Hong Kong’s humble cha chaan teng (茶餐廳; Hong Kong-style tea restaurant) owns a narrative in the story that defines the city. Its unique DNA is particularly noticeable in the singular language that servers employ in this quintessential Hong Kong diner. Calls like “One handsome guy!” or “Walk ice!” might seem a complete mystery to patrons, but these terms are actually part of an established codex to help staff with communicating their orders.
Confused by the slang? You are not alone! Here’s an insider’s guide to cha chaan teng slang and what they mean so you can fully immerse yourself into the local dining landscape—there is much more to this legacy than just getting your special requests across!
Pronunciation: leng3 zai2; leng3 neoi5
Literal translation: Handsome guy; pretty lady
“A handsome guy and a pretty lady!” Even if you hear this called through the restaurant, don’t be misled—the servers are not trying to win your heart (although you will also hear local food sellers call customers “handsome guy” or “pretty lady” to introduce rapport).
What they have in mind is instead a nice bowl of white rice and white congee, respectively. Playing into archetypes of good-looking males and females, white rice is compared to fair-skinned boys while white congee is compared to girls with silky skin. It would only be right to consider these two a match made in heaven—after all, both staples inherited their immaculate genes from the same humble rice grain.
If you find the “handsome guy” and “pretty lady” too mundane, the following slang might be helpful to spice up your meal. Request for a “炒底” (caau2 dai2; “fried bottom”) to switch plain rice into fried rice, or a “打爛” (daa2 laan6; “smash”), the essential procedure of “smashing” eggs in the recipe, for a full-on crunch bomb.
For your “pretty lady” congee, you can also order “下火” (haa6 fo2; “rid internal body heat”)—a congee with pork and century eggs which achieves such an effect—or “搖尾” (jiu4 mei5; “wig the tail”)—a fish congee highlighting the use of fresh tail-wigging catches.
Pronunciation: haa6 wai6 ji4
Literal translation: Lana Wong
Don’t worry, no one will think that you are practising cannibalism when you order a “Lana Wong,” which is, in fact, a French toast. For those who are unaware, Lana Wong Ha-wai is a renowned local actress who maintains an active presence in the Cantonese film and opera circles. In recent years, however, she has become more famous for her ostentatious fashion choices and commitment to offering the first incense stick in the Wong Tai Sin Temple every Lunar New Year. How, then, does this career trajectory cross paths with the cha chaan teng classic? Truth be told, it does take quite some imagination to connect the dots.
It so happens that Wong dated actor Lam Kau (林蛟), whose name is a homophone of “淋膠” (lam4 gaau1), a trick to ramp up the flavour profile of Hong Kong-style French toasts by pouring maple syrup onto the buttered bread. Its association is so powerful that even when they broke up back in 1953, people still consider Wong the bread of the sauce.
Pronunciation: wong1 aa3 ze2
Literal translation: Elizabeth Wang
Another iconic Hong Kong artist whose name has been adapted into the cha chaan teng linguistic repertoire is Elizabeth Wang, referring to black coffee (齋啡; zaai1 fe1). A familiar face on the acting and opera stage, the female celebrity also contributed to some of the most definitive local tunes, setting the scene for her debut in the food and drink catalogue.
One of Wang’s mega-hits is entitled “熱咖啡” (jit6 gaa1 fe1; “hot coffee”), which conveniently made the singer’s name a code for plain coffee. After all, what better way to thank the star than to nickname the otherwise underrated brew after her?
While the story behind “汪阿姐” is no longer as well-known, customers who crave a stripped-down cup of caffeine might still chant “飛沙走奶” (fei1 saa1 zau2 naai5; “fly the sand, walk the milk”) at staff members. “飛” (fei1; “fly”) and “走” (zau2; “walk”) are the magic words to omit ingredients from your order. Rid the “沙”(saa1; “sand”) or “砂糖” (saa1 tong4; castor sugar) and the “奶” (naai5; milk) and what’s left is a humble black coffee.
Pronunciation: baai6 gaa1 zai2
Literal translation: Disgraced son
Who could ever consider Ovaltine (阿華田; o1 waa4 tin4)—one of the sweetest beverages around—a “disgraced son”? Fortunately, slurping this chocolate malt goodness bears no foreshadowing of a declined life—it’s simply a coincidence in naming.
