‘Sup Sup Sui’: Start the new school year with these Cantonese slang phrases

  • Would you consider yourself a ‘hok ba’?
  • Here’s how to explain common Canto idioms in English, or pick up new phrases for the first time
Sue Ng |

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You’re heading back to school, so why not pick up a few new phrases?

Welcome back to school! After a lengthy summer holiday, you finally get back into the classroom and meet your peers in person. You might be happy to see some familiar faces or nervous about greeting new classmates. Your classes and hallways might be filled with all sorts of interesting people.

Here are two types of students you might notice – the students who always seem to know what they are doing and the students who seem lost in their own world.

Cantonese slang all about hobbies and fashion

學霸 (hok6 ba3): king of academics

Meaning: refers to students who do well in their studies and always achieve excellent results on their exams. It first emerged as an internet buzzword in mainland China sometime during 2012 and 2013. In ancient times, it had a harsh meaning because the word 霸 ba in Chinese refers to rulers who use their power to bully ordinary people. Bossy scholars and officials in the past were called hok ba. But nowadays, it has become a neutral term, and some people even use it to praise high-achieving students.

In English: top student; high achiever

Example: Amy is a hok ba who always scores full marks on her exams.

We bet that at least a few of you would proudly call yourselves a hok ba.

中二病 (jung1 yi6 beng6): “secondary two syndrome”

Meaning: refers to someone who is living in their own world. The term originally came from Japan, where it was first popularised in 1999 by comedian Hikaru Ijuin. He used it on his radio show, and it later gained fame on the internet, where the Japanese term was then translated into Chinese.

It was first meant to describe 13- and 14-year-olds who try to act like adults, but its meaning has evolved to describe anyone who acts in a childish way. But this term can also be used to make fun of adults who do not really understand what the real world is like.

In English: living in their own world; childish

Example: My older brother has jung yi beng – he thinks he is a hero who can save the world.

Is your heart in the right place?

Idioms of the week

高分低能 (gou1 fan1 dai1 nang4): high score, low ability

Meaning: describes people who excel academically but do poorly in other parts of life. It can describe someone who struggles to be independent or lacks interpersonal skills. Many people say this characteristic is a result of education systems that emphasise examinations and academic achievements more than any other life skills.

In English: book smart, but not street smart; lacking common sense

Example: Under Hong Kong’s exam-oriented education, many students have become gou fan dai nang, and struggle when they have to work with other people.

The many faces of Hongkongers

自我中心 (ji6 ngo5 jung1 sam1): self-centred

Meaning: describes people who only care about themselves. In Chinese, the phrase directly translates to “I am the only one in my heart”. It is used when someone is unable to understand anyone else’s perspective. Usually, these kinds of people make decisions based only on what will benefit themselves, and do not care about how their actions affect others.

In English: entitled, self-centred, egoistic

Example: Thomas is very ji ngo jung sam, so no one wants to be his friend.

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