On not speaking Cantonese – Hong Kong part 2


As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I lived in Hong Kong from the ages of five to eighteen, and I don’t speak Cantonese. I am a person who has not reached her potential in all sorts of ways and my sins are more of omission than commission, but still I’m fairly sure this is the biggest regret of my life.

Bloody immigrants, coming over here, not even trying to assimilate…

So why don’t I? Well, only speaking English was quite common at the time I lived there amongst other anglophones (though I believe this is now changing for the better) but even so, most expats picked up more than I did. The people of Hong Kong have always been remarkably generous with the entitled idiots who came to live in their city but didn’t learn their language – or at least I think they are, after all I’ve no idea what they’re saying.

The first and most obvious reason is that for eight of those years I spent eight months a year at boarding school, and at most three months a year in Hong Kong. Another reason might be that the expat kids I knew who did speak reasonable Cantonese generally had Chinese amahs – we didn’t have a maid. We rarely even ate in Chinese restaurants: my mother’s a vegetarian and the local cuisine is notoriously carnivorous and so she would have been confined to Seasonal Vegetables again and again and even then she would have had to have a ten minute negotiation to ensure that they didn’t come with oyster sauce or hidden pork. I’ve probably watched more minutes of film in Cantonese since I’ve moved to London than I ever did while I was there: this seems odd until you remember that Cantonese films in Hong Kong don’t by and large run with English subtitles – though they often do run with Chinese subtitles. I used to be able to cope, just about, with taxi, minibus, and dai pai dong Cantonese but even that’s gone now. I took lessons over one summer home from school when I was in my teens with a wonderful woman who I used to meet at Kai Tak airport and who would buy me ice cream, but all that remains is how to say ‘fountain pen’, and the knowledge that I was once given a Chinese name. I no longer have any idea what that name was or what the characters for it were: all I can remember was that it was based on the sound of ‘Nikki Coates’ and that I think it meant ‘tall beautiful deer’. I am 5’1″ tall, and I’m not sure ‘beautiful’ would come in the first 5 adjectives that even those that love me most would use to describe me. I am not among the people who used to snicker that there were students in the Biology faculty of the University of Hong Kong who’d taken Photosynthesis Wong or Dioecious Chan or whatever as their English names – I have my own dodgy cross-cultural name, if only I could remember what it was.

Life with 100 words

As you’ll gather, then, I used at least to know a bit more than I do now. I reckon at Peak Cantonese my vocabulary would have been somewhere between 50-100 spoken words and about the same number of written words in standard written Chinese. Pretty much the only overlap between the spoken words that I know and the written ones are the numbers. I know a few characters that mean things like ‘north’ or ‘mountain’ or ‘bay’ or ‘forest’ because you’d see those in the names on road signs, and can tell the difference between pork, fish or duck on a menu. My spoken Cantonese was more along the lines of ‘thank you very much’ ‘good morning’ ‘how much is it’ ‘sorry’ and my crowning achievement ‘please stop the bus at the rubbish bins’.

Mind you, if you’re reading this you might know more Cantonese than you know you know: kumquat, cha, gung-ho, loquat, wok, kowtow, kung-fu, ketchup, lychee, chop-chop, typhoon, all derive from the World’s Greatest Language as well as of course dim sum, pak choi, mahjong, and even chop suey, which I always thought was just made up.

Hold on, what was that?

Yeah, it’s the world’s greatest language. I don’t speak it, but I’m pretty confident of that. As I mentioned in my last post, Mandarin speakers can be very sniffy about Cantonese, but I love the sound of the language. I worked for a short while with a woman who had come to Hong Kong in her childhood and whose first language was Mandarin – she said that she had always thought that it sounded like Cantonese speakers were fighting. It’s the perfect language for Hong Kong: scrappy, direct, more polite than you’d expect. It also has a fantastic range of idioms: ‘hitting a tiger inside a boat full of pottery’ is to risk everything on one plan, someone who is at a stalemate is ‘a tortoise stuck on a sill’ and a woman who is dressed warmly except for her miniskirt is ‘steaming sponge cake on top, selling grass jelly below’. Have a look at this wonderful picture which tries to cram as many of these sayings in as possible.

You won’t be able to convince me that this language is any uglier than our own Germanic-Romance-Celtic mashup and you shouldn’t try. To prove that gwongdungwah can be just as tender as any other language, here’s a man in his vest and pants talking to a bar of soap:

(Oh look it’s Tony Leung again, no idea how that happened. Ahem.)

