What makes a true Hongkonger: knowing what ‘fly sand go milk’ means, perhaps?

Peter Kammerer considers the extent to which the Cantonese language, among other traits, contributes to and shapes the Hong Kong identity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 December, 2016, 4:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 December, 2016, 10:43pm

A Hongkonger overseas, when asked where they’re from, will invariably answer, “Hong Kong” rather than “China”. I was born in Toowoomba in the Australian state of Queensland, but do not reply “Toowoomba” or “Queensland” when posed that question; the answer is always “Australia”. The Hong Kong response is not what the powers in Beijing want to hear, although it’s an inevitability given the circumstances, culture and pride. They are the reasons I can never call myself a true person of this city, no matter how many years I make it my home.

Carrying a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport rather than a Chinese one invariably assures the “Hong Kong” reply. But Hong Kong is also a city very much on the world map, one that everyone has heard of and knows from movies. The same reasons are cause for someone from New York or London to name the place rather than the country after the “where are you from?” question. But there is much more to being a Hongkonger. After 28 years, I have adopted some of these characteristics; others, however, remain too challenging or alien.

Language is the biggest definer. Cantonese Hong Kong-style, with its slang and swear words that are ever changing, marks a Hongkonger out from their dialect-speaking brethren across the Sham Chun River and the wide-eyed student. Some of the expressions outsiders easily pick up are wah, and that multipurpose aiyah, which can be used for anything from pain to showing concern. But the linguistic ingenuity of Hongkongers comes out in their shorthand for commonly used words and phrases, or in response to current events, producing layers that need full command and constant exposure to come to grips with.

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Hong Kong Cantonese takes full flight in the cha chaan teng, where customers demand fast and efficient service. It’s an ideal environment for inventiveness and, as such, has produced all manner of food and drink terms. “Fly sand go milk”, I have been informed, means coffee without milk and sugar, “add the bottom” is to ask for more rice or noodles and calling for “Liza Wang” is not meant to conjure up the famed actress, but a hot coffee, apparently the title of one of her songs. The style extends into everyday-speak as the times and trends demand.

I can’t pretend to know more than a few fistfuls of Cantonese words and, even then, being tone deaf holds me back from grasping so tonal a language.

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I can be a Hong Kong person in other ways, though: A click of the tongue in annoyance at the person blocking my way, showing impatience that the bus hasn’t arrived within moments of getting to the stop, and that weekend dim sum ritual. But other aspects I simply cannot embrace, among them feeling at home in a crowd and doing my utmost on public transport during rush hour to avoid bodily contact with other passengers.

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It still feels odd when, in a Western-style restaurant, my Chinese meal partner asks to taste what I’m eating; I’ll always oblige, but there’s no desire to share from their plate. And I’ll only join that scramble to pay the restaurant bill if I’m in the mood for playing that game; it’s so much easier to just say that I’ll take care of the bill and, if someone disagrees, promise that I’ll pick it up the next time.

Living conditions and circumstances make people from big cities develop particular characteristics; Hongkongers, like New Yorkers and Londoners, have their own traits. In Hong Kong, I’ve embraced those I’m comfortable with, but there are limits. I’m a citizen, a taxpayer, a resident, but not a true Hongkonger.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post