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’re introducing interesting slang phrases that Hongkongers use to describe people—both positive and negative. Stick around for Localiiz’s Canto Slang series, and we’ll have you speaking like a true Hongkonger in no time!
Pronunciation: zuk1 sing1
Literal translation: Bamboo rise
Despite bamboo having Asian connotations, “竹升” is used to describe Hongkongers who are more Western than Chinese, usually due to having lived overseas extensively. The English equivalent would most likely be calling someone a “banana”—yellow on the outside and white on the inside. This phrase was derived from 竹竿 (zuk1 gon1; bamboo pole) because just like how bamboo is hollow, westernised folk are seen as being devoid of Chinese values. However, the word “竿” sounds similar to “降” (gong3) which means to fall or descend. The superstitious Chinese therefore changed that character to its complete opposite, as “升” means to ascend, and the commonly used phrase became “竹升”.
How to use: “Stop being so ‘zuk sing’ and learn to use chopsticks properly!”
Pronunciation: gam1 jyu4 lou2
Literal translation: Goldfish man
What sounds like a funny phrase to describe someone who’s rather forgetful actually has much more sinister origins. Inspired by a string of child abduction cases in the 60s where men would lure young girls by promising to show them goldfish, a “goldfish man” describes a middle-aged or older man with supposed pedophilic tendencies. Since then, however, its meaning has expanded to mean men who have a particular preference for youthful-looking characters in anime and manga, or just someone who’s a bit of a perv.
How to use: “That man kind of looks like a ‘gam jyu lou’—let’s give him a wide berth.”
Denoting a Hong Kong subculture that is often mocked, MK is short for Mong Kok, and specifically stands for the culture surrounding local youths who hang around this neighbourhood. In general, calling someone “MK仔” (zai2; guy) or “MK妹” (mui1; girl) depending on their gender indicates that they have poor tacky taste in fashion, blindly follow trends without understanding the culture behind them, or conduct themselves in the manner of minor gangsters. MK appearances usually include brightly dyed or bleached hair, long bangs, and clothing that is believed to be popularised by the film Young and Dangerous.
How to use: “My hairdresser screwed up my hair and now I look like an ‘MK mui’!”
Pronunciation: soeng6 min6 zing1 sung1 gou1 haa6 min6 maai6 loeng4 fan2
Literal translation: (To) sell steamed cake above and grass jelly below
Cantonese can be such a colourful language, and this is one example. Even with a pretty solid understanding of Cantonese and Hong Kong culture, it might be difficult to imagine what having steamed cake (best eaten hot) above and grass jelly (a cooling food) below might signify. This is a phrase used to describe someone who is wrapped up well on the top half of their body, but underdressed for the bottom half! Usually used disparagingly by Chinese mothers trying to get their daughters to cover up more.
How to use: “Why would you wear a mini-skirt in winter? You look like you’re ‘soeng min zing sung gou, haa min maai loeng fan.’”
Pronunciation: din6 dang1 cyu5 gwaa3 lou5 syu2 soeng1
Literal translation: Rat box hanging on a lamppost
It’s understandably confusing why a box for rats would be hanging from a lamp post in the first place, but the fact is that such a phenomenon did exist in the past! During the 1950s and 1960s, Hong Kong suffered a series of rat infestations which spread diseases. In an attempt to curb their numbers and control the bubonic plague, the government installed 650 rat bins on lampposts all across the city, which were filled with carbolic acid and emptied daily. People were encouraged to catch rats and deposit the bodies in these bins so the authorities can narrow down the areas infected with plague. This then spawned the phrase “rat bin hanging on a lamppost,” mockingly used to describe a couple with a big height difference between them. The practice of rat bins was abandoned after 1978 as the plague had died down by then, but the slang phrase persisted, though it is now less commonly used by younger Hongkongers.
How to use: “Normally the two of them are like ‘din dang cyu gwaa lou syu soeng,’ but they actually make a cute couple today.”
Pronunciation: san4 jau6 hai6 keoi5, gwai2 jau6 hai6 keoi5
Literal translation: They are the god and also the devil
Accusing someone playing the role of both the god and the devil is to say that they are two-faced and not actually what they seem to be. This is usually used on opportunists who adapt their stance to suit the circumstances, who will play both sides and double-cross people for personal gain.
How to use: “Candice told Jake that he has her vote, but then also told Celine that she will definitely support her further. ‘San jau hai keoi, gwai jau hai keoi’—there's no telling who she’s actually backing.”
Pronunciation: daam1 si2 m4 tau1 sik6
Literal translation: (To) carry excrement and not eat it
This idiomatic phrase doesn’t really make sense when you first hear it. Why would anyone want to eat excrement, regardless of whether they’re carrying it or not? Its meaning lies in its origins, which is supposedly during the Cultural Revolution in mainland China, when excrement was prized for its use as a fertiliser. To be a night soil carrier (one whose job it is to empty latrines) and not sneak some excrement home to use as fertiliser for their crops at home is to be an honest person, so this phrase is used to describe someone who is very honest and trustworthy.
How to use: “Ben may not be the brightest crayon in the box, but I like that he’s ‘daam si m tau sik’—I know he won’t betray me.”
Pronunciation: luk6 caa4 biu2
Literal translation: Green tea bitch
Though some have equated the green tea bitch to the English slang term “basic bitch,” they’re not quite the same kind of girl. Just as how green tea is marketed for being pure, a green tea bitch is a young woman who portrays herself as pure and innocent. However, their charming image disguises the fact that they are superficial and self-obsessed—particularly on social media—and their goal is usually to attract male attention and favours. We think this term only reinforces the already misogynistic views in Asian society though, so maybe just learn this one for the knowledge!
How to use: “Instead of calling every pretty girl on Instagram a ‘luk caa biu,’ why not empower more women to use femininity to their advantage?”
Pronunciation: saang1 jan4 m4 saang1 daam2
Literal translation: The person is born, but not the gallbladder
Although “膽” literally means gallbladder, it is a term more commonly used to mean guts instead. Therefore, to be a person born with guts is to be overly timid or fearful. It should be noted that this slang phrase is meant to be more of a disparaging insult than a simple observation, so its closest English equivalent would be calling someone a chicken.
How to use: “Did you really have to scream so loud when you saw that house lizard? ‘Saang jan m saang daam!’”