MagazinesPost Magazine

What the devil are you saying?

The locals go to great lengths to dissuade Westerners from learning Cantonese, but Cecilie Gamst Berg refuses to fall for the old "it's too difficult for you" ruse

 

''Chok!" ; " Hou heh ah"; " Hou cheu ah" *

By the time you read this, these words and expressions may well be obsolete. The Cantonese language changes faster than you can say "Hot Chok! olate" and new buzzwords appear and become hopelessly dated in the time it takes to gobble down a bowl of instant noodles, or gong tsai min ("doll noodles", probably named after the first company to manufacture them).

In fact, an awful lot of Cantonese slang seems to revolve around food; like jyu pat ("pork cutlet": a fat, ugly girl), sek yuhn faan ("eat soft rice": live off the earnings of a prostitute), mou mai juk ("riceless congee": a plan going nowhere), hahm choy ("salty vegetables": crumpled clothes) and ha cheun fan ("shrimp egg powder": low-grade heroin).

Although I won't mention them in a family magazine, that most revered of objects, the penis, has more nicknames in Cantonese than Australians have words for being drunk. And talking of unmentionables, here is a typical example of how Cantonese evolves: because rude characters couldn't be written out in newspapers or in film subtitles, Chinese writers started using the letter X where the offensive character should have been. So they'd write " Hou X wat dat", for instance, which is as clean as saying "damned disgusting". Cantonese being what it is, though, people soon took to saying "X" (pronounced "ekk-see") as a euphemism for a swearword, and now ekk-see has become a swearword in its own right, one frowned upon by office ladies.

The younger set, I've been told, have long since moved away from X - and are now using the letter Q.

Their constantly evolving and highly descriptive slang and jargon are a matter of pride for the majority of Hong Kong people, who nevertheless display a strange schizophrenia when it comes to their local language. On the one hand they boast about Cantonese being the most difficult language in the world and the one with the fastest-changing slang; on the other they go to great lengths to discourage foreigners from learning it, assuring us "it's just a street/gutter language", "it's just a dialect and not real Chinese" and the old chestnut "it's useless, you should learn Mandarin instead."

" Lei yau mou gaau cho ah," ("You must be joking") is all I have to say to those people. Just a street language? Not real Chinese? Cantonese in spoken, sung and written forms was around long before that hybrid, almost Esperanto-like Putonghua (a mix of various northern dialects and Manchurian). Cantonese poems read out loud sound like angels dancing on a harp, whereas spoken Putonghua, let's face it, sounds like two cockroaches fighting in an a**e.

Cantonese has its own characters, grammar and syntax. When Mandarin/Putonghua speakers, also known as Mandohooligans locally, hear it, they don't understand a word. So how can it not be a language?

I have a theory about why Hong Kong people in general (not all, obviously, otherwise I would never have learnt Cantonese) put up such a fight against white-skinned foreigners acquiring any knowledge of their language. When the British landed on this barren rock and took over everything, Cantonese was the only thing the locals still owned exclusively. With Cantonese as their shield, they could stand in front of their colonial overlord telling him, for example, " Laan si gaht lou" ("push off") while smiling beatifically, so he assumed they were saying, "Jolly good weather today, what? Although there is a spot of humidity."

That's probably how the myth about Cantonese being the most difficult language in the world came into being. It was a ruse, set out by those crafty compradors and opium tradesmen to ensure that the obtuse gweilo ("devil geezers") would never understand what was really going on. The British, meanwhile, who in Irish poet Brendan Behan's immortal words "[...] God help them, want[ed] every language to be like their own", were happy to keep forcing English down the locals' throats and writing the Chinese off as inscrutable.

So the colonial spirit lives on, with the local people having internalised it - why else would they encourage people to learn Putonghua instead of Cantonese, saying it's "more useful"? I'm sure it's well meant, but know they really what they say? How can learning a completely different language from the one spoken where you live be more useful where you live?

Now it's the northern hordes acting like the British of yore, demanding that people wherever they invade, sorry, "visit or settle", speak their language, looking down their noses at the local tongue because they don't understand it. With the central government's incessant cries for "harmony" and "unity" it irks them to the point of madness that areas of their fiefdom should speak a, for them, unintelligible language.

