There’s nothing too big or small for The Shanghai Call Center, a free, 24-hour hotline that provides translation between 10 languages (Arabic!) and Chinese. It’s a government thing from the 'Information Office and Foreign Affairs Office of Shanghai Municipality', created in 2006 to be the official hotline of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Now it’s a helpful leftover, like those metro scanning machines. It’s useful! You should call it! Better city, better life! Remember that?
How it Works
Just simply dial the number: 962288, press 1 for 'European' languages (English, French, German, Spanish), and you are connected to a female operator. All of the operators are women because of their inherent 'patience and attention to detail.' On average each operator can speak 2-3 languages, and there are about 30 of these women working the phones daily. Mostly they help find addresses, but sometimes they translate for foreigners too, from Chinese to English, Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Czech, Indonesian, Malaysian, Russian or Arabic.
That's a lot to offer. Can The Shanghai Call Center back it up? Three very scientific tests were conducted to see.
Let’s let that hotline bling...
Address (Stress) Test
Give them a place, ask for an address. Simple enough. They’ll even text you the address in Chinese to show your cab driver, if you ask for it. Initial thoughts: this seems like my something my grandma might do if she weren’t so tech savvy. The SmartShanghai app can do the same thing. The internet exists.
So here’s the first test: I gave them the name of 10 ice cream shops including places like Buco, Durianything, and Kiss the Tiramisu. Because 10 seemed like a good number and everyone loves ice cream.
In the end they scored a 90%, missing out on ten percentage points because they could only find one location for Le Creme Milano. Dude. Everyone knows there is more than one Le Crème Milano. But still, pretty solid job.
Facts & Figures Test
The service also offers: "information involved in basic facts, entry and exit, education, investment, foreign trade, transportation, justice and public health in Shanghai.” Could be super helpful at Pub Quiz. We asked: What was the GDP of Shanghai last year? How many universities are there in Shanghai? And can I eat fish from the Huangpu River?
The answers: 2.75 trillion yuan, 67 universities, and "no we do not suggest it." All checked out. Are these translators also all-knowing? Oh... they're using Baidu. I guess they still score 100% on this one.
Translation (and Patience) Test
In a perfect world, an ATM would return your debit card before doling out your cash, so you don't forget about the card entirely. But this is an imperfect world. And I forgot mine. So I had to suck it up and deal with the bank, who are going through their own stress, patience, and translation tests every day, but nonetheless, generally just not the people you want to spend your time with. Let 962288 it instead!
When I went, the operator spent over 20 minutes going back and forth between me and the bank teller, passing the phone like hot potato. Who knows how many other expats were left bereft of her valuable support during this time? But it was really helpful to know what I was signing. Seven days later, I got my card. Translation score: 100%.
Bonus German Round
The facts and figures round was a bit too easy, so here's a bonus round. How's their German?
Apparently, pretty good. When asked in German when the last maglev train leaves, the operator not only had the answer but also some tips. In German she suggested a taxi would be better, then after some quick research, also said the last maglev leaves at 9.40pm. She wasn't sure how much a taxi would cost, but maybe that's not on Baidu.
But the German was good, and her information accurate. So 100%.
The Results are Conclusive
While it seems like a relic — a hotline, you call, you talk to a person, oy vey! —the service has survived smartphones. I think that’s probably because of its translation service, which the Super Tech Firms have not yet mastered. There’s no substitute for being able to communicate in your mother tongue when you are the hospital, or in smaller situations like making sure you make the maglev or settling a dispute with a cab driver or ayi.
Until Zuckerberg invents his replacement, the hotline's a solid option for breaking the language barrier.