I recently came across an advertisement in an MTR station that encouraged the adoption of mongrels. That’s a great idea. Shouldn’t our revulsion against racial discrimination among human beings be extended to the animal kingdom? Why should people favour purebreds over mongrels, which, incidentally, are often healthier because of gene mixing and less prone to diseases associated with inbreeding?

What interested me more about the ad, however, was the Chinese term for mongrels: tong gau, which literally means “Chinese dogs”. A support group for mongrel owners in Hong Kong also uses the term tong gau on its Chinese-only website (mongrelclub.hk).

Who needs pedigree - the case for mongrels as top dog

I wonder when and how the phrase tong gau was coined. At a time when mongrels were considered undesirable and unattractive (sadly, they still are), the use of the adjective “Chinese” (tong) to denote dogs that exhibit these traits is interesting.

A similar use of the word “Chinese” is also seen in the phrase tong lau, or “Chinese buildings”, which usually refers to old walk-up buildings bereft of first-world standards of maintenance.

The Cantonese word “tong” refers to the Tang dynasty (618-907), the golden age of Chinese civilisation, when China projected its military might and culture (in today’s parlance, its “hard and soft powers”) abroad. The Chinese were so proud of the dynasty’s achievements that “Tang” became synonymous with “Chinese”, and they referred to themselves as Tangren, or a “Tang person”.

So, it’s baffling, to say the least, that a word that conveys a nation’s greatness has been chosen to describe mutts and tenements.