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Stealing Chickens: Hong Kong colloquialisms

At the market – gaai sí

Although it can often sound like a constant disagreement to non-speakers, Cantonese is playful, witty, and at times, a poetic language. In Hong Kong the spoken word evolves notoriously quickly, suffused with waves of new expressions that come and go with the seasons. As a result, being away for a few years can have the effect of drawing baffled looks.

In my time of living here, I’ve had my fair share of language mishaps; one of them involved the sudden realisation that daai beng did not refer to a “big biscuit” at all, but a chunky five-dollar coin. The terms I’ve outlined below are in constant use, universally understood throughout all ages and strata of Hong Kong society. These are the ones that will most probably never fall out of fashion.

The Essentials

Wei! = “Hey!”; feel free to stretch it out when you bump into someone you know (waaaaaaayy!)

(Néi) déem ah? = How are you? / What’s happening? / What’s up?

Aiya! (or more accurately, aiiiiyaaaaaaaaaah!) = emphatic way of saying “oh no!”; used to express shock or dismay in a wide variety of situations.

Fai dee lâh! = Hurry up! Get a move on!

Déem shuen ah? = What are we going to do now?

Wah! = the Cantonese way of saying “wow”; often accompanies multimillion-dollar fireworks displays over the harbour.

Mm gôi (you shouldn’t have) = the most common way of saying “thank you”. When you get served at a restaurant or hotel, when you are in a taxi or a bus, or when someone opens the door for you (rare in Hong Kong) this is the one you should use.

Doh zeh (many thanks) = used when someone gives you a gift; invites you out; pays for your meal

Just for Fun

Sor gûa! (silly melon) = fool; idiot!

Sor jûe! (silly pig) = silly boy/girl; a term of endearment

Yum gung = poor; pitiful; luckless

Chuen (inch) = arrogant; cocky (sometimes jokingly so)

Síng muk (awake, open-eyed) = intelligent; clever; showing initiative

Lek jái / lek núi = smart guy / smart girl

Leng jái / leng núi = good-looking guy/girl; beware the gentle dipping tone on the first syllable – say it wrong and you’ll tell the person they’re a punk!

Zeng! (proper, right) = cool; awesome!

Chui shúi (blowing water) = to chat; talk bull

Tau gai (to steal a chicken) = to slack off; cheat; be lazy

Sái céen (to wash money) = to spend money

Siu yeh = midnight snack; a well-loved pastime of nocturnal city-dwellers.

Sing daan ló yun (Christmas old guy) = Santa Claus

East meets West

Much to the chagrin of language purists, 156 years of British rule have left their mark on Hong Kong Cantonese. Even today, English is still seen as a language of prestige and a tongue of the educated. For this reason it is totally acceptable to throw in a few English words into a Chinese sentence, and vice versa. Three simple examples are:

As faai as possible = as quick as possible

Book toi = Book a table

Send gor message = send a message

The upside is that this is perfect for those of us who have a limited repertoire of Cantonese words. Now you know how to steal a chicken!

28 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fascinating post, James.

    April 13, 2012
    • Thanks Gordon, it was a pleasure to share this.

      April 13, 2012
  2. Your post was very fun and intriguing! Thanks for a small glimpse into a world I would otherwise never get to discover!

    April 14, 2012
  3. Zeng! James 😉

    April 14, 2012
    • Thank you, Lou! Or should I say “doh zeh”. 😉

      April 14, 2012
  4. QQ #

    LOL

    This was amusing.

    April 15, 2012
    • I came very close to including a section on swear words and insults!

      April 15, 2012
      • QQ #

        Cantonese insults are the best! Trying to translate them to non-speakers will just result in confused looks of “why is that offensive?”

        April 15, 2012
      • Apparently there’s a “Polk Street” in San Francisco… of course none of the city’s Cantonese immigrants would ever want to live there!

        April 15, 2012
      • QQ #

        Then the only thing they need is Fun Street and they’d be all set!

        April 15, 2012
  5. I could have used some of these when I visited Hong Kong! I am always fascinated by the literal translation of Chinese words….it’s more than just a different language! It’s a different culture and a different way of thinking about the world!

    April 15, 2012
    • Absolutely, Rachel! The next time you come feel free to drop a few of these terms!

      April 15, 2012
  6. Such a cool post! Looks like Aiya! is just like Ayoooo!!! in China 😀

    April 15, 2012
    • Thanks Sophie! Funny how you mention that, I almost never heard it on my trips to the Mainland.

