The Wah - mistakes to avoid

Many a foreigner arriving in Hong Kong has had a first flush of enthusiasm to learn Cantonese. Although the benefits are well worth it, be prepared for the odd stumble.

One friend's first attempts unfortunately put him off for life. He turned up to work at a well-known local bank all ready to try out his newly learned "Lay ho ma ?" (a general "How are you?" greeting).

Unfortunately he hadn't heard it 100% clearly, so when he spoke to the receptionist it came out as "Lay ho mei", ie "You taste good". He didn't understand the frosty response until he asked his colleagues later in the day !

Have you had any similar disasters with the local language ?


Re:The Wah - mistakes to avoid

Several disasters but this is my favourite. Some years back, after landing at Kai Tak, I got in a cab. I lived in Disovery Bay at the time and so wanted the taxi to take me to the star ferry in Central.

So i said (written as best I can remember in the sydney lau system):

heung gong goh bin, jung wan, ting sing mah tau, mgoi

(literally, Hong Kong that side, central, star ferry please)

You say that side and this side to clarify you are crossing the harbour.

He looked back at mer and said, "Kowloon side?".

I was positive I was tone perfect - I think I was, he just was not expecting it.

Re:The Wah - mistakes to avoid

Yep, been there, done that - as you're speaking you can see the thought bubble above the other person's head "I hate it when they speak English to me. Why can't they learn to speak Chinese ? Oh, there's a funny thing - whatever he's saying sounds just like Chinese. Strange how that happens sometimes, I wonder what he's really saying ?"

Sometimes I've found it helps to say "M'goi" loudly and then leave a long pause for the old White face / Chinese sound / White Face / Chinese sound conundrum to rattle around the brain cells a few times, in the hope that whatever I say next has a chance to stick.

The other response is that you say your piece, there's a long pause, and the other person says "Ooohhhh, you mean <repeat exactly whatever you just said>". Never fails to wind me up ! Ah, the joys of tonal languages (my pet theory is that the main benefit of a tonal language is that you can speak with a mouthful of food and still get your meaning across).

Mr B

The number 7 disaster

My fiance is coming to Hong Kong this summer and thank God that my Cantonese trainning with him is yet to finish...

He is currently doing very well, and he is now able to recite alphabet, do greetings and say a few odd worlds. However, one word that he never get the grasp on is number 7 in Cantonese.... and as the Batgung will know, there are 8 vowels in Cantonese, everytime he pronounce number 7, it bears striking resemblance to a Cantonese profanity...

I will leave the Chinese audience and Batgungs to figure it out. :twisted:

Re:The Wah - mistakes to avoid

>>> I was positive I was tone perfect - I think I was, he just was not
>>> expecting it.

Good for you! It reminded me of last summer when I was in Hong Kong. Since I resemble the perfect Oriential spicemen, the 2 French women in the cosmetic shops that I was in did not expected someone to hear their criticisms of Hong Kong population...

... Until I approached them and said "Excuse-moi, merci beaucope" 8)

Re:The Wah - mistakes to avoid


Good for you! It reminded me of last summer when I was in Hong Kong. Since I resemble the perfect Oriential spicemen, the 2 French women in the cosmetic shops that I was in did not expected someone to hear their criticisms of Hong Kong population...

... Until I approached them and said "Excuse-moi, merci beaucope" 8)[/quote]

i so did this at the chantecaille counter in joyce and at prada and louis vuitton. no one knew what the heck i was talking about when i was only pronouncing the names right, li. also happened with carre four in shanghai, everyone's like where? ohh "ga lock fook".

Wait Till They Find Problems With Your Accent!


Same like Mr. Tall, I too have married a wonderful local Hong Kong lady and we have three kids.

I arrived here about 15 or 16 years ago. Of course Kai Tak...

My first impression from the plane taxiing to the terminal was "Wow look at the gigantic cowboy posters of Marlboro. This is going to be a great place" [albeit, I was under a stupid impression that everyone spoke and understood English as I was coming to a British Colony].

All my fantasies shattered right from the first cab drive [Kai Tak to Furuma] that somehow cost me 400 dollars!?! and a rude compliment 'Diu -- Lou Mou" [of course I did not understand that time] by the driver who literally threw my bags out.

