The Hong Kong Unofficial Guide

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Languages in Hong Kong

Above: street side communication spotted in Central, Hong Kong.
Over 95% of the people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese, a Chinese dialect. But you can get by with English quite well since most people understand some English as long as you speak slowly. But remember that when someone doesn't understand you, increasing your volume increases agitation rather than comprehension.

Though most taxi drivers understand some English, it is advisable for you to have the hotel concierge write down your destination in Chinese to show the taxi driver. Otherwise, your "Hung San" rather than "Hong San" may land you at the wrong place - the former is in south Hong Kong Island, while the latter is on the northern shore. (2008.11.5)

Above: the Chinese
character for dragon

Cantonese phrases you will hear people say to you:

Yau mo gao chor

- Are you for real? -OR- Can't believe him/her/you! When you are running for a bus and knock someone's head with your 40 pound backpack, you will hear that from your victim!

Chee sin

- crazy!

M T Arlo

MTR (the subway)

K C Arlo

- KCR (the train that goes north into the New Territories)

Cantonese phrases you can say to people:

Mmm Goy

- Yap, you have to pronounce the "Mmm"! It means "no". The two sounds put together means "thank you". Literally you are saying to people "you shouldn't do that for me" - a courteous phrase. But you say this only when someone does something for you, or in asking someone to do something for you. To thank someone for giving you something, for instance, a gift, you say "dor je", which is explained next.

Dor je

- this means "thanks". Literally it means "many thanks". But you only say this when thanking someone for giving you a gift, not for doing something for you.

Gay dor chin

- this means "how much money". When you go shopping, you can ask the shopper this.

Ho ho sigg

- this means "it tastes good" or "they taste good". Literally it means "good good eat". But then of course with this phrase, you can easily get the tones wrong and it becomes "like (fond of) women very much" - with negative connotations - since Cantonese is a tonal language!

Chee Saw

- this may prove to be the most useful Cantonese phrase you can learn: bathroom!

Of course we only take credit when you say it right, but if after you utter one of these phrases, the person chases you with a butcher knife, don't tell people you learned it here.

If you would like to learn Cantonese properly, there are educational centers offering courses for adults.

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