Mind your language

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 September, 2009, 12:00am

For anyone hoping to keep up with Hong Kong's highly idiomatic Cantonese, sites such as Discuss.com.hk and Hkgolden.com are vital resources. Trendy expressions, or chiu yu, are constantly being coined by the young people who dominate online forums.

Some of the vernacular has seeped into mainstream use as the Chinese tabloid press and other media pick up on it. Those not plugged into this youth culture can find it incomprehensible: a teenager who 'drips sweat' (dik hon) because his laptop 'struck wood' (daa caai) is actually speechless with embarrassment and confusion because the machine gave out while he was trying to show off.

But a slew of books has emerged over the summer to help us make sense of the latest phrases. Publisher and writer Jimmy Pang Chi-ming, who has released several books on local street language, says Cantonese slang is a misnomer for such expressions.

'It should be called Hong Kong slang because, culturally, Hong Kong is the most international city. Hong Kong slang is the liveliest form of language ever. It's one of a kind and that's why I find it so fascinating. People outside Hong Kong wouldn't understand our slang,' he says, referring to phrases derived from Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean, French and Indian words.

His new book, Mong Kok Phrases, draws on the vibrant street culture of a district he knows well. Pang, 53, grew up in Mong Kok and still lives and works there.

'Mong Kok is the most culturally significant place in Hong Kong. The district has easy transport access so it gathers people from all walks of life. There's nowhere better to study trendy expressions,' Pang says.

Primary school teacher Adrian So was among the first to bring chiu yu to broader attention two years when he issued a set of 42 flash cards on the latest expressions, along with a booklet explaining their origins and usage.

Created under the pseudonym So RealReal, the learning kit was such a hit (20,000 sets sold) that he has released another set this summer, which now also features a board game.

'I want it to be fun and educational at the same time,' he says. 'Remember how we learned to recognise simple words from flash cards when we were little? I want to apply this concept to adults too. Parents often have little idea what their children are saying now.'

But the inventive slang So heard from his father sparked a lifelong passion for Chinese language, especially in popular culture. Having earned a degree in translation, So is now pursuing a masters in language studies at City University.

His original learning kit began as a DIY book project. 'I made about 80 to 100 copies as a trial and drew the illustrations myself. But they sold out at bookstores within two days,' he says. 'I never thought it'd be so popular.'

Young Hongkongers might associate hip expressions with cyberspace chatter because of so-called 'Mars text' - easy-to-type phrases invented for online communication such as instant messaging. Gwing, a word that means bright in formal Chinese, has also has taken on a new connotation with widespread internet use. Because the written character resembles a frowning face with a mouth wide open, it's now often used to show someone is stupefied, depressed or embarrassed.

But chiu yu has been around for far longer than we realise, says Pang.

'Every era has its own. Whatever you call it - informal speech or colloquialism - it's the same thing.'

Pang, who worked as a scriptwriter in the 70s and 80s, says his experience in film industry further fuelled his quest to trace the origins of various slang expressions.

'When I had to write a script, I often had trouble figuring out how to put those terms into writing and wondered how terms such as yi ng jai [which means a turncoat, but translates literally as two-five boy] were coined,' he says.

Some words simply don't exist in other Chinese dialects. For example, there is no formal Chinese character for jiu, which is colloquial Cantonese for 'chew'; Hong Kong people just made one up, Pang says.

Tracking slang words in this literary limbo has become a passion for Pang. He always keeps a notebook handy to jot down trendy phrases he hasn't heard of and looks up dictionaries of ancient words for clues to how phrases developed.

'One thing leads to another,' he says. 'When you pay attention to these details, you start to dig deeper in everything from pop culture and history to science and literature.'

That's why Pang includes historical and cultural context whenever possible in his books on slang expressions.

'It's crucial to understanding how different cultures from abroad and the mainland have influenced the way we talk,' he says.

Although regarded as a specialist due to decades spent investigating slang, Pang says he's no expert.

'I am just as ignorant as the next person in deciphering the latest slang, because when a new term appears we are all starting from scratch,' he says. 'What I'm doing is building a foundation and documenting these words for others who might want to study them in depth in the future,' he says.

Interpretation is subjective, so there's no such thing as 'right'.

'I've made mistakes before,' says Pang. 'You have to be humble and keep an open mind.'

But other writers take a less scholarly approach.

'All this investigation may be good for academia, but who cares when you use [the slang] in daily life? Language is always evolving. I only trace the origins when I can,' So says.

As a teacher, he concedes that too much slang can hinder students' grasp of Chinese language.

'Cantonese isn't a written language, and this surge in slang use exacerbates the problem. But I don't take negative view of it because slang is just a reflection of our culture and values,' So says.

English tutor June Leung Ho-ki tries to put an educational spin on it by matching chiu yu with English expressions in her book, Slang 111.

'Most students only speak classroom English and often have no clue about English slang, which sometimes comes up in listening sections of public exams,' she says.

Leung, who says she consulted more than 200 native English speakers, completed her book in three months for release at this year's book fair. Examples include gai (literally 'cut'), the local equivalent of 'hit on', and woon gau (compensated dating) is sugar-daddy dating.

'I don't encourage students to use these terms, but ignorance doesn't do them any good,' she says. 'Trouble starts when you don't know what foreigners are talking about. Slang can be risky because there are many nuances involved.'

Josephine Ng Pui-yin, a DJ at Commercial Radio better known as Chu Fun E, also takes a practical approach with Trendy Expressions in the News. It may be her second book on slang but Ng says her look at the local argot grew out of a concern for correct use of Chinese words.

'I started out correcting people's pronunciation on my programme,' says Ng. 'I am very word-conscious. I always look to see if words have been used wrongly or not.'

The explosion in expressions invented in internet chat rooms piqued her curiosity.

'I felt like an outsider in these forums, because there are so many words I couldn't fathom. I don't want to join them, but at least I want to know what's going on,' she says. 'And when even the Chief Executive uses a slang term, you know how pervasive it can be.'

Yet these writers rarely bring new slang phrases into their conversation. Their reasoning? You have to use the right word at the right time. 'Otherwise, you could get into a lot of trouble or make a fool of yourself,' Leung says.