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I Go to School by Bus: Hong Kong English & its unique usages

By Catharina Cheung 29 March 2021

Header image courtesy of Emoji Dream (via Shutterstock)

Think you know Hong Kong English because you’re familiar with the concept of “losing face” and know when to tell someone to “add oil?” You may want to think again! With its long history of being colonised and having exposure to other nations as a trade hub, Hong Kong has absorbed parts of other cultures and made them her own over the years. Apart from being clearly apparent in examples such as foreign cuisines, Hong Kong’s external influences are also embedded in its language. Here are some uniquely Hong Kong English examples, both antiquated and modern, that exist only because they have taken on bits of other languages!

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Hong Kong English derived from foreign influences

As a British colony and major trading port, Hong Kong saw plenty of foreigners on her shores, many of whom became long-term residents in the city. These seafarers, sailors, and traders introduced bits of their native tongues into the languages of the English-speaking expatriates, creating a form of pidgin English that was also used with the Cantonese locals. Most of the examples below now persist solely in Hong Kong.

1

Shroff

Often seen in car parks, “shroff” is the term for a cashier’s office or payment booth in a car park, a hospital, a government office, or any other such public facilities. It has its origins in the Arabic word “ṣarrāf,” which evolved into the Anglo-Indian “sharaf,” meaning someone who deals with money. When the term came to Hong Kong, it ended up being corrupted into its current form: shroff. This word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016, where it is classed specifically under Hong Kong English.

Photo credit: @mitsu_in_neverland (via Instagram)
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Praya

Anyone who has been to Kennedy Town will have come across this word, and they’d be right in thinking, “That doesn’t sound like English.” In fact, “praya” comes from the Portuguese word for “beach”—“praia”—and was introduced into Hong Kong through the colonised Macau. Its definition here, however, has evolved to mean a road that runs parallel to the waterfront. There are still several harbourfront roads with such a name in Hong Kong, including Kennedy Town Praya, New Praya, Lei Yue Mun Praya Road, and Cheung Chau Praya.

3

Nullah

Another Hong Kong English word with Indian origins, the first rendition of this term was “na la,” meaning a brook or rivulet in Bengali and Hindi, which was then rendered as “nullah” in writing by British merchants in India during the mid-seventeenth century. It was then introduced to Hong Kong and given to the names of concrete-lined drainage systems instead of actual rivers and streams. As the years went by, these nullah canals disappeared, and their only remnants live on in the street names which mention them. Nowadays, this term is almost only found exclusively in Hong Kong, such as on Wan Chai’s Stone Nullah Lane, Kwun Tong Nullah, or Mong Kok’s Nullah Road.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Photo credit: @chong_tg (via Instagram)
4

Chop

Now, this word clearly exists in English, but is a verb being used as a noun in Hong Kong. For some reason, a chop is the term applied to an official stamp, which many businesses or official documents need as a form of confirmation or identity. Some Hongkongers (usually the older generation) also have personal chops with their names engraved, to be used in place of signatures on documents.

Photo credit: SuperJuicy Men (via Wikimedia Commons)
5

Godown

Although it just sounds grammatically incorrect when rendered in English, “godown” is actually derived from the Malay word “godong,” meaning a warehouse typically in a dockyard. One of the city’s largest property developers even named themselves the Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company back in the day. Though still a common term in India, “godown” fell out of frequent usage in Hong Kong past the nineteenth century—the only places you might still see this word is on old warehouses along the docks of Chai Wan or Kowloon Bay.

Hong Kong English derived from Cantonese

Of course, there are also lots of Hong Kong English phrases that have come from the city’s native Cantonese, with just some examples illustrated below. These are mostly direct translations that don’t make much sense in English unless you already know its Cantonese origin, but as illustrated below, there are also some English phrases that have been claimed by Hongkongers for their own unique usage.

Taipan Victor Kresser in 1865. Photo credit: John Thomson (via 舊時香港)
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Taipan

A transliteration of 大班 (daai6 baan1), taipan was used in common parlance during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to refer to prominent merchants or businessmen in Hong Kong, usually the owner or senior executives of a foreign company—think the men who ran Swire, Matheson & Co., or Jardine. Its first recorded usage in text was during 1834 and was widely used in Hong Kong, but Somerset Maugham’s The Tai Pan and James Clavell’s Tai-Pan novels brought the term to usage outside the territories as well. When it used to be exclusive to foreign-born businessmen, taipan can be used in modern Hong Kong as an affectionately respectful title for any successful business owner, local, Western, or otherwise.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

7

Yen

This particular word is only used in one circumstance: the phrase “to have a yen for”, meaning to have a strong craving or taste for something. This curious bit of British slang was common in the early twentieth century, but was interestingly derived from Chinese! Yen has nothing to do with Japanese currency in this situation, but is actually an anglicised form of the word 癮 (jan5), meaning addiction.

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Jetso

“Jetso” is an anglicised rendering of the term 著數 (zoek6 sou3), which is used to describe when there is an advantage or profit to be gained. Its usage was so widespread that in 2015, the Hong Kong government launched a discount programme for retail named “Happy @ Hongkong Super Jetso,” obviously to signify that there are great deals to be had. This is now a bit of a dated phrase, but all Hongkongers definitely still understand it. To put it into context: “We always visit supermarkets towards closing time because stuff gets very ‘jetso’ on clearance.”

Photo credit: @phamwoaw (via Instagram)
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People mountain people sea

The Chinese idiom 人山人海 (jan4 saan1 jan4 hoi2) describes a huge crowd of people thronging an area. Think of the platforms in Admiralty MTR station during rush hour or the Lunar New Year market in Victoria Park and you’ll get the picture. Younger, English-educated Hongkongers have a habit of presenting Chinese sayings alternatively by rendering them in English, and the direct, word-for-word translation ‘people mountain people sea’ is a great example of this. For example, one might say, “I’m not going to Repulse Bay on a public holiday, it’s going to be ‘people mountain people sea!’”

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

10

Long time no see

Though this phrase has spread to everyday parlance in English, it actually has its roots in Chinese. It’s not difficult at all to understand that this phrase means “It has been a long time since we last saw each other,” but Hongkongers are notoriously impatient—in the famous words of Kevin, “Why waste time say lot word when few word do trick?” The same saying in Cantonese is 好耐冇見 (hou2 noi6 mou5 gin3), so its direct translation was taken up for use instead. During conversations that are not face-to-face, sometimes a variant of this is also used to fit the circumstances: “Long time no speak.”

Photo credit: @blowwater.co (via Instagram)
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Blow water

A direct translation of the Cantonese phrase 吹水 (ceoi1 seoi2), blowing water means to just be chatting, gossiping, or talking rubbish. Its closest English equivalent is “shooting the breeze,” and it invokes a certain lackadaisical quality. For example: “We were going to be productive, but then ended up just brunching and blowing water the whole day.”

Photo credit: @chy.tattoo (via Instagram)
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I go to school by bus

And “I go to school by bus?” This is one of those memes that have no real inherent meaning, was popularised by the Reddit-like forum Hong Kong Golden about a decade ago. The sentence originates from an elementary-level English textbook used in Hong Kong primary schools during the 1990s, and is sometimes used by locals who mainly speak Cantonese to signify that their English isn’t very good. Its meme status began when a Hong Kong Golden user made a post asking what the English phrase was for needing the toilet, and another user replied with, “I go to school by bus.” The phrase was then used as a troll response both online and offline, being humorous by saying something that has no connection at all with the topic at hand.

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor-at-large

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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