Chinese Corner

At Dim Sum, Don’t Forget the Tea

Rosalyn Shih tells us what to pair with the classic Cantonese cuisine

When Hong Kong locals invite you out, they never say, "Let's go for a beer." Instead they “treat you to drinking tea” (cing2 nei5 jam2 caa4 請你飲茶).What they really mean is that they’re taking you to dim sum (dim2 sam1 點心).

The Cantonese phrase jam2 caa4 飲茶 or “to drink tea” – not to be confused with the Mandarin phrase hē chá 喝茶, a euphemism for being interrogated by the police – is synonymous with having dim sum. Although Hong Kongers emulate the global cosmopolitan by preferring chilled water at Western restaurants, they still require lots of hot tea to help the BBQ pork buns go down and aid the digestion of fried spring rolls. There is probably nothing I associate more with Hong Kong than the smells of starchy tablecloths and the earthy brew of pou2 lei5 普洱 – commonly known by its Mandarin name pǔ'ěr – floating over the din of family friends enthusiastically shouting at each other across tables.

Chinese Corner

If Elephants Could Fly

Illuminating Cantonese idioms – Rosalyn Shih

In February 2014, Hong Kong cartoonist Ah Toh (阿塗) published a Cantonese comic through the independent magazine Passion Times that became an instant viral hit. Based on the 16th-century Flemish painting Netherlandish Proverbs, Ah Toh’s version includes illustrations of 81 Cantonese idioms:

The cartoon shows just how colorful Hong Kong and southern Chinese idioms (jin6 jyu5 諺語) can get. These include four-character idioms (sing4 jyu5 成語) such as “the elephant flies across the river” (fei1 zoeng6 gwo3 ho4 飛象過河) – to do something unexpected or break the rules – and everyday slang such as “to stir-fry squid” (caau2 jau4 jyu2 炒魷魚) – to fire someone (or to be fired, if you add the passive participle bei before it).

Chinese Corner

Let’s Go Laaaaaaaa

And learn Cantonese particles – Rosalyn Shih

“If you’re picturing someone in your head speaking Chinese and it sounds really funny,” Canadian comedian Russell Peters said, “you’re picturing Cantonese.”

Even to non-speakers like Peters, Cantonese is easily identified as the “funnier sounding language” compared to Mandarin: “It’s the more flamboyant one," he joked, "with the extended sounding words. … Sometimes they speak and it sounds like they’re falling off a cliff. Dong laaaaaaahh…”

Chinese Corner

An Egg Tart by Any Other Name

Delicious loanwords in Cantonese – Rosalyn Shih

Cantonese has quite a few loanwords borrowed from English that have slipped into everyday usage. The best example is probably dik1 si2 的士 for “taxi,” hence people saying daa2 dik1 打的 for “hail a cab” as far north as Beijing, where it’s Mandarinzed as dǎ dī 打的. Chinglish is also pretty standard, especially among trendy teenagers and work colleagues, who might say “send go3 email bei1 ngo5 laa1 (sendemail卑我啦) for “send me an email.”

But the biggest number of loanwords has to be for imported foods. The Cantonese-speaking region of southern China – Guangdong Province, Hong Kong and Macau – is stereotyped for its fondness of eating everything from snake to civet cat, but we’ve embraced Western food too. Many of our names for those foods are also imported, and it’s safe to assume that many of those words originated during Britain’s rule of Hong Kong, before making their way to the mainland.

Chinese Corner

Nine Tones of Hell

How to be toneful in Cantonese – Rosalyn Shih

If you are intimidated by the prospect of learning Mandarin because it’s a tonal language, you might as well give up on Cantonese right now. I’ve directed my share of hope-dashing hyperbole towards Mandarin-learning friends, but perhaps the exaggeration is warranted:

“There are tones that the Cantonese use only when they argue.”

“There are some Cantonese tones that only dogs can hear.”