      April 15, 2012
      • Oh yes I’ve heard it a few times, they use 啊哟 in exactly the same situations you described like “oops” or oh no!!! haha 🙂

        April 16, 2012
  7. I only remember mm gôi 🙂 It’s such a relief when you decided to come with me to Guilin as you know the language!

    April 16, 2012
    • That’s the most important one of them all. 😀 Well, it was only a matter of time… you knew I just couldn’t pass up a trip like that!

      April 16, 2012
  8. I’ve never been to Hong Kong but always want to visit there. You have a very good picture of the local market, showing its genuine taste. ( I am homesick, desperately.)
    I find the part that embedding Cantonese into English quite interesting. It is my first time reading the written Cantonese (with interesting symbols of tones above.)

    April 18, 2012
    • I wrote the above based purely on what each term sounded like; there seems to be a system of writing Cantonese in Latin script (jyutping) but few people know it.

      April 19, 2012
  9. Interesting post James, and very entertaining! South Indians say ‘Aiyooo’ too, and in the same context!!

    April 19, 2012
    • What a coincidence, Madhu! I had absolutely no idea. 😛

      April 19, 2012
  10. Madhu above, beat me to what I was going to say. And funnily I realized Koreans use a similar term ‘Aigooo’. I wonder how the consonant sound changed between us.

    April 20, 2012
    • That may be the closest thing we have to a Pan-Asian term! We’ll have to see if it’s used in other parts of the continent.

      April 21, 2012
  11. My favourite subject…languages! Or one of my favourites – thank you for the treat! Maybe the “Aiaaaa”-like sound is a bit of universal? It means about the same thing here in Sweden. And the mixing of mother tongue and English is very common here too. Maybe not for the same reasons, but still. Here young people often mix in their speech because they are gaming so much – computers and TV. Also the Anglo American influence in films and movies is heavy here i Sweden. Sometimes I find myself doing the same – mixing. I´m not sure that I like it, but I think avoiding it is impossible. All major essays and research work are to be written in English and much university literature is in English too.

    Could you explain the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese? I mean briefly of course. My daughter´s best friend speaks Mandarin, and she has stated that they are the same in written language but not in spoken language. If so, how does that work?

    April 21, 2012
    • No problem, I’ve been meaning to write this one for a while. 🙂 I love how the use of “Aiya”/”Aiyo” is proving far more widespread than I ever thought! Thank you for sharing the anecdote about the use of English in Sweden – it seems to be a tangible product of globalisation in our ever-shrinking world.

      Mandarin and Cantonese generally use the same written script, but they are two separate languages that are not mutually intelligible. There are differences in pronunciation, grammar (especially sentence structure) and vocabulary. Both are tonal languages – Mandarin has 4 tones but Cantonese has as many as 9!

      In Mandarin the spoken word is written as it is, but in Cantonese that is not really the case. So while a formal text may look virtually the same in both languages, a Cantonese speaker reading it aloud will alter it by substituting words and modifying the grammar as they go along. Written Cantonese, although fairly well developed, seems to be used only for informal situations. But in Hong Kong it’s common to see it in public – especially on billboards and adverts.

      April 21, 2012
  12. Excellent explanation – but how does this effect the school system? I do believe Cantonese would be impossible to learn…for a westener at least! My daughter went to Taiwan last year and stayed for a month. On coming home she could speak some sentences but her vocabulary is quite good. Having a best friend speaking the language is of course a great advantage.

    Some years ago I was teaching Swedish to newcomers of many different nationalities and among them some young girls from Thailand. They tried to teach me something of their mother tongue, but, as their language also is a tonal language they were having great fun listening to me…

    April 22, 2012
    • The problem right now in many Hong Kong schools is that most subjects are taught in Cantonese – not enough attention is paid to English or Mandarin, which means that very few people are fluently trilingual. Of course the quality of Mandarin has improved since the return to China, but English standards are dropping fast. A lot of visiting friends have remarked that for a former British colony, not many Hong Kongers have a good command of the language!

      Cantonese is extremely difficult, but it’s not impossible for a Westerner to learn. As with every other language the best way to pick it up is through immersion. There are some expats here who do know how to speak it (a great example being travel writer Daisann McLane) but they are a very small minority… most learn a few phrases but not much else.

      April 22, 2012

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