The last time when I was in Prague 4 years ago, an elderly Japanese gentlemen holding a Japanese guidebook asked me in nearly incomprehensible English on Kaprova Street near Franz Kafka’s house for directions to a museum of marionettes. He seemed only mildly surprised when I responded in Japanese and told him after a brief consultation with a local resident that his guidebook was obsolete because the museum was moved to a different address.
Prague and Český Krumlov, my hometown near Austrian border, used to be besieged by legions of Japanese tour groups for more than two decades after the fall of communism in 1989. Everywhere I went, I used to hear Japanese all around me, and the pictures of the streets in Prague that I took on the seven or eight occasions when I was revisiting my old haunts used to be full of Japanese tour groups.
But although I saw plenty of Asian faces during my pilgrimage to Prague and Český Krumlov last week, I only heard Japanese spoken by one lonely group of 4 young Japanese women on Nerudova Street between Charles Bridge and the Castle. All the other Asian tourists that I heard spoke Chinese.
And there were lots and lots of them.
The restaurant in the small town of Český Krumlov where I used to go for a beer well before I turned 18 on the main square used to be called in Czech “Mĕšťák”, which means something like “The Town Restaurant”. Then they changed the name to something German, I don’t remember what, when the town was flooded mostly by wave upon wave of German speaking tourists in the nineties, and now the same restaurant where I used to drink as a teenager the real Budweiser, as opposed to the cat p*ss that is sold here in America under the same name, is divided into three sections: one is called “The Old Inn”, a new section in what used to be the basement is now called in English “The Catacombs Pilsner Beer Cellar “, and upstairs where I went to my first disco and ended up dancing with a lonely fat girl when I was about 17 is now a Chinese restaurant called “Shanghai Restaurant”.
The Czechs in Krumlov must have figured out that since most Germans know some English, there is really no need for German names on restaurants and hotels, but that it’s best to put some Chinese characters on a restaurant to make sure that hungry Chinese tourists will not miss it.
I used to live in a house on that square up until I turned 18 and decided to go to Prague to study languages. The house is a hotel now. I remember that I saw a photo of Hitler giving a speech in front of the City Hall on the same square across from the house where I used to live. I wonder what he said on that occasion. Probably a variation of what he reportedly said when German army triumphantly entered Prague in 1939 (“Prague is the prettiest German city I know”).
One morning when I was 16, after I walked a few steps from my house to the square to buy something, to my surprise I was surrounded by Russian tanks … and the gun turrets of the tanks were for some reason pointing at me. When I started practicing my halting Russian with the soldiers, I noticed that they seemed even more confused than I was as some of them thought that they were in Germany. Many of them had Asian faces, but I am not sure what nationality they were. I was too polite to ask. It’s rude to ask something like that people that you just met, especially when they are pointing their guns at you.
After Hitler and Russian tanks, the small town where I grew up is now coping with new waves of tourists whose nationality seems to keep changing every 20 years or so. It’s probably progress – tourists bring money, and unlike dictators and tanks, they are generally not really dangerous.
They are generally harmless, as long as they remain tourists. Once they stop being tourists and settle down some place, they tend to change the town to their image. Big chunks of San Francisco are now more Chinese than American, let alone Italian or Irish as they used to be a hundred years ago.
When I mentioned to the cab driver who was taking me to Prague Airport how surprised I was by the sudden absence of Japanese tourists and the large numbers of Chinese tourists, he told me that he likes to pick up Japanese people at the airport because they are friendly and good tippers, but that he personally never had the pleasure of picking up a Chinese customer.
He said that the reason for this is that there is a whole small Chinese town on the outskirts of Prague where there are Chinese shops, schools, buses and all kinds of businesses and services catering to Chinese clientele, including taxi services.
ATM machines at the banks in that Chinese town on the outskirts of Prague must have instructions in Chinese, English, and Czech, probably in that order.