haha.

  5. must be snooty americans said

    guess u must be an american. only snooty americans will be able to write such narrow-minded blog criticizing others. If u r the world standard, extinguish the rest of the world, please, if you can. better than yipping here in your poor little home(page).

  6. MyLaowai said

    Nice try, Sparky. But no cigar.

    I guess you must be a Chiney. Only reactionary Chineys would be able to butcher the English language the way you just did.

    If you ever hope to better yourself and your cuntry, here’s a little advice:

    1. Take a good, hard look at yourselves. Stupid laowais might actually be right from time to time.
    2. Grow a thicker skin. Not only will it prevent bile from overloading your liver, it may also enable you to behave in an objective manner.
    3. Develop a sense of humour. Or buy one. Or Hell, just copy one from the West. Whichever is easiest.
    4. If all else fails, and you really can’t get over this blog thing, read something else.

    Have a truly happy day, young grasshopper.

  7. Stranded Mariner said

    Second that XO

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