As any foreign learner will attest to, Cantonese is a famously tricky language to grasp. Unlike Mandarin Chinese, a large portion of Cantonese is made of slang and colloquialisms that are pretty much unintelligible to those who are not native speakers. Sometimes, the origins and deeper meanings behind these phrases are also mysterious to most Hongkongers themselves!
In order to sound fluent in Cantonese, you need to use colloquialisms; in this instalment, we introduce some phrases you may find used by Hongkongers on social media or forums. As with many other murky facets of the online world, language originating from or specifically used on the internet usually consists of slang that can be confusing or downright nonsensical to those who don’t already understand it, but we’re here to explain all. Stick around for Localiiz’s Canto Slang series, and we’ll have you speaking like a true Hongkonger in no time!
This is a word you’d often see netizens referring to each other by, but it’s not just a common Chinese name! Its origins are actually from the term 師兄 (si1 hing1), a rather old-timey way to refer to someone who follows the same master as the speaker, but in a more senior position—think “senpai” in Japanese!
“C-hing” was its anglicised form at first, which then became shortened simply to “ching.” Its implication is a sense of respect and deference, so netizens usually call others “ching” when talking about something they don’t know much about, even if the “ching” in question might be younger than them.
How to use: “Ching, if this is fact-checked, tell us more!”
Pronunciation: baa1 daa2
Literal translation: None
巴打 doesn’t mean anything in its literal Chinese form, but is instead the English word “brother” rendered in Cantonese words. It is used by netizens to amiably address male users, usually within forums or group chats. In a similar vein, 絲打 (si1 daa2) is a Chinglish form of “sister” used to address female users.
How to use: “Someone help ‘baa daa’ out here; he posted the same question three times but no one is answering.”
Pronunciation: cim4 seoi2
Literal translation: (To) dive underwater
This one is simple: To dive underwater means to disappear, and not be online or active for an extended period of time. Conversely, to reappear online and be active on chats and social media again is to 上水 (soeng6 seoi2; to come out of water).
How to use: “It’s been a good week since Diane ‘cim seoi.’ Does anyone know what happened to her?”
Pronunciation: wat1 gei1
Literal translation: (To) bend the machine
Originating from video games, “bending machine” means to exploit bugs or glitches in games as cheats to win unscrupulously. This spread to describe players who are overly powerful to the point of being unbeatable, and then moved out of the gaming sphere entirely, to describe someone who is good at something because they possess the means to excel at them, which are seen as unfair by others.
“屈機” was further popularised when the HKCEE Chinese exams in 2008 included modern slang in an attempt to keep up with the trends. The phrase “見鬼勿O嘴，潛水怕屈機” (gin3 gwai2 mat6 O zeoi2, cim4 seoi2 paa3 wat1 gei1) appeared in the materials, but this mash-up of slang terms roughly translates to “Don’t be shocked when you see a ghost, look out for bending machine when diving,” which didn’t make sense at all! Of course, netizens sprang on this faux pas with glee, and “潛水怕屈機” has since been used to mock things that make no sense, even spawning a viral song.
How to use: “You’re double-jointed but you’re challenging people to do splits with you? That’s just ‘wat gei’ behaviour, man.”
Again co-opted from the gaming community, GG was originally used in online gaming at the end of matches to mean “good game.” However, some netizens later began mistaking it for “game over” instead, and now GG is used to express gloominess, hopelessness, or similarly negative outlook towards a situation.
How to use: “I’m running almost two hours late for this date with my girlfriend, 100 percent ‘GG!’”
Pronunciation: sai2 baan2
Literal translation: (To) wash the board
This means to have one’s social media feed dominated by similar posts only—its English equivalent would be to “flood the feed.” Apart from a commentary on homogeny, one can also choose to “wash the board” when they come across something unsavoury, spamming the timeline or chat repeatedly until the offending post has been pushed up or down far enough. Often this triggers a wave of users just sending the words “洗版” until the board washing objective is achieved.
How to use: “There’ve been too many depressing posts lately. Send your favourite doggo pictures to ‘sai baan,’ please!”
Unlike in English usage, this simple phrase isn’t used to signify laughter! Instead, it is meant to be read as the configuration “he–he,” referring to gay couples, or male friends who are so close they are jokingly deemed to be together. Used in a joking way, “hehe” doesn’t usually carry mocking or homophobic undertones. Similarly, “sheshe” is used to refer to lesbian couples.
How to use: “Help needed from ‘hehe’ friends! How do you find out if a guy you’re hanging out with might also be into guys??”
Literal translation: Plastic
“膠” is sometimes used in place of a Cantonese expletive which sounds similar, in order to be humorous or discreet. It can describe people, things, or situations, that are deemed stupid or foolish, and therefore has also spawned the usage “派膠” (paai3 gaau1; to give away plastic) for idiotic behaviours.
How to use: “A night out at the bars means another night of witnessing drunk Tyler being too ‘gaau’ to handle.”
Pronunciation: sing1 ne1
Literal translation: None
Another one of those Cantonese phrases with no direct translation, “升呢” is an amalgamation of Cantonese and English that our slang terms feature so often. Sometimes also written as “升le,” this originally meant to level up in a video game, where “呢” is a phonetic shortening of “level.” This can now be used to describe anything that involves improvement and vertical ascension, including learning something well or getting promoted at work.
How to use: “The best way to live fruitfully is to maintain the drive to ‘sing ne’ across various parts of life.”
Pronunciation: aa3 yi1 ngo5 bat1 soeng2 nou5 lik6 liu5
Literal translation: Auntie, I don’t want to work hard any more
This phrase differs from the others in that it is written in formal grammar, usually used in Mandarin and not Cantonese. This is because the phrase itself began in mainland China, where it became popularised by young men who were tired of the rat race and chose instead to be rewarded financially by spending time and attention on older, wealthy women.
As evidenced by screenshots of various WeChat messages which went viral online, young men would appear to be resistant to the idea at first, but eventually cave to the promise of an easy pampered lifestyle, texting interested cougars the phrase “Auntie, I don’t want to work hard any more,” to which the women would reply with praises and virtual payments. This hilarious slang phrase then made its way to Hong Kong, where it is used by local Hongkongers expressively proclaiming how hard their life is.
How to use: “How am I supposed to handle my job, two side gigs, a huge project, and driving lessons at the same time? ‘Aa yi ngo bat soeng nou lik liu!’”