I was walking our dog in the local London park recently (this is a highlight in the dismal days of Covid lockdown) when I came across a man and his two young children, who were enthralled by our tail-wagging pup. They spoke together in Cantonese and I quickly ascertained they were ex-Hongkongers, settled in the UK for some years. The incident made me nostalgic for my former home and, particularly, the language. For if I have any regrets about my time in Hong Kong, it is that I never learnt Cantonese seriously.
At first the language was a complete mystery for a newly arrived expat. It sounded nothing like the European languages I was educated in, having no shared linguistic roots and phonetically alien. And how on earth was it possible to master those nine tones? The standard expat response was just to give up at the outset. I had friends who had lived many years in Hong Kong who couldn’t speak a word. There was an element of colonial arrogance in that attitude, however, compounded by a native English speaker’s traditional lack of motivation to learn other languages at all. A few did learn to speak well, of course, notably some government people and a handful of police, who received intensive training. I remember a police friend explaining how, in his first lessons, they were encouraged to sing the words”Jo san gweilo, nei ho ma? Gei ho! Gei ho! Jo san gweilo nei ho ma? Gei ho, nei ho ma?” to the tune of Camptown Races. (Good day foreigner, how are you? Alright, how are you?).
Determined not to be a typical lazy learner, I attempted at first to tackle a thick volume of teach yourself Cantonese. It was written in the old-fashioned Wade-Giles romanization, which I’m sure was produced by the CIA to put people off the language! Having later made Chinese friends I resorted to the un-academic but practical way of learning, by enquiry and imitation, which was not intellectually rigorous but a lot more fun.
Proceeding this way, language learning went through the logical motivational steps of food, directions, sex and humor. Consequently, the delightful exploration of Chinese food started with knowledge of dim sum, har gau, siu mai, etc. (dumplings), main dishes and even more exotic experiments like fong zhao (chicken’s feet). I became pretty good at ordering what I wanted, to the extent I frequently embarrassed my teenage daughter in later years in London, by showing off my expertise to baffled waiters in London’s Chinatown.
Directions came out of necessity. Starting with one’s address for the taxi driver – Boon san kui, law bin son do, m’goi (Mid-levels, Robinson Road, please), one built up a standard Cantonese conversation, which in translation went like this: “Mid-levels, Robinson Road, please.” “Oh, you speak Chinese!” “Only a little.” “Do you live in Hong Kong?” “Yes.” “Where are you from?” “I’m English.” “How long have you been in HK?” “Four years.” “Do you like HK? “Yes, I work here.” Then I would lose the plot as the driver launched into a friendly monologue, nothing of which I would understand. But I would nod in friendly agreement. This standard exchange seriously impressed my German girlfriend, who admired my fluency. I never did puncture that illusion.
As a bachelor in my early years in Hong Kong, I was naturally driven to engage with local ladies by wooing them in their own language. Phrases such as “Leng nui” (pretty girl) and “Sek ha ngo” (How about a kiss?) were first steps. Sometimes over eagerness, however, resulted in a rebuff “Yau mo gau cho” (You must be kidding) or “Ham sap lo” (salty wet man – lecher). One lovely Hong Kong girl I dated for some time was the best teacher of Cantonese I had, as she patiently answered my tedious requests for Cantonese translations.
Early impressions of Cantonese were that it was a harsh sounding tongue. In fact, northern Chinese are said to compare a Cantonese love song to a bar room brawl. Similarly, you could say Cockney London slang would suggest English is rough-sounding. Spoken by an educated person, however, Cantonese is melodic and flowing. Furthermore, Cantonese scholars claim it as the original Chinese language, unlike northern mandarin, which was bastardized by the influx of the conquering Mongol hordes fresh from the steppes.
Once I had picked up a reasonable smattering of Cantonese phrases for everyday street use, I began to enjoy the color and humor of the language. With its innumerable homonyms it is made for punning and is rich in ribald innuendo. For example, I never wanted to be a “Gwei daan” a turtle egg, for that would make me a dummy. Nor did I want to buy a “Gwei daan” which is an expensive egg! Certain phrases always stuck in my mind. I was always amused by “Mok faa san”, meaning literally to break peanuts. Figuratively it means “grabbing one’s popcorn or a front-seat for a show” in English. I also like “Sai kwa pau” or “melon scraper” for the unfortunate pal with protruding front teeth.
It’s a great shame that most expats are daunted by the idea of learning Cantonese. I found that having even a superficial knowledge, as I did, broke the ice with new Chinese friends. Yes, they smiled patronizingly at my attempts, but appreciated the effort and were at least amused. I would say to potential learners; don’t worry about the tones. Mo man tai (no problem!). Just imitate the sing-song cadences and enjoy the subtlety and good humor of this expressive and colourful language.
(The writer lived in Hong Kong for more than twenty years, arriving soon after the death of Mao and leaving after the handover of the territory to China. He experienced the seismic transformation of Hong Kong on its journey from plastic flowers and T-shirts to global front runner in trade and high finance.)
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