OLD HONG KONG GLOSSARY
SAI JONG YAU (MAN IN A SUIT)
This term translates literally as “man in a suit”. In 1920s Hong Kong, only western expatriates, English school teachers and public sector executives wore suits. A suit could cost several hundred Hong Kong dollars and blue-collar workers only earned a fraction of that amount each month. Still, as they believe that “Clothes make the person”, many of them bought a suit when they in fact could not afford.
BAO JO PO (LANDLADY)
This term swept across town in 1966 after living conditions in an overcrowded apartment were exposed. It refers to those women who lease their house or unit to have rental income.
SAU SING GONG (THE BIRTHDAY PERSON)
Sau Sing is the God of Longevity, which the ancient Chinese often used to call their elders due to its correlation with long life. Later, people began calling the birthday person Sau Sing, more specifically, Sau Sing Zai for a birthday boy and Sau Sing Neoi for a birthday girl.
SI TAU PO (THE FEMALE BOSS)
A male boss was often called Si Tau (literal translation: The leader of a business), as he was considered to be the leader of a business. People used Si Tau Po to address a female boss or a wife of a male boss or who was to make all final decisions.
HUNG SUM LO KUN (A PERSON WHO FAKES BEING RICH)
It refers to a deceitful person with no ability. The first two characters “空心” usually refer to a fraud who fakes being rich, while the last two characters “老倌” refer to a poseur.
SO HA (NEW BORN BABY)
The original written form for this term is “臊孲”. The first character “臊” means the body scent of an infant, while “孲” means a newborn baby, as suggested by the ancient Chinese rhyme dictionary, Ji Yun. When spoken, people misunderstood the word to mean a baby curling up like a shrimp, as the second character was often pronounced as “shrimp” in Chinese. This resulted in the current written form.
BING TAU (THE GOVERNOR OF HONG KONG)
During the colonial era, this was the term locals used for the Governor of Hong Kong. This was because in the early colonial era, the Governor was also the Commander-in-Chief of the British military Hong Kong, or Bing Tau (literal translation: the Chief Soldier). The Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens in Central is nicknamed “Bing Tau Garden”, as it faces the Government House, the former official residence of the Governor of Hong Kong (today’s Government House).
FEI SA JAU NAI (BLACK COFFEE)
The character “沙” means “sugar” and “奶” means “milk” or “evaporated milk”. The whole phrase “飛沙走奶” means hot black coffee without sugar and milk. There is also a phrase “飛沙走奶添石” to describe iced black coffee, as “添石” (Tim Sek) means “on the rocks” in English.
SAI YUNG (WONTON NOODLES)
In Cantonese communities, wonton noodles are usually called “蓉” (Yung) in the noodle industry, and further classified into small, medium and large sizes. Sai Yung, small wonton noodles, usually refers to a serving of one tael of noodles with four wontons. The popular and historic noodle shops in Hong Kong include Mak’s Noodles and Wong Chi Kei in Central, and Ho Hung Kee in Causeway Bay.
FEI GEI LARM (LIQUORICE OLIVE)
Fei Gei Larm (literal translation: aeroplane olive) refers to liquorice olive, a snack originating in Guangzhou that was later introduced to Hong Kong. This sour and sweet olive was marinated with salt and liquorice so that it can be preserved for a long time. In the 1950s to 70s, street vendors bearing an olive-shaped container walked around and cried their wares on the streets. As most buildings were only had a few storeys high, the vendors often threw the snack to the buyers standing on the apartment balconies, who paid the vendors by throwing their money down onto the street. This gave the snack the nickname “aeroplane olive", as the practice looked like throwing paper planes.
DING DING TONG (HARD MALTOSE CANDY)
The correct written form for this term should be “啄啄糖” (Doek Doek Tong, and “啄” means chisel). It is a traditional candy in Hong Kong. When street vendors sell it, they use a flat chisel to break the big piece of candy into smaller pieces. The snack got its Chinese name from the practice of chiselling the candy.
BU JAI GO (PUDDING CAKE IN BOWL)
The pudding cake is a popular traditional snack in Canton and Hong Kong. The pudding is put in a porcelain bowl, and held up with two bamboo sticks when served. It is usually made with rice flour and brown sugar, which may sometimes be substituted with white sugar. Red bean is also often added to the pudding. The freshly steamed pudding cake features a soft texture with a sweet flavour.
BARK CHUK YAU JA GWAI (WHITE RICE CONGEE AND CHINESE DOUGHNUT)
White rice congee and Chinese doughnuts are the basis of a traditional Cantonese breakfast. Restaurant staff sometimes call congee “Beautiful girl” in Chinese. The congee is usually cooked by boiling Jasmine rice for hours, while beancurd sheets and ginkgo are often added to enrich the silky texture and flavour. The straight deep-fried Chinese doughnut is crispy outside but chewy inside. It has different names throughout different places in China.
There is a folk story attached to the origins of the Chinese doughnut. During the Southern Song Dynasty, a villainous official, Qin Hui, killed the patriotic general Yue Fei. Filled with anger, the staff of a baked wheat cake stall in Lin’an City, the capital, made two pieces of human-shaped dough representing the villainous official and his wife. When he deep-fried them, he shouted “Come and look, the deep-fried Qin Hui!” and attracted crowds of buyers. The food soon became well-known in the city and later evolved into two simple straight pieces of dough joined and deep-fried, the same shape that it has today.