Later, somehow, I stayed here and also got married and started a family and yes....learnt the Wah!

To add a bit more to what everyone says, remember this:

1) No matter how perfect you have mastered your Cantonese [and I really have], after you get all tones and pronounciations correct, they will still find faults with your language.

2) Now my local friends and even in-laws still remind me that Ron...although you speak great Cantonese, your accent is still NOT local. We can tell by the pauses and intonations you use.

3) In the process of your mastering Cantonese, and if you live here for more than 10 years, I bet you will lose your own native accent [in your own mother tongue(s)].

4) This will frustrate you when you talk back to people from your own country. Especially, when they start asking you [if they are not familiar with you] "Where are you originally from?"

5) Now when I talk to my parents in English, even they say "Ron you sound funny" 8O

6) The biggest stumbling block for those of us who speak English or Latin based language is what is known as "Mei Yum" in Cantonese. Mei means end or tail and Yum sort of means pronounciation [though there are many different meanings including a profanity by the same word in different tone!].

We naturally form this habit of Mei Yum because of our own language that has them. However, Cantonese does NOT have Mei Yum and this will be the biggest problem you will have to seriously overcome [no easy feat].

This is also one reason why using the current Pinyin to write Cantonese does not give clear pronounciation to readers and in fact, it is very difficult to write exact Cantonese pronounciations in English or other languages.

Some Observations:

1) There are few or no hard pronounciations in Cantonese.

2) Not a single word in current vocabulary ever starts with D, T, X, and many such alphabets and vowels. [Even the form of T that is generally used is light as in french pronounciation].

3) A lot of pronounciations that we are used to are totally missing from Cantonese scope of pronounciations.

4) It is IMPOSSIBLE for any Chinese to write your name in their language and still keep the same pronounciation. In fact it is impossible to write Ron Bach in Chinese language, and so I have a Chinese name = Pat Lok [someday I will tell you what the story of Pat Lok and horses mean].

5) There are NO standard alphabets in Chinese and everything is symbolic.

6) It will perhaps take you a decade to learn reading and writing Chinese and even then you will still be at the intermediate level [hopefully] but still able to read newspapers, etc.

Some other things to note:

1) If you have been here for such a long time, your next inclination may be learning Mandarin Chinese.

2) This will further screw up your linguistic abilities as Mandarin has only 4 and half tones compared to 9 tones of Cantonese or well 18 tones of Chiu Chow language! [Tones may not be the correct word here but you get the point].

3) No matter how perfect you master Mandarin as well, both Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese will think you are awful with that language.

4) Similarly, immaterial of how perfect your Cantonese becomes, people from Guangzhou [Shenzhen mostly speaks Mandarin] will criticize your Cantonese as being Hong Kong version.

Yes, it is true that Hong Kong Cantonese is not as pure as Canton or Guangzhou Cantonese and even Hong Kong Cantonese is pretty mixed up now.

Finally, after mastering all these, you will come across a lot of *Chuk Yue*. In simple terms Chuk Yue means abstract sentences used to describe specific meanings, where the construction of the Chuk Yue may have nothing to do with that which is being described.

Phew, I can't explain that part clearly in English. You just have to go through it.

And after all that, while you are in your 40's like me, someday you just sit with a beer on your couch and wonder "Why did I get into all this?".

But of course, apart from all the above, Hong Kong is a wonderful city and even Hong Kong people are great. After all, now it is my home....Ngo Tei Heung Kong Yan :)

P.s. I never went to any classes to learn Cantonese. I learnt it on the streets, in mini buses, areas like Mong Kok, Sham Shui Po [especially the wide variety of profanity that you can only learn from rogues wandering there], and making a constant fool of myself during tea parties, office lunches [Dim Sum], and most importantly ---- having arguments with my wife [C'mon all couples do have arguments at times :lol:

Re:The Wah - mistakes to avoid

Ron, great post - I sat nodding along as I was reading it. I think you hit the nail on the head with "making a constant fool of myself" as a prequesite for learning the wah.