A mouse pulls a turtle, or at wits’ end…

Even if I didn’t have that much time in Hong Kong during my school years, and even if I had very few Chinese friends there, and even if I could get by in 90% of shops with English, you’d still expect me to have picked something up, though, wouldn’t you? Especially as I seem to be keen. I’m not even that bad at languages: I took French and German for A-level, and my degree is in Law and German Law. I can generally work out what’s going on in any country where they speak Romance or Germanic languages. Well. Let’s say Cantonese doesn’t make it easy for you.

First and most obvious thing: as I’ve already said, the normal written system used is not even that close to Cantonese as a language. Even where people are writing things – names of businesses, Cantonese script – that doesn’t deviate much from the spoken language the characters only rarely give you any sort of hint about how the word is to be pronounced. Where there is a nod towards the spoken form, it’s dependent on knowing what another character without the hint in it sounds like. An example: ‘mother’ is ‘ma ma’, written 媽媽. You see the bit over on the left? That’s the character 女, which means woman. The bit on the right, however is 馬, which means horse. So mother is ‘woman horse’? No, it’s written like that to denote that ‘ma’ as in mother is spoken a bit like ‘ma’ which means horse. This is one of the reasons you should distrust anyone who tells you that the Chinese for ‘crisis’ is ‘danger plus opportunity‘ – it doesn’t really work like that. Though it’s quite nice that the character for ‘good’ is 好: 女 (woman) + 子 (child/son).

You might be thinking it’s odd that the word ‘ma’ could mean either mother or horse – there’s all sorts of potential for amusing confusion there, right?  Well not really, if you’re a native speaker, because Cantonese relies on the pitch of the word spoken to deliver its meaning.  Cantonese has six tones available to be assigned to a word, and if you get them wrong, you will be saying another word.  This is really really very difficult to remember, I find. I know that ‘mh goi’ – thank you – starts low and finishes high, but that really is the phrase you will hear most often in Hong Kong (possibly after aiyaa! – untranslatable/’zut alors’ and baai baai! – bye bye!). This tone/pitch system is also the reason that Cantonese, well all forms of Chinese I think, is so rich in puns: you will see bats on temples and crockery because the word for bat sounds like the word for fortune, and the reason there might be a fish printed on your rice bowl is not just because you might eat fish but also because the word for fish sounds like the word for ‘surplus’ so your dinnerware is hoping that you will always have enough to eat.

It’s true that there’s no conjugation of verbs or cases or subject-verb agreement or anything like that that might have troubled you in your French-learning youth, but it’s also true that there is such a thing as classifier words. So in English, for example, we don’t say ‘there are three papers’ but rather ‘there are three pieces of paper’. We can, however, say ‘there are three people’. Now imagine everything has to have a ‘pieces of’ equivalent. That’s Cantonese. There’s a classifier word used for ‘long, thin objects, such as rope, fish, roads, snakes etc.’, there’s another used for ‘objects that are bound together, typically books’ and another for ‘small, boxlike objects (but not boxes!)’. You can find more here.

There is also a seeming conspiracy against learners: you will generally be taught that ‘how are you?’ is ‘nei ho ma?’. Great except absolutely no one says that. Everyone says ‘lei ho ma’ – the n sound is disappearing from the language and if you use it you will sound like the Cantonese equivalent of Jacob Rees-Mogg.  My tiny Cantonese world was rocked even further last year when I heard that (although some call this ‘sloppy’ speech) nobody’s bothering with the tricky ‘ng’ sound at the start of words any more either. The word for I/me is ‘ngoh’ so you know, it’s not even as if this is some rare edge case.

In addition to all that, every time I’ve made any kind of effort to learn Cantonese – lessons in Hong Kong, lessons in London a couple of years ago, attempting to teach myself through sites like Popup Cantonese – the lessons are each using a different romanisation. In fact, I think the version of spelling Cantonese out in the roman alphabet that’s becoming increasingly widespread around now – Jyutping – was actually invented since my first attempt to learn the language way back when.

Unfinished business

I can’t seem to accept that I’ll never speak Cantonese. It’s difficult to have a place that you still somehow think of as home sitting there like an unsolved riddle. In my odder daydreams I think about taking a waitressing job at a Chinese restaurant, achieving fluency, going back to Hong Kong to start an import-export business dealing with pickle jars which I can run from Charlton, marrying Tony Leung, and understanding the place finally after all this time. I imagine I’ll be slightly disappointed to learn that all the shop signs just say something like ‘Really Good Dried Fish Emporium’ and the people on the bus are all just saying ‘she said what? I told you she was a bad sort’ or whatever, but it’ll all be worth it when I get to retire on my vast pickle jar fortune. In the meantime, maybe I’ll just watch Chungking Express again and again and hope it seeps through osmotically.






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