In ancient times, one of the worst crimes a son could commit was to sell his inherited family plot (賣田; maai6 tin4), dissolving generations of efforts. Ovaltine purveyors took advantage of the pun and mocked themselves for putting the “Oval plot” on sale (賣阿華田; maai6 o1 waa4 tin4), which in turn equates Ovaltine with the questionable label.
Pronunciation: fei4 mui6
Literal translation: Fat girl
Certainly, no one fancies being dubbed a “fat girl,” but this particular cha chaan teng slang is actually related to hot chocolate. Its name swap, however, does nothing to deter avid chocoholics from enjoying their sugar spree. Apart from “肥妹,” cha chaan tengs also serve steaming “fat girl milk” (肥妹奶; fei4 mui6 naai5)—chocolate milk, for those wondering.
Literal translation: Spring
In the Hakka tongue, “春” (ceon1; “spring”) is an auspicious redress of the otherwise unlucky “egg.” Often called “卵” (leon2), the nutritious protein evokes undesirable imageries of testicles and even shares a sound with “亂” (chaos). In order to “reverse ill fate,” “伸” (ceon1) is used in place of its disorderly antonym to celebrate completeness and smooth happenings, eventually developing into the homophone “春.”
In a cha chaan teng, you will often hear “生春” (saang1 ceon1; “raw spring”), “熟春” (suk6 ceon1; “cooked spring”) and “孖春”(maa1 ceon1; “double spring”) being hollered across serving counters, for everyone likes their eggs different. “Cooked spring” translates to boiled egg and “double spring” to two eggs. “Raw spring” simply means a half-cooked runny yolk, which gives customers one nice sunny-side-up.
Pronunciation: jan3 dou6 lou5 geoi2
Literal translation: Indian courtesan
We are not sure why cha chaan teng staff settled on a lengthier alternative for the local delicacy of barbecue pork and chicken (叉雞; caa1 gai1), but the slang does spark two interesting historical backstories about “印度” and “老舉.”
Hong Kong’s famous roast meat is still authentically Canton, but “叉” sounds akin to “阿差” (aa3 caa1), a derogatory term which was used to refer to people from India, allegedly because they were once extensively hired as policemen, known as “差人” (caai1 jan4).
As for the more archaic “老舉,” legend has it that a courtesan by the name of “鄭舉舉” (zeng6 geoi2 geoi2) boasted heavenly beauty and talented artistry, impressing even the top scorers of the ancient Chinese exam back in the day. Due to the courtesan’s success in her profession, part of her first name (舉; geoi2) became associated with the job, while “老“ (lou5; “old”) is a nod to the beauty’s seniority in the business. If you were wondering how the innocuous chicken came to be linked with courtesans and escorts, it is believed that the ladies’ cry for men past midnight resembles the poultry’s call.
Pronunciation: jyun1 joeng1 caak3 saan3
Literal translation: Yuenyeung (separated)
Deciding your meal in a cha chaan teng can be challenging when your eyes are tempted with a plethora of options. If you happen to face a dilemma of coffee or tea, yuenyeung (鴛鴦)—essentially a blend of coffee and tea—gives you the best of both worlds.
Paying homage to the mandarin duck species, made up of distinct-looking males and females, yuenyeung represents a marriage of two things which complement each other. It retains the silkiness of local milk tea while soaking up the aroma of decadent coffee. Yuenyeung requires skill to make, but an easier (and fuller) solution is to order a “yuenyeung separated” and get wild at mixing your own “drinking” party.
|咪嘔住; mai1 au2 zyu6; “don’t vomit yet”||Corned beef sandwich|
|攬住; laam2 zyu6; “hug”||Scrambled egg sandwich|
|籮柚; lo4 jau2; “butt”||Pineapple bun with butter|
|細蓉; sai3 jung4; “small hibiscus”||Wonton noodles|
|制水; zai3 seoi2; “water rationing”||Stir-fried beef noodles|
|例水; lai6 seoi2; “routine water”||Soup of the day|
|甩色; lat1 sik1; “lose colour”||Water with lemon|