A recent trip to Wellcome had me trying to buy fish at the fish counter, asking for what I wanted, and gesturing a disk about 3 inches across (the fish is sold in steaks). Much wah'ing and aiya'ing made me think I must be doing something wrong, so I called a higher authority on the mobile phone.

Mrs B told me I should be asking for "gaau yue", NOT "baau yue". Apparently I'd been telling them I wanted to buy some three-inch wide abalone - luckily they don't sell them in Wellcome, as they would probably have cost me several thousand dollars !

Ah well, live & learn.

Mr B

Re:The Wah - mistakes to avoid

Lucky for you Mr. Tall,

But while living in Shenzhen, China in 1986, I went to a store, looked around, saw a bottle of something red...

Mistook it for Red Wine, took it home and drank gulps of it straight from the bottle...

Only realizing too late that it was Soy Sauce.

Everything tasted salty for weeks as my tongue and taste buds were done away with!

I kid you NOT! But thanks for the compliments on my post.

Eagerly awaiting for you to redesign your site. Seeing a fellow sufferer in Hong Kong is like running after a Mirage in Middle East Desert.

Alas, if we just got together. And we will...some day :-)

With that, please convey my best regards to all your loved ones ever and you take care too.

Kind regards and best wishes from,

Ron Bach [Pat Lok]

Re:The Wah - mistakes to avoid

Mr. Ron,

I presume the most appropriate translation of "Chuk Yue" would be "Slangs"? am i correct?? :?:

Re:The Wah - mistakes to avoid

[quote]I presume the most appropriate translation of "Chuk Yue" would be "Slangs"? am i correct?? [/quote]

Yes, that's right.

after a mistake like this, it can only get better . . . .

Okay, I've been saving this little anecdote, but now that Chinese New Year is approaching, I think it's time to put it up. I will warn you: it is the Big Dog of Cantonese gaffes, the mea maxima culpa, the inadvertently-dropped hydrogen bomb of the linguistically-inept's arsenal.

When I was first dating Mrs Tall, she was (understandably) a bit nervous about taking an enormous foreigner home to meet her parents. She decided (in retrospect, disastrously) that the big family dinner on Chinese New Year's eve would be a good time to do so.

In fact, all seemed to go well for a while, once her parents' initial wide-eyed shock at actually seeing me had worn off. We sat down to dinner, which comprised a number of excellent regional specialties Mrs Tall's mom had learned to cook back in Guangdong province.

Among these dishes was a plate of freshly-steamed crabs. I love tasty crustaceans of all sorts, and in an effort to ingratiate myself with Mrs Tall's mother, I uttered, in my neophyte's Cantonese, the phrase 'I really like to eat crabs'. Well, I got it all right, tone- and pronunciation-wise -- until the last word. Instead of saying 'crabs', i.e. 'haaih', which is pronounced with a long vowel and a low rising tone, I said it with a short vowel and a middle tone. Those of you who know Cantonese may have already guessed what I actually said: 'I really like to eat [a word starting with 'c' that rhymes with 'blunt'].

Mrs Tall's parents were so shocked they just sat there frozen, while her brother tried desperately to avoid wetting himself. His girlfriend was so scandalized I'm not sure she was ever able to see past this incident when we met up at subsequent family events.

On the whole, though, I don't think it hurt my relationship with Mrs Tall's family that much; I get along with them pretty well, especially her parents. But I paid a high price in personal pride in order to break the ice that night!!

Re:The Wah - mistakes to avoid

Mr Tall, I did something similar some years ago, when I was introducing my boss at a meeting. Instead of saying "This is Mr. Soh", I said "This c*nt, Mr. Soh". It did turn out to be a good description of him, however,

Re:The Wah - mistakes to avoid

OK ok, since were all spilling our guts here...

I once made a pretty embaressing mistake at a chinese wedding baquet.

I just arrived in HK with my girlfriend (presently my wife) and was still getting used to the whole HK thing (Jetlag, fast pace of life, small buss seats, etc etc).

The 3rd day I was there we were all invited to a chinese wedding banquet. We were sitting at one of the round tables with my wife, her mother, the bride and groom and a whole bunch of other people I didn't know.

