Canto 101: Ocean skin

In my ongoing quest to become more Chinese, I’m picking up my Canto-learning again, one step at a time. That means listening to more Cantopop on KKBOX (reading lyrics really helps) and taking note of any interesting phrases I come across.

One of them is 海皮 — “hoi pei”, which means sea shore. I first heard it when taxi drivers would ask me if I wanted to go home via the highway or the “hoi pei”, and it’s never not sounded funny to me.

In my head, I just can’t help visualizing it as literally the “ocean skin” since “海” means ocean and “皮” means skin. Am I crazy?? To be fair, “ocean skin” is a super accurate description of the sea shore as the “skin” can be anything from sandy and bumpy to smooth and layered.

To use this word, simply tell your taxi driver, “NO highway, YES hoi-pei!” Other suggestions welcome!

Canto 101: Three-inch men

Just when you were running out of insults for the short men in your life (there’s only so many times you can call him shortie, lil guy, midget and Willow before he goes numb), here’s another one for ya: three-inch nail (saam chyun deng, 三寸釘 ). 
Yup, leave it to the Cantonese to come up with slang that’s both creative and totally appropriate! Let’s examine the ways in which 3-inch nails are similar to short men: they’re both steely and cold, not quite long enough to be useful, and both can turn out to be complete pricks!
Haha, just kidding… of course that all applies to normal men as well. But, add to the fact that ‘inch’ in Canto also sounds like the word for ‘arrogant,’ and the whole thing starts to make more sense than you think. 
Maybe I’ve got it wrong and three-inch nail is actually an endearing term for vertically challenged men. Anyone out there know? And if so, does that mean that three short men make 9-inch nails? 
\m/ |>_<| \m/

A face only a mother could love

Sometimes, you come across people so beautiful you can’t help yourself from staring. Other times, you come across people so ugly…you just wanna punch them out.

WHAT? Yea, I said it. Some people are so ugly, they just trigger the whack-a-mole reaction in me, whereby I gasp in horror every time they pop up and all I wanna do is clobber it back into its sad little hole with my giant stuffed hammer.

I believe there’s a term for this in Cantonese called ‘yeung seui’, which literally means ‘ugly in appearance’. I’ve tried to translate it into English before but never quite managed, since ‘fugly’, ‘repulsive’ or ‘disgusting’ just doesn’t warrant a physical beating like ‘yeung seui’ does. Or is it just me who defines ‘yeung seui’ as ‘so damn ugly you just wanna punch him/her out’?

As an example, I came across a very ‘yeung seui’ guy in the MTR the other day. He was sitting across me looking like a zombie with his lower jaw jutted out and mouth hanging open to catch any flies passing by, I presume. His eyes were rolled into the back of his head, yet he still managed to stare at everyone around him for uncomfortably long periods of time, all the while giving a ‘I want to eat your brains’ look to us all.

Like a train wreck, I tried to look away but found my eyes drifting back to him magnetically against my will, getting more and more annoyed with the way he looked, and why did he have to keep staring at me?! Even though it was days ago, the image of him was emblazoned into my head, so I just had to draw him out:

…now isn’t that a face you just wanna punch out!? 

How to Win at Mah Jong

Like most Chinese kids, I learned to play mah jong at a young age, mostly from watching my grandma play on the weekends with her floral sweater clad gang of senior sistas from around the block.

But even with this ‘intense’ training, my mah jong skills never really progressed over the years, since I usually played with fellow ‘fake Chinese’ or non-Chinese friends (which automatically made me the expert, oh yeaah). In Hong Kong, I’ve definitely had to up my game when playing against locals or anyone more Chinese than me, but my preference is still to win with the easiest and most hated hand, the worthless chicken, or let fate run its course (read: no strategy whatsoever).

Of course, some people are more competitive than others, as evidenced by a notice in my apartment block about an internal mah jong competition coming up. I forget how much the prize was, but I’m pretty sure the participants are more interested in winning the title of Mah Jong Master of our apartment block than anything else.

Not that I was thinking of entering or anything, but my curiosity got me googling for any guaranteed strategies at winning at mah jong, and turns out there are a ton! Like:

When you first get your tiles, make an immediate evaluation of how many tiles you are away from victory.

  • If it’s under 4, play to WIN.
  • If it’s 5, it really depends on whether you draw good tiles.
  • And if you need 6 or more to win, just give up and play defensively (or to sabotage the others, if you prefer).

If you’re playing to win, take lots of chances and discard anything you don’t need. If you’re playing for a draw, never discard a dragon (white board, green veggie or red centre) or wind (North, South, East, West) except your own, never show your tiles by calling ‘seung’ or ‘pong’, and discard tiles in the following order: isolated winds, numerals, dragons and special winds.

Another good thing to know is what to say when you actually win. Although it doesn’t happen often, I thought I could just shout “HAHA! I WIN!” (哈哈, 我赢!) but apparently that doesn’t quite work in Cantonese. What you’re supposed to say is “SIK-WU! 食糊!” (lit. “EAT CONGEE!”), which can also be replaced by “JI-MOH!” (lit. “SELF TOUCH!”) if you drew the winning tile yourself. Pretty kinky stuff, huh?

Being si-man

Something I tend to get called a lot in Hong Kong is ‘斯文‘ (si1 man4), and up till now I still can’t figure out whether that’s a good thing or not.

At first, I took it as a compliment, since it means ‘cultured, refined, elegant and genteel‘ (bwahaha, genteel!!).

