Sup Sup Sui: Delicious Cantonese phrases about work culture

  • When you start a new job in Hong Kong, you’ll see there are plenty of cultural norms to learn
  • These workplace phrases all relate to food - but you might not find them very tasty
Sue Ng |

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Ah, the old stir-fried squid. Photo: Shutterstock

When you start a job in Hong Kong, you’ll find there are also cultural norms you need to pick up.

Did you know there are some Cantonese dishes that can worry employees? Or that there is a special custom of giving away dessert on someone’s last day of work?

This week, we explore phrases to help you navigate Hong Kong’s workplace culture. Each phrase is related to food, but once you learn their meanings, some of them might not sound very tasty any more.

Can you hear me now? Cantonese slang about communication

Food for bad news

燉冬菇 dan6 dung1 gu1 (dung-doong-goo): “Stewed mushrooms”

Meaning: to be assigned to a lower position at one’s job. The slang originates from British colonial times. Back then, police who wore plain clothes were ranked higher than those in uniform. But if they made a mistake, they would be reassigned to the level of uniformed police, who had to wear a triangle-shaped hat. The hat looked similar to a mushroom when placed on someone’s head, so people now use this phrase to describe anyone who has been demoted.

In English: to be kicked downstairs; demoted

Example: Jeff used to be in charge until he did not pay attention to his boss’ instructions, and he got dung-doong-goo.

They all got demoted from their jobs. Photo: Shutterstock

炒魷魚 caau2 jau4 jyu4 (chao-yau-yu): “Stir-fried squid”

Meaning: to be fired from one’s job. In the past, foreign labourers would bring their personal belongings and a blanket to Hong Kong to work, as employers offered food and housing. But when they were fired, they needed to leave immediately and would pack their things by rolling their blankets in a way that looked similar to a Cantonese dish of stir-fried squid.

In English: to be fired, sacked, laid off, axed or dismissed

Example: Mary got chao-yau-yu for always being late to work.

How to navigate the world of texting in Cantonese

Idioms of the week

散水餅 saan3 seoi2 beng2 (sahn-sui-ban): “Separate water cake”

Meaning: refers to a custom in which employees give farewell treats to colleagues on their last day of work. The term first appeared in newspapers in 2005, before becoming a more popular phrase with the public. The word sahn-sui describes the flow of water as it leaves and goes in different directions, and symbolises someone’s departure.

In English: farewell cake or gift

Example: On Tom’s last day of work, he brought us sahn-sui-bang with our names on it.

Don’t forget to bring your separate water cake on your last day! Photo: Shutterstock

倒瀉籮蟹 dou2 se2 lo4 haai5 (doh-seh-law-hai): “Overturn a bucket of crabs”

Meaning: describes a situation that is out of control. The idiom refers to how crabs climb out of a bucket and crawl all over the ground, causing a chaotic situation that makes people panic.

In English: chaotic; in a mess; a hot mess

Example: The restaurant didn’t have enough servers working today, so during peak hours, it was like doh-seh-law-haai.

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