How many times have I, or my students (I teach Cantonese), heard these and other arguments against us learning the local tongue over the years? All too often I have been in the middle of an otherwise pleasant conversation in that fun and vibrant language when my interlocutor suddenly remembers that I am, in fact, a foreigner and he is straying from the path he's been brainwashed down since infanthood by talking to me in his own language?

When I ask him how he thought we should be having the conversation if I didn't speak Cantonese, he'll say: "In English, of course!" (Nowadays, with increasing frequency: "In Mandarin, of course!")

Oh, so do you speak English/Mandarin?

"No."

Oh dear. It must be a cultural, nay, a Hong Kong thing, though, because nobody in Guangdong province, the very cradle of the Cantonese language and culture, has ever told me I shouldn't learn its language. They do switch to Putonghua in mid-sentence, sometimes mid-word, however, when they suddenly remember I'm a "foreign friend" and therefore can't understand a word of what I myself have been saying.

Another thing I used to hear a lot from Hong Kong people, with decreasing frequency now that it is too late, was, "Don't learn Cantonese, it's too difficult for you." Ouch! That hurts. So a two-year-old can do it, but it's too difficult for me?

When people tell me how extremely intelligent I must be to be able to say for example " jou san" ("morning!") in the language of the city I have lived in for 23 years, I think, "Come on, it's just a language." I also get weary of the "White person talking Cantonese!" clips on YouTube. I mean, nobody has posted "Chinese person speaks English!" That would be racist, after all.

I must admit, nevertheless, that when you undertake learning Cantonese, you take on quite a challenge; but it's not the language itself - that's dead easy - it is the logistics. Everything is stacked against you.

There is little earnest study material to speak of, as everyone has decided once and for all that Cantonese is just an irritating gadfly dialect trying to elbow in at the big boys' table. There are no books written in Cantonese characters and syntax, no magazines and few newspapers - although Apple Daily is leading a fightback, with an increasing use of the local lingo. The best source, apart from a small handful of apps, are Hong Kong movies, which delight in using the latest slang and allowing their characters to talk like real Hong Kong people do.

One of the very few proper English-Cantonese dictionaries comes without Chinese characters; which, if you ask me, is a little bit like publishing an English dictionary in phonics, where you have no idea of the proper spelling of the words. The word "patronising" springs to mind, as it so often does when it comes to this linguistic madness.

There are glossaries which do feature Chinese characters, but they're often not very helpful. One publication, for example, lists the word "dizzy" under A (" wan-wan dei" - "a little dizzy") and most other words under H (" da gun si": "have a lawsuit"; " sau yong muhn min": "have a sad look"; " o si [dai bihn]": "have a stool" [yes, reader, defecate]; " bou ngah": "have the tooth filled"; and, of course, " sau chi gek": "have a [mental] shock").

This can make it very interesting, if a tad time-consuming, to look up words - is "nap" listed under N? No, of course not; it's listed under T - " fan an gau": "take an afternoon nap".

This kind of dictionary disarray is typical of the very anarchic nature of Cantonese - it just refuses to be pinned down and it doesn't take kindly to being pigeonholed. There are probably about 12 or 15 different ways of Romanising the characters, for example. And with the crazy spelling of words we see in Hong Kong, where " gok" ("country") is spelled " kwok", " goon" is spelled " kwun" and my local restaurant, Mau Gei, is spelled "Mau Kee" - is it any wonder there is a disconnect between taxi driver and irate Caucasian passenger? I beg you: if you want to learn Cantonese, learn the characters at once. Two or three hundred of those and you'll be well on your way to world supremacy.

Perhaps Cantonese is the Glaswegian of Asia; it may not sound beautiful at first listen (" Wai! O oi lei!" means "Hey! I love you!") but like Glaswegian it's terse, straight to the point and an excellent fighting language. And rather than being "the most difficult language in the world" it couldn't be easier: as with Chinese per se, there are no tenses of the verb, no genders, no plurals, no declensions. There are hardly any prepositions and few possessives.

"Long time no see" ( hou loy mou ghin) is a typical example of the economy of the language.

"Oh, but the tones," people cry. "What about the nine [or 11, or 210] tones? They are impossible to learn for a foreigner." Well, not really. I've found that when people get over the shock that a Caucasian is speaking their language, they can understand what you say even if you use the wrong tones. Sentence structure is much more important. And besides, how about the people who speak through a hole in their throat? They only have one tone but are understood.

So now that the silly notion about the enormous difficulties of learning Cantonese is out of the way, what's holding everyone back?

