Delicious and Delightful New Year - the story of Coca-Cola's Chinese trademark

Happy Chinese New Year! It’s a tradition in Chinese families for the parents and elders to hand out red envelopes with crispy new bills inside to the younger generation. Similar to calendars, some businesses give out complimentary red envelopes to their customers.

Swire Coca-Cola gives away free packets of Coca-Cola red envelopes with purchase of family-size Coke bottles in Taiwan. Each year there are different designs and these red Coke envelopes make nice keepsakes.

New product packages and posters all over Hong Kong are updated with New Year greetings and sharing of the “First Bottle of the New Year.” Coca-Cola’s latest spokesperson in greater China is the Taiwanese pop group “Fahrenheit.”

The four members: Aaron Yan, Wu Chun, Calvin Chen, and Jiro Wang released their first Mandarin album in September 2006 which catapulted them into stardom in Taiwan and China. The Fahrenheit continued their heat wave through Southeast Asia and eventually reaching Chinese listeners in Europe and America.

In Shenzhen, China, outside Rainbow Shopping Center, a large red and gold Coca-Cola display welcomes shoppers and the New Year.

Coca-Cola was first introduced in China in 1927, the year after Coca-Cola set up its Foreign Department which later became The Coca-Cola Export Corporation. Coca-Cola was first sold in the cities of Tianjin and Shanghai where there were already soda water manufacturers established by British merchants. Both cities also had concessions zones where large population of foreigners lived. Most foreigners especially Europeans would not have trouble asking for Coca-Cola by name. Even the locals who had no knowledge of the alphabet (not to mention the high illiteracy rates in China during that period [1]), they could easily recognize Coca-Cola’s iconic bottle and its flowing script.

Nevertheless, how could you sell a consumer product without a product name in the local language?

The story of the early development of the Chinese name for Coca-Cola was told by Norwood F. Allman in his article “Transliteration of 'Coca-Cola' Trade-Mark to Chinese Characters” which appeared in the June 1957 issue of Coca-Cola Overseas magazine.

A Virginia native and a graduate of University of Virginia, Allman lived in China from 1916 to 1950. He worked as a student interpreter in the U.S. Embassy in China and was named United States Consul in Shanghai in 1921. He retired from the consular corps in 1924 and practiced law in Shanghai. While he was in Shanghai, he also served as Coca-Cola’s legal counsel in China. Allman passed away in 1987.

Allman’s account of the unusual initial Chinese transliteration attempts of Coca-Cola had become one of the most popular Coke lore and humorously cited as an example of marketing blunders.

It is possible that Coca-Cola could be transliterated into four Chinese characters that literally mean tadpole bites wax, but these four characters are fairly complex characters with many strokes. I doubt very much that local merchants would have used these characters to advertise a beverage, not to mention many Chinese at the time were illiterate.

Furthermore, the Chinese dialect used in Shanghai is Shanghainese or Wu, which is quite different from Mandarin. If the local Shanghainese merchant wanted to peddle the beverage with a name as exotic as “tadpole bites wax,” they would have called it “namuan kela.” The Shanghainese word for tadpole is “namuan” and bites wax is “kela.”

The same Chinese characters are pronounced differently in different dialects. Mandarin is a northern Chinese dialect and as the lingua franca for China, it has the largest number of speakers. Shanghainese has the second most number of speakers followed by Cantonese spoken in the southern Chinese province and many of the overseas Chinese communities.

The official transliteration for Coca-Cola in Chinese - 可口可樂 - is pronounced ke kou ke le (pinyin) in Mandarin, ku ka ku lo (approximation) in Shanghainese, and hak hao hak lok or ho hao ho lok (approximation) in Cantonese.

In Allman's article, the transcription of 可口可樂 appeared as K'o K'ou K'o Lê using the Wade-Giles romanization system for Mandarin Chinese that was commonly used through most of the 20th century.  In 1958, pinyin, a new romanization system was developed and approved by the government of People's Republic of China.  In pinyin, 可口可樂 is transcribed as Ke Kou Ke Le.

When Coca-Cola returned to China in 1979 after a 30-year hiatus, Coke packaging and advertising began to use simplified Chinese script written as 可口可乐.  Only the fourth character is different from the traditional script.  Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau continued to use traditional Chinese script in Coca-Cola advertising as the trademark originally appeared more than 75 years ago.  Singapore and Malaysia are the other two countries that have also used Chinese scripts on the Coca-Cola bottles.

Despite the varying pronunciation of the trademark in Chinese, the meaning of the official transliteration is the same for all dialects and is arguably one of the best if not the best example of trademark transliteration into Chinese from English. Kekou kele in Chinese means delicious and joyful. Personally I’d prefer to translate it as Deliciously-Delightful to have the same alliteration as Coca-Cola.

We all know that Frank Robinson is credited with coming up with the name Coca-Cola in 1886, but who came up with the official Chinese rendering of the Coca-Cola trademark. Was it an internal company effort or did it involve some outside marketing firm?

