In part 13 of the History on this web site (and in Chapter 15 of Sophistication & Simplicity, available at fine booksellers everywhere), there is a short section discussing Apple’s first foray into sales targeting the Far East. The Apple II j-Plus was a slightly redesigned Apple II Plus, with a character ROM chip modified to display Japanese Katakana characters with the appropriate POKE to $C05C to activate them.
A reader of this web site who lives in Hong Kong, Wyatt Wong, recently sent me an email asking why I didn’t mention anything about a Chinese “language card” for the Apple II in this part of the History. I had not heard of it before, and so he helped educate me about this hack that let Chinese-speaking (and writing) individuals use an Apple II in years past. Further information came from Lim Thye Chean of Singapore.
Wong lived in Taiwan in the 1980s, and while he was in school he was exposed to a Far Eastern Apple II clone. Like those from Japan, the use of this Apple II required some knowledge of English to do programming or to use the large library of software available from the United States. Yet, there was desire to make it work for the numerous Chinese logograms used in that written language, and hackers in that part of the world worked to create a solution that would work for this computer. The result was referred to as the Chinese language card.
The Giantek Technology Corporation of Taiwan was founded in 1982, and produced English-Chinese terminals for Taiwan and mainland China. In 1983 the company came out with the Giantek Chinese Interface Card for the Apple II, officially called the Zon Ding Chinese System, or simply Han Card (Han means “Chinese”). Despite the “Chinese language card” name used to refer to it, this was not a RAM card like the 16K Apple Language Card. It was much more complicated.
Giantek Chinese Interface Card, photo credit ubb.frostplace.com
According to a discussion about it on comp.sys.apple2 back in 2002, at least one version of this system involved a pair of cards connected together by a 14-pin ribbon cable. One of the cards was equipped with its own Z80A CPU, and most commonly was installed in slot 3 or 4. This card held six EPROM chips labeled ROM-1 through ROM-6, and in the discussion, it was speculated that the card was actually its own computer (just as the Microsoft SoftCard was a computer on a card to run CP/M), and that the ROM chips were used to store the Chinese characters to be displayed.
The card utilized the Apple II hi-res screen to display the Chinese characters. Wong recalls that it required either a modified version of Apple DOS, or another application that ran on top of DOS. This was necessary to make it possible to allow entry of the Chinese characters from the keyboard. This Giantek card used traditional Chinese, specifically either Cangjei or Simplified Cangjei (not to be confused with simplified Chinese, which was most commonly used in mainland China).
To enter a traditional Chinese character, the typical method was to type a QWERTY character, then type up to five additional characters from the keyboard to create the desired Chinese character. The twenty-four Roman letters A through W, plus Y on the keyboard were used in the Cangjei method. Z was not used at all, and X was reserved for entry of difficult Chinese characters.
Other non-US versions of the Apple II dealt with languages that had a limited alphabet, and so were more suitable to map to a standard US keyboard. It is not surprising that Apple did not at that time specifically service the Chinese market, as the language was considerably more complicated than other places in the world. I do find it interesting to see how Wozniak’s open design on the Apple II made it possible to work with the Chinese language long before there was any graphic-interface computers available to do the job.