Signage and Carnage in the Year of the Dog

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice , international

Visual pollution— so called—obviously has, like smog and litter, ramifications beyond the aesthetic. “Wayfinding,” aimed at the diminution of chaos through clarity, is one of graphic design's noblest promises. Highways could be made navigable, cities understandable, streets safe, and even malls pleasant through the introduction of good signage. If design can't transform society, it can at least clean up the campsites.

But some urban predicaments are beyond the reach of even the most thoughtful graphics. A friend returning from Beijing reports that in this Year of the Pig, the city is a mess. The sky is permanently discolored, the air unbreathable, the population almost unbearably dense, the traffic snarled and snarling. In the creation of unlivable cities, as in trade, China is playing catch up with the West.

Trade with China is a dominant concern in America today, but not a new one. The “treaty ports” established in the 19th century were Chinese cities that had been opened to foreign trade, which meant foreign influence. One such port was Tientsin (now Tianjan), a large industrial city only 80 miles or so from Beijing (then Peking). Tientsin at one time or another played host to nine treaty powers, including Great Britain and the United States.

In 1946 World War II was over and my Marine Corps unit was dispatched to Tientsin to disarm the Japanese, who had not yet formally laid their weapons down, since there was no one available in Northern China to pick them up. This happy accident made me an eyewitness to the Big Road Switch in the Year of the Dog.

Under years of heavy British influence, driving in Tientsin was done on the left side of the road. One day we were summoned to a briefing by a major in the Military Police who held up a placard with nothing printed on it but a date. “On that day,” he said ominously, “things are going to be different around here. As of that date, vehicular traffic, which now flows on the left side of the road, as it does in England, will flow on the right, as it does in the States.”

Actually, traffic did not exactly flow on the left, or anywhere else either. There was no traffic, as we remembered traffic from civilian life. Very few Chinese had cars, and the few who did had no access to gasoline. Fueled vehicular movement consisted almost entirely of military vehicles. Some interpreted the switch as the arrogant imposition of American motoring habits on the natives. I think it was dictated more by the difficulty Americans had, trying to drive on what we had grown up believing was the wrong side of the road, as we sat at the wheels of jeeps and trucks with the driver's seat on the left.

“This will be a complex operation,” the major said grimly. “A sustained period of confusion and error is anticipated. Driving will be hazardous and, for that matter, so will walking. Accidents are certain to occur. There is no way this can be a smooth transition. We don't want these people to kill each other, but mainly we don't want them to kill us. The most effective course of action you can take is to keep the hell out of the way. All personnel not otherwise assigned are therefore ordered to stay off the streets and advised to remain in their quarters for the entire day.”

On “D-Day,” ignoring the major's orders, we lined the sidewalk in front of our temporary barracks—the old American Legion headquarters—to watch the fun. As far as I can remember, there was not much resistance from the Chinese. Perhaps, with the Communists poised to drive the Nationalists out of the country, any change from left to right was a welcome symbol.

Chaos was immediate, in the form of fender benders, scrapes, crashes, and shrieks. The chief inheritors of disorder were not the powered vehicles, but the bicycles and rickshaws that had to dodge them and each other. When a rickshaw and its puller were knocked over by an out-of-control Army truck the puller lay sprawled out in the street, moaning. Several Marines rushed out of the truck to help him, but before they reached him, a voice commanded in heavily accented English: “Don't touch that man! Don't go near him. Get back in the truck right now.”

The kibitzer, standing near us on the sidewalk, was a civilian in western dress. He turned out to be a Viennese doctor who had fled the Nazis. “Under Chinese law,” he claimed, “if you help him you are responsible for all his medical expenses for life.”

Talk about a national health care plan! The men got back in the truck, and soon the victim got to his feet, examined the shattered rickshaw, and was last seen negotiating with the driver over reparations. He seemed not to have been seriously hurt. His concern was the rickshaw that was his sole means of support and which he probably rented.

Well, everyone had been given advance notice. For weeks there had been banners at major intersections and posters attached to every vertical surface in sight. The Chinese lettering looked exquisite, but was ineffective as damage prevention. The pileups continued all day. What Auden said about poetry could be said as well about signage: it makes nothing happen. Today they drive on the right in Tientsin, but they do it for the same reason New Jersey drivers do: because everyone else does and they'd be toast if they didn't. Carnage trumps signage every time.

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.