The New Yorker journalist and author E.J. Kahn wrote in his book The Big Drink (p.42) that “the company engaged an Oriental-language specialist. After experimenting with several dialects, he eventually came up with four Mandarin characters - 樂可口可 - that sound like “Coca-Cola,” literally mean “Can mouth can happy,” and, by somewhat free translation, can be said to stand for “Delicious and refreshing.

Note the Chinese characters in Kahn's book is shown written from right to left which is common for signage, but not as common in written text.  Traditional Chinese text is usually written vertically and the columns are read from right to left.  In the age of Internet, Chinese is written horizontally from left to right, especially mixing with western languages and emoticons.

Anyone who picks up a Chinese dictionary will find kekou 可口, the first two characters used in the Chinese transliteration of Coca-Cola, to mean tasty or agreeable to the taste.  The use of the word kekou could be traced back to Zhuangzi's writing in 4th century BC and poems written in the Song and Ming dynasties.

Kele 可樂 on the other hand is more of a free translation to mean rejoice or joyful.  Because of Coca-Cola's transliteration into Chinese using these two characters, it has become a generic term for any cola beverage and it is also used by other competitor's cola products in Chinese speaking countries.  Consequently the term has also made it into even the elementary Chinese dictionaries.  Furthermore, when Chinese speakers ask for Coke, they would just say kele (cola).

Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Coca-Cola issued a press release "Coca-Cola is Delicious Happiness":
"The message of Delicious Happiness was derived from the transliteration of the Coca-Cola trademark in English lettering to Chinese characters.  When Coca-Cola was first introduced in China in 1927, these Chinese characters were chosen by Company officials to phonetically articulate Coca-Cola and were literally interpreted as "Delicious Happiness" by China's citizens.

Instead of the traditional Chinese script and the Wade Giles romanization of the characters as they appeared in Allman's 1957 article, the "Delicious Happiness" press release shows the transliteration in simplified Chinese script and pinyin.

There is another story of who came up with kekoukele.  Chiang Yee (surname Chiang and first name Yee) has been cited in several articles that appeared in Chinese language newspapers World Journal and People’s Daily as the person responsible for coming up with the Chinese transliteration for Coca-Cola.

The story as told in various versions pretty much boiled down to a contest in the 1930s to name Coca-Cola in Chinese. A scholar who was in London at the time took the challenge and came up with the name ke kou ke le and was rewarded with a cash prize.

I had mentioned this story in a comment to Phil Mooney’s Coca-Cola Conversations Blog, but he could not find any information in the Coca-Cola Archives.

Chiang Yee by Da Zheng
Chiang Yee was born in 1903 in Jiujiang, China and in 1925 graduated from National Southeastern University (renamed Nanjing University in 1949). He was a teacher before serving as the magistrate for counties in Anhui province and finally in his native Jiujiang.

In 1933 he left China for England and taught Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London until 1935. In 1937, he published his first book Silent Traveller: a Chinese Artist in Lakeland. Chiang continued his series of Silent Traveller as he wrote and painted about his travels through London, Yorkshire Dales, Oxford, Edinburgh, New York, Dublin, Paris, Boston, San Francisco and Japan.

Chiang moved to New York in 1955 and became a lecturer in Chinese at Columbia University. He was an Emerson Fellow in Poetry at Harvard University from 1958-1959.

Professor Chiang passed away in 1977.

In January, I came across an article about a Chinese school fundraiser in New England with materials donated by Professor Chiang’s family. I contacted the school and eventually got in touch with the Silent Traveller’s granddaughter earlier this week.

Hsin-Yee Chiang wrote in her e-mail to me on February 9 that her father (Professor Chiang’s second son) confirmed that her “grandfather entered and won an international competition for the naming of the famous soft drink in 1933 while he was in London, for which he was awarded 20 pounds.”

In my 16 years of collecting Coca-Cola advertising memorabilia, this had to be one of my most exciting correspondences.

I mentioned to Professors Chiang’s granddaughter about Phil Mooney’s Blog which she promptly visited and posted her comment confirming her grandfather’s involvement with the Chinese name for Coca-Cola.

I have been researching and looking for the earliest example of ke kou ke le used in advertising. So far the earliest photo I could find was from 1937. In fact, until my recent correspondence, I thought it was from 1932. I found the photo with the caption referring to the Battle of Shanghai without the year. There were two recorded Battles of Shanghai: January 1932 and August 1937.

So my search continues for the earliest Chinese Coca-Cola trademark in advertising and for the details of the naming contest. Until then, I wish you all a very Delicious and Delightful or Coca-Cola Chinese New Year!

[1] Sources of Chinese Economic Growth, 1978-1996 by Chris Bramall.

This article was mentioned by Phil Mooney in his Coca-Cola Conversations blog on February 18, 2010.   Website links in this article were updated in January 2019.