DA SIU YAN (PETTY PERSON HITTING)
During Jingzhe in the Lunar Calendar (usually in early March), many old ladies practise the traditional ritual of “petty person hitting”, right under the Canal Road flyover in Causeway Bay. People used this to relieve their dissatisfaction or wish for good fortune. Old ladies sitting on a small stool will light some incense and make cut-outs of a paper tiger, and beat the “petty person” with a slipper or shoe to help their clients dispel evils, while speaking a rhyme at the same time.
CHAT HI SIU GWAI DUI (SHOE SHINE BUSTERS)
The streets of old Hong Kong held gangs of shoe shiners who forced bystanders to patronise their services. One story goes that when an American soldier refused to be serviced, the shoe shiner would pour whitener over his boots before disappearing into a nearby alley. Unless he wanted to be punished for returning to barracks with white boots, the soldier had no choice but to pay for extra services. Shoe shiners can still be found in Theatre Lane, Central.
TAI SHEUNG LO (FORTUNE TELLER)
In the 1950s and 60s, many fortune tellers (nicknamed “Tai Sheung Lo”) conducted business in night markets like Temple Street and Dai Dak Dei. They usually waved at passersby to attract them, and read their faces or palms under kerosene lamps.
GUM CHAT JIU PAI (GOLDEN SIGNBOARD)
Before the 1920s, Hong Kong shop signs were typically black boards with the owner’s name or brand written in gold paint. Signboards were symbols of trustworthiness; shop owners would assert their integrity by saying, “if you’re not satisfied, come back and wreck my signboard.” Eventually though, Hong Kong’s sign culture changed, as signs went from simple wooden boards over the door to vibrantly coloured ones jutting out over the street.
SIC YEA CHUK (PEOPLE WHO PRACTICE MARTIAL ARTS)
In Cantonese communities, apprentices of martial arts clubs had to continue their practice after dinner. The wife of the martial arts master thus often prepared some congee and dim sum for them as supper. Sic Yea Chuk (literal translation: eat the late night congee) was then used to describe people who practiced martial arts.
DAI DAK DEI (NIGHT MARKET)
A Dai Dak Dei refers to an open public square, in this case one that hosts a night market. The first night market in Hong Kong was located at the current site of Hollywood Road Park, while the later night market in Sheung Wan is comparatively more famous. Like the Temple Street Night Market today, these night markets were quiet in the morning, but became bustling at night. Filled with street performances like martial arts and acrobatics, cooked food stalls and hawker stalls, the popular night markets were described as a “night club for citizens”.
CHU YI SING (COUNTERFEIT GOODS)
Chu Yi Sing was the brand name of a local shop with a long history, which mainly sold cheap simulated gold and silver accessories, as well as Chinese wedding accessories. Opened in 1926 and located on Reclamation Street in Yau Ma Tei, the shop was not only famous for its cheap gold-plated accessories, but also oil products for hair styling. As the shop honestly told their customers that the goods were made by simulated gold, the word Chu Yi Sing became synonymous with imitation goods.
BEI TIP SI (PAYING TIPS)
The last two characters “貼士” are the Cantonese transliteration for “tips”. The tipping practice dates back to hotels in London, Britain in the 18th century. On dining tables, there was a bowl written with “to insure prompt service”. Customers who put coins into it could enjoy faster and better services. The first alphabet of the word was taken out to form the word “tips”. Later, the practice of tipping was included as a paid service charge.
JIU HON MARN CHARK (SET UP [THE STALL] BY DAYLIGHT AND DISMANTLE AT NIGHT)
This expression refers to the portable camp-beds initially produced for the British army and adopted by the Chinese forces in Shanghai. War refugees used these beds on arrival in Hong Kong. At night, they erected the beds in the living rooms of their distant Hong Kong relatives, leaving early the next morning to avoid being an inconvenience. Nowadays, it also refers to the tin stalls which are set up in the morning and closes by day end.
GUM BO LAW (GOLDEN WINE CUP/CHERISHED CHILDREN)
This term first appeared in the phrase “Serving grape wine in a golden cup” from the poem Dui Jiu, composed by the famous poet Li Bai of the Tang Dynasty. The term also appeared in a chapter of the History of the Northern Dynasties, where the Emperor Shenwu of the Northern Qi Dynasty once invited ministers for a banquet when a golden cup was stolen. The emperor ordered guests who drank wine to take off their hats. Finally, the cup was found on official Zu Ting. This story shows that Gum Bo Law is a precious wine cup that people cannot resist stealing. Today, the word commonly describes children who are cherished by the family.
DAM DANG JAI, PAI TAU WAI (TAKE A BENCH AND BE THE FIRST IN A QUEUE)
This phrase was popular in the 1950s and 60s in Hong Kong. It originally came from the street stalls which lent comic books. This kind of stall spawned throughout the city in the 1950s. As children had few entertainment choices back then, comic books were very popular. Rows of benches were placed beside these street stalls to allow children to sit and read comics, and they were usually charged a higher price if they wanted to have better seats. With only 10 cents, they could borrow four comic books. Many of them often shared a book to spend their afternoon together.