For instance, someone once said to me, “You’re so 斯文, seeing you brings a smile to my face,” (no joke) and I have also once heard, “You’re so 斯文, you must not be from around here.”

Today though, someone said it to me with a somewhat negative connotation, as if my si-man-ness was a bad thing. That got me thinking, what is it that makes me so damn 斯文??

  • Is it because I don’t talk at 100 decibels when I’m on the phone?
  • Sit and slouch with my legs wide open?
  • Let out loud croaky burps whenever I feel like it?
  • Push people around in the MTR like human bumper cars?

 If so, I’d happily take 斯文 as a compliment, thankuverymuch!

read, write and sing Chinese

I recently came across some fabulous Chinese learning tools so I thought I’d share them with you all (noo, I’m not out of blog post ideas…not at all 😉

1) DianHua

My colleague introduced me to this awesome (free) app for iPhones and iPod Touch that is not only an English-Chinese dictionary, it also has a built-in flashcard studying tool and (pretty damn difficult) writing test. I know, I know, there are plenty of dictionaries out there but this one’s my fave cuz:

  • when you’re writing Chinese characters into it, you can go as slow as you want instead of having it deciphering your half-written chicken scratches before you were even finished
  • you can search in English, Pinyin, Simplified and Traditional characters
  • you can create different folders to save words that you looked up
  • you can trace characters to learn how to write
  • you can sync everything to dianhuadictionary.com !

There’s also an audio module that can pronounce the words for you, but too bad it’s only in Mandarin.

2) KKBox

I won’t deny it, I’m a huge fan of karaoke. It’s no wonder then that KKBox is one of my favourite apps, ever! Basically, it’s a music streaming app for iPhones, iPod Touch and Android devices, where you can listen to all the latest songs from HK/Taiwan/Japan/Korea/US/Europe for cheap, and the best part is, there’s a ‘karaoke’ function where the lyrics are shown as the song is playing! I swear it’s the fastest way to learn to read.

Yes, I also know there are other lyrics apps out there, but this is really an all-in-one tool for lazy people like me who don’t wanna go and download buy all the latest songs and import them into my iPod. Plus, I never know what songs are good, so KKBox does all the selection for me already, much like a radio, without all the annoying and meaningless banter. Aaannd, every song you stream stays in your cache so you can listen to them offline too.

You can download the app for free and get a 7-day trial, then after that it’s just HK$49/month. Enjoy! 🙂

Vampire Teabags

Today I was having random thoughts in my head about vampires (no, not Edward Cullen) but the Chinese word for it and whether it had anything to do with ginger. You see, 殭屍 (goeng si) is ‘vampire’ in Cantonese, but the first character sounds a lot like ‘ginger’. Anyway, after a bit of searching, I not only found the answer to my question, but discovered a rather new piece of slang.

Do you know what
殭屍茶包 (vampire teabag) means? Go on, take a wild guess. Yes, think nasty…even dirtier… and yes, do go there. If your mind led you somewhere close to a woman’s toilet trash bin and the treasures that lay within, you are SO right!

There’s even a joke in Cantonese about this, and it goes something like this:

Three vampires walk into a bar to order drinks.
Vampire A says, “I’ll take one shot of fresh chicken blood!”
Vampire B says, “I’ll have a pork blood milkshake, thanks.”
Vampire C says, “And I’ll have one hot water, please.”
Bartender says, “What? You’re a vampire, don’t you want something bloody?”
Vampire C says, “No thanks! I found something nice in the ladies’ washroom – *wink*!”

Here’s the official definition, care of Cantonese Sheik. You’ll never look at an ‘M’ product the same way…lol!

One death rope please…

I know, I look Chinese. And to the average HKer, I look just like one of them. That is…until I open my mouth.

The thing is, I’m not really that bad at Cantonese. I can get by for a few minutes before they either hear my accent and/or realize that my vocabulary is limited to that of an 5th grader, and sometimes when I talk too fast, I tend to mix words up… for example:

Me: Yea, I really enjoy going to the gym!
HKer: Oh ya? How often do you go?
Me: I ‘animal’ quite often!
HKer: (awkward silence)

Seconds pass before I realize I said ‘animal (dong-mut)’ instead of ‘exercise (wun-dong)’, but… it’s all good right…Same diff…I’m suure they understood me…yeaaaaa…*awkward!*

It happened again the other day when I was shopping for a camera neck strap:

Me: Excuse me, do you have any 吊頸帶 (lit. hang-neck-strap)?
Man: WHAT!?
Me: Y’know, for my camera.
Man: Ohh, you mean 掛頸帶 (lit. hang-neck-strap)!
*erupts in mocking laughter*
Me: -__-

Turns out there’s more than one way to say ‘hang’ in Cantonese, and the way I said it meant I wanted a camera strap to hang myself from my apartment ceiling. Riiight…lesson learnt.

Great balls of fire

It’s been a while since the last Canto lesson, so I thought I’d share another piece of slang that might be quite useful for many of us here in HK:

ngaahn fo baau literally means ‘eyes fire explode’ and as you can imagine is how you feel when you’re angry as hell!

So, the next time someone shoves you out of the way to get into the MTR while the doors are closing causing you to fall backwards onto the ground and flash everyone with your ‘scandalous’ thong, you’ll be able to raise your fist and tell everyone quite poetically how you feel (I’m so mad my eyeballs are on fire!!) 🙂


Going out of town again! This time Westward… 😉
Have a great week, peoples!