Mandarin may be the ‘common language’, but here’s why Cantonese reigns supreme
Love it or hate it, nothing says ‘Hong Kong’ like this lively, noisy tongue
About a decade before Hong Kong was to return to Chinese sovereignty, many Hongkongers and local expatriates rushed to learn Mandarin. I remember it was around the same time when it became increasingly popular in Hong Kong to refer to Mandarin as Putonghua, which literally means “common language”, because Beijing wanted to emphasise that this widely used dialect on the mainland was the official lingua franca and, at the same time, promote national solidarity.
China is an enormous country, home to a multitude of languages and dialects. Many people think that among the dialect groups, Cantonese, which is spoken by 60 million people across the globe, is the least pleasing to the ear. Its critics complain that it is harsh, guttural and cacophonous.
I love Cantonese, and I wholeheartedly believe it truly reflects the diversity of the Chinese language. Mandarin or Putonghua may be spoken by most Chinese people on the mainland, but I think Cantonese still reigns supreme. It is the most lively and fun, and is famously known for its rich, colourful and sarcastic colloquialisms. Love it, hate it, or both, no one can deny that it is a playful, yet bizarre and sometimes delightfully rude variety of Chinese.
Cantonese is mostly spoken and not written because it does not have a standard written form. This could be one significant contributing factor that allows it to be such a fun and animated dialect, because it is not tied down by the many restrictive rules of a written language.
Take, for example, when every man and his dog were picking up Mandarin in Hong Kong back in the 1990s. The common complaint from native Mandarin speakers then was that many Hongkongers were so bad at adapting to the vastly different tones and pitches of Mandarin that they were struggling and speaking it in a “mm haam mm taam” fashion, which directly translates as “not salty, not bland”. You’ve probably guessed that this means “neither here nor there”, so you can see how unashamedly direct Cantonese is.
Some everyday phrases are equally colourful, such as “sing leh”, which is derived from video game culture and means to “level up” or to improve.
There is also the phrase “sup sup sui”, which literally means “wet, wet scraps”, describing a task that is trivial, easy or a piece of cake. You can also use it as a casual response when someone thanks you for doing something for them as it also means “no worries”, or “don’t mention it”.
Another classic is “sik ling mung”, which means “eat lemons”. Imagine the face of someone who has just sunk their teeth into a lemon – their grimace would be similar to the expression of a person being rejected, and that is exactly what it means. This phrase is usually applied in a romantic situation.
Spoken Cantonese is so descriptive that many of its figurative expressions allow you to visualise their meaning quite easily. The popular Cantonese saying “all 10 fingers are not of the same length” is used to describe a conventional understanding that every person has their own strengths and weaknesses.
Another wacky Cantonese expression that I find highly amusing is “seng gau char siu ho gor seng nay”, which literally means “better to have given birth to a piece of barbecued pork than you”. This colourful expression, popular among Hong Kong mothers of the older generation, is used to voice a mother’s disappointment over their misbehaving children. Char siu is one of Hong Kong’s most enduring and iconic dishes. I guess when a child has let their folks down and caused so much grief, a juicy piece of honey-glazed barbecued pork would seem a lot more appealing at that point.
There is no doubt that Cantonese expressions are quite dramatic and blatantly offensive at times, but occasionally they can be remarkably subtle. I often hear people say to someone they haven’t seen for a while, “dak haan yum cha”, which translates as “let’s go grab some dim sum when you are free”.
This doesn’t really mean they want to catch up with one another. In fact, the underlying message is: “Don’t call me, and I hope we won’t bump into each other any time soon.” It is a face-saving phrase for acquaintances or friends who have grown distant and want to finish the conversation as quickly as possible so they can go their separate ways.
On a friendlier note, we can wrap up this week’s edition of “Blowing Water” by saying “haa sing kei gin” (see you next week) or “baaibaai” (bye bye). Remember, speak Cantonese loudly and proudly when you’re in Hong Kong. Whether you’re a local, a polyglot or just trying to pick up some local colour, Cantonese is an integral part of the city’s identity, and we should do everything we can to keep it thriving. Ga yau (add oil)!
Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post