When the food was served there was a plate of chicked right in front of me, cut into pieces. (Little did I know that not all the pieces were meant to be eaten) So to show respect to my (future) mother in law, I took my chopsticks, grabbed the biggest piece of chicken I saw and placed it in here bowl. Suddenly everybody started laughing at me, even my wife! :evil:

After all the commotion was over, and my face turned totally red, my wife explained to me that I gave her mother the rear end of the chicken. :oops:

Re:The Wah - mistakes to avoid

Wow. Those are some terrible fluff ups. I'm thankful I haven't ever dropped a clanger which was quite so potent before but then my knowledge of Cantonese is utterely truncated anyway.

I do recall informing a rather unpleasant acquaintance how to ask for a chicken curry one morning, substituting Chicken for 'Dog' (gao for gai) then after he'd put his foot in it and severly insulted the waiter who was evil to him for the rest of the night, he complained to me that I'd evidently told him to say something unspeakable about someone's mother. I calmly repeated the correct phrase maintaining that I had said that in the first place, leaving him to believe it was his own fault :twisted:

Yeah Yeah, but he deserved it and there are a [i]lot[/i] of phrases that a less scrupulous person might employ :lol:

Silly tones

Yesterday I needed to buy a padlock, so after a quick check with MrsB for the vocabulary I headed for the hardware store muttering the word to myself to try and keep the tones right.

I arrived and in my best Cantonese asked the elderly shopkeeper 'Sir, may I purchase one of your finest padlocks?'

He ran his fingers through where his hair used to be, and in a confused voice asked '梳 so1 仔 zai2' ?

No, no, not a little comb, I want to buy a padlock.

He'd obviously gets gweilo visitors with their mangled cantonese on a regular basis, as he passed me a paper and pen to draw whatever it was. (A word of advice, this happens a lot - so don't try beating me at pictionary!)

Aha! You want to buy a '鎖 so2 仔 zai2'

Wasn't that what I said?

That evening I told MrsB the story, and you can guess her response - '傻 so4 仔 zai2'!


'梳 so1 仔 zai2' - small comb
'鎖 so2 仔 zai2' - padlock (lit. 'little lock')
'傻 so4 仔 zai2' - silly boy

Chinese characters courtesy of Cantonese Sheik.

Drunken Cho Yuet

During my maternity leaves, my m-i-l came faithfully almost every day to prepare me special food for my "cho yuet" (sitting month/pst-natal confinement). One day early on, she made a very yummy chicken soup, with a taste of what I thought was vinegar. I asked for more, "massaging" my Mandarin into Cantonese, thinking I was saying vinegar, saying it was tasty and could I have more.

Nope. It was wine, and she poured quite a bit in. After I finished the bowl, face flushed, I went and took a deep nap. When I woke up, I went to look at that little bottle and it was zou (alcohol) not cho (vinegar).

We had a good laugh about it. Can't remember if the baby got drunk from it too.

"Lay ho ma" Is this correct?

"Lay ho ma"

Is this correct? I thought "how are you?" was "Nay ho ma". Have I bee saying it wrong all this time?

Nay / lay - take your pick

In their book 'Cantonese A Comprehensive Grammar', Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip explain:

The initial 'n' is pronounced as a 'l' by younger speakers, and by older speakers in less formal speech registers. Thus 'neih' [the cantonese word for 'you', also romanised as 'nay'] is pronounced as 'leih' / 'lay', and 'nihn' (year) as 'lihn'. This change to 'l' is still corrected as an 'error' by some older language teachers. The 'n' pronunciation is still used in highly formal registers and in some traditional forms of singing (contemporary Canto-pop, however, uses 'l'). Initial 'n' is preserved in the demonstrative form 'ni' (this) for many speakers, but also variously pronounced by other speakers as 'yi', 'li', or 'lei'.


Question - Is the number

Question - Is the number five pronounced 'mm' or 'ng'?

same story . . .

. . . that is, you can use either. 'ng' is more formal.

haaih m haaih?

Mr T - your crab story is priceless!


It may have seemed priceless to you, but it didn't to me!!! But I'm glad someone enjoyed it . . . .