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29th August, 2011

Hong Kong English Words and Phrases

Given all the years that English speakers have lived in Hong Kong, it’s inevitable that a unique kind of English would emerge here. Some call the blending of our official languages Chinglish. Others, like language professors Patrick J. Cummings and Hans-Georg Wolf, call it Hong Kong English.

This summer the two published A Dictionary of Hong Kong English: Words from the Fragrant Harbor (Hong Kong University Press). They identified both Cantonese terms widely used in our city’s English vernacular and English terms with connotations popularised here:

amah – a female domestic servant

cha chaan teng – a tea and lunch shop

dai pai dong – a street restaurant

face – the act of losing, gaining or saving one’s reputation

gweilo – a Caucasian male, possibly derogatory, literally meaning ‘ghost man’

iron rice bowl – a secure job from which it would be difficult to be dismissed

kowtow – a finger-based method of saying ‘thank you’ to the person serving tea

lai see – money given as a gift in a red envelope

Old China Hand – an expatriate with many years of experience in Hong Kong and/or Mainland China

sifu – a master craftsman

tai-tai – the idle wife of a rich man

taipan – the head of a large powerful business

triad – a criminal gang

wet market – a market for selling fresh meat, fish, fruits and vegetables

yum cha – to have teatime in a Chinese style

Notice that many words relate to food and commerce. If language is to reflect identity, then Hong Kong English is spot-on.

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