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 10 slang phrases related to the workplace, describing everything from resignation to sales targets. Stick around for Localiiz’s Cantonese Slang series, and we’ll have you speaking like a local Hongkonger in no time!
Pronunciation: zeot1 sou3
Literal translation: (To) rub numbers
Calling to mind the act of rubbing fingers together to represent grubbing for money, “zeot sou” means hustling in order to meet business targets and numbers. This Cantonese slang phrase often carries a connotation of the employee doing the number-rubbing feeling supremely harried.
How to use: “Our sales team is always stressed out towards the end of the month because they have to ‘zeot sou.’”
Pronunciation: tit3 faan6 wun2
Literal translation: Iron rice bowl
Having an iron rice bowl is the dream for the majority of white-collar workers. With the imagery of an unbreakable vessel for food, to own an iron rice bowl means to be in a job that is stable and secure. Often, this Cantonese slang phrase refers to a position as a civil servant or within the government, which is well-known for rarely firing employees on top of offering good pension schemes.
How to use: “Leaving your ‘tit faan wun’ in order to pursue art is either incredibly brave or incredibly reckless.”
Pronunciation: saan3 seoi2 beng2
Literal translation: Fleeing biscuit or cake
While this Cantonese slang can mean “to make a run for it,” it is also commonly used to denote departure, as is the case in this phrase. In the Hong Kong workplace, it is common practice for an employee leaving a company to go around the office on their last day with little treats for their co-workers, as a thank you gesture for help given over the course of their working relationship. These treats are usually pastries like egg tarts, doughnuts, or small cakes, and are therefore known as “departure cakes.”
How to use: “I’ve barely ever spoken to Karen, but that’s not going to stop me from eating extras of her excellent ‘saan seoi beng.’”
Pronunciation: bei3 lou1
Literal translation: Secret mixing
“Lou” (撈) literally means to mix, but it is also informally used as a Cantonese slang term for making a living. Given such a context, it’s easier to understand that “secret mixing” actually refers to moonlighting, when an employee secretly works a second job on the side. This is a great example of how Cantonese slang is often created using a combination of slang terminology and contractions.
How to use: “No one knows how Ben finds the time or energy for juggling his full-time job on top of two ‘bei lou’ gigs.”
Pronunciation: se3 bok3
Literal translation: (To) slide off one’s shoulders
This evocative Cantonese slang phrase evokes an image of a person twisting so something slips off their shoulders. Unsurprisingly, it refers to the act of shirking responsibilities or blaming other people instead of owning up to a mistake.
How to use: “There’s always someone in a team who will try their best to ‘se bok’ whenever things go wrong.”
Pronunciation: lo2 ci4
Literal translation: Naked resignation
This particular Cantonese slang phrase for the workplace might be easier to guess at. “Resigning naked” means to quit one’s present job without already having secured a job offer elsewhere. Hong Kong’s job market is incredibly fast-paced, with white-collar employees switching jobs every two years on average, but usually not without first getting a new job offer in place.
How to use: “The work environment at my old job was so bad that I just had to ‘lo ci’ even if it was risky.”
Pronunciation: caau2 saan3
Literal translation: Fry separate [things]
Imagine stir-frying small portions of several dishes at the same time. In much the same way, ‘caau saan’ refers to doing part-time jobs, in particular ones which are unable to provide a steady income or are not conducted on a fixed basis.
How to use: “In the absence of full-time jobs in this economy, so many fresh grads have to resort to ‘caau saan’ to earn a living.”
Pronunciation: sau1 lou4
Literal translation: (To) pack up the stove
This Cantonese slang phrase is used exclusively to mean finishing work and starting the Lunar New Year holiday. Its origins supposedly came from the language used by restaurant staff when informing customers of the days they would be closed, which then spread into common parlance for Hongkongers referring to their last day of work before the festive season.
How to use: “My company let us ‘sau lou’ two days before everyone else officially starts the Lunar New Year holiday!”
Pronunciation: caau2 jau4 jyu4
Literal translation: Stir-fried squid
A Cantonese slang phrase you never want to hear in the workplace! Stir-fried squid may sound like an appetising dish, but it actually means to be fired from one’s job. There are different variations on the supposed origins of this unusual slang phrase, but its definition is undisputedly clear.
How to use: “Candice finally got ‘caau jau yu’ for gross misconduct—we’re so glad to see the back of her!”
Pronunciation: sik6 coeng4 loeng4
Literal translation: (To) eat long-lasting grain reserves
This one might also be fairly easy to guess at—“to feast off of a vast reserve of grain” is used to describe when a person is living off their pension. Though it’s increasingly difficult to achieve nowadays, most Hongkongers would look at civil servants with envy for their generous pension packages.
How to use: “His ‘tit faan wun’ has allowed him to ‘sik coeng loeng’ and never have to worry about life after retirement.”