It seems slang is all the rage in Hong Kong these days. With the almost overnight success of a set of flash cards that teaches Cantonese slang, it appears everyone has become a linguist. Last month, a controversial Chinese HKCEE paper broke with tradition and quizzed candidates on Cantonese slang, causing an uproar among students and teachers alike. The paper asked candidates to interpret trendy Cantonese phrases like o zeoi - describing someone as astonished - and wat gei - to put someone at a disadvantage. After the exam some students wore black shirts to exam halls in protest against the questions on slang. Mr Fan (who declined to give his first name), a Chinese teacher at the Christian Alliance College, said the exam questions seemed to reflect education officials' dilemma in language policy. 'On the one hand, they introduced Putonghua teaching in Chinese lessons. The move reflected their wish to improve students' Chinese writing skills as Putonghua has the same writing and speaking forms. The move to include Cantonese slang in the Chinese exam contradicts this,' he said. Despite the harm slang can do to students' writing ability, Mr Fan said it was common for young people to use it. 'It's a trend driven by the internet. Although my students use it in daily conversations, they know they have to use formal Chinese in writing and exams,' he said. The use of slang may raise eyebrows among Chinese teachers, but it does have its role to play in the evolution of local culture. Slang has been one of the defining elements of time, with unique colloquial expressions reflecting people's habits and way of life at a given point in history. 'Slang can reflect the changing times and generation gap between older and younger people,' said Kitty Chung, who works in a boutique. She said although she used slang when she talked to her friends, she wouldn't do the same with her parents. She was sure they would not understand words like hea - loll around - and cim - abstain from activities. The 18-year-old also said she found it difficult to understand the slang used by her grandparents. 'My grandmother always uses the term caak baak dong - bad elements in society - which I've never heard my friends say,' said Ms Chung. Despite all the controversy surrounding the use of slang in exams, Chu Yiu-wai, Hong Kong Baptist University's professor of Chinese Language and Literature, said the proper use of slang in teaching could enhance students' interest in learning. 'Slang can convey the nuances which written or more formal language cannot,' said Professor Chu, who has conducted research on local culture and Canto-pop lyrics. 'Some Canto-pop songs like those by SoftHard are filled with witty slang which captures the context perfectly.' Professor Chu said he often encouraged his students to discuss slang and its implications. Turn to Page 7 to read about the man who invented the popular Cantonese slang cards.