I'm sorry to say, and I speak here again on behalf of my students, who all have the same complaint: Hong Kong people just won't give it up. They insist, insist on speaking English, no matter how poor their vocabulary is and how good the Cantonese of their interlocutor. Because it's been written in stone since the beginning of time that no Caucasian can ever - EVER - learn Cantonese. Although it is different for Filipinos, Indonesians and Indians, who get roundly mocked if they don't speak Cantonese like a native a couple of hours after touching down at Chek Lap Kok (should be written Gok; "red some-kind-of-fish point").

So Cantonese is genetic, learnable only by "those with black hair and brown eyes", as a taxi driver once told me. In that case, what happened to "Cantonese is the most difficult language in the world" - surely someone held in as little regard locally as a domestic helper wouldn't have the intellect to pick up the world's most difficult language in five minutes flat? It's baffling, I tell you. Baffling.

But, of course, the fact is, arriving Asians often do learn Cantonese very fast. Why? Because it's expected of them. No matter how brokenly they speak it in the beginning, local people answer them in Cantonese because it's the norm.

There has admittedly taken place a huge sea change in foreigners' attitudes since the early 1990s. At that time, I was laughed at by locals and other foreigners alike; by locals for thinking I could go against nature and my genes; by foreigners, young Englishmen in particular, for "going native".

Now the locals are the only ones laughing. Foreigners now want to emulate me, saying that it's only right to try to learn the language in the place where you live, rather than trying to force your own language upon locals. Well, duh!

It may be an uphill battle, but have you ever tried fighting a downhill battle? It's easy to stumble and accidentally impale yourself on your own broadsword.

Now we have the added aspect of a relentless influx of Mandohooligans to contend with, with Hong Kong people enthusiastically embracing the "real Chinese", with its poverty of vocabulary, communist-speak properties and, worst of all, simplified characters.

A good example of Hong Kong people's "willingness to go with the flow" (or, to put it less kindly, apathy) was seen in July 2010. The central government proposed that local TV and radio stations in Guangzhou scrap or severely reduce their Cantonese-language programmes, ostensibly to accommodate all the non-Chinese speaking foreigners flocking to the city later that year for the Asian Games.

Incensed at what they rightly saw as yet another ham-fisted attempt by the authorities to quash Cantonese (historically the language of breakaway rebels and now a terrible thorn in the side of our "everyone-must-be-the-same" rulers from the north), thousands of mainly young people gathered at Gong Lam Sai (Jiangnan Xi - incidentally, the Korean "Gangnam" means the same: "south of the river") station despite the organisers of the protest having been arrested and the protest called off.

Being a Cantonese fundamentalist, I of course went along, and it was truly an electrifying experience. Thousands of teenagers and people in their early 20s were thronging the street and pavements near the station, the police looking helplessly on. For how could they arrest or even lightly attack people whose only wish was to keep hearing their own language spoken on air? Besides, only four or five of the people there weren't using their iPhones to film everything that happened, so the old "suspect beat himself to death while jumping handcuffed off the pavement" explanation wouldn't have worked well in this case.

" Gong jau yan gong gong jau wah, teng m meng jau fan heung ha!"("Cantonese people speak Cantonese, if you don't understand it, p*** off back to the sticks"), went the war cry.

Three weeks later there was to be a similar demonstration in Hong Kong, this time all above board, with lots of police in attendance to deal with any high jinx. Oh, this was so exciting! I would stand shoulder to shoulder with Hong Kong people, shouting out our support for Cantonese, the most fun, interesting, dynamic and excellent-sounding language on Earth!

When my Caucasian friends and I arrived at Southorn Stadium, in Wan Chai, we saw clearly how great the interest to preserve their own language and culture was among Hong Kong people. There were four of us … and just three of them.

 

*" Chok!" Means to strike a silly pose/ham it up for the cameras. Apparently it comes from English "choke" and is so happening there isn't even a Chinese character for it.

" Hou heh ah" means really bored, nothing to do.

" Hou cheu ah" means really busy, hectic.

 

Share

After reading this article, people also read

This article is now closed to comments

jaune
Cecilie you're hilarious! Thanks for this great article, it makes me love Cantonese even more. I'm also a ''carefree'' native Cantonese teacher and professional linguist, I encountered the difficulty of finding a good dictionary and book for my students too, wait a sec... why don't you/we publish a dictionary!?

Login

SCMP.com Account

or