Credits to: South China Morning Post for this photo and the inspiration to write this article.

Learning how the culture of one country is something, but learning how to speak their language is a skill. Spending 10 years of my life here in Hong Kong hold a lot of memories that include getting frustrated as I order in the restaurant, always getting overpriced in Mong Kok and leaving off clueless in the wet market when you try to ask for a kilo but then they measure per pound. I wouldn’t say I am fluent with it but I try to be conversational with most of the locals because I dread getting limited on self-expression just because I am ignorant on how to use their language.

Learning a different kind of language besides your mother language is more than rewarding. It’s actually empowering. And I’d like to share 10 words (and more) that I have learned as I stayed here:

  1. Jo San (Good Morning) – When you see your cleaners as you go out of your apartment to the office in the morning, greet them with this one and they’ll appreciate you greatly. At work, starting off the day greeting your colleagues with this warmth could brighten up anybody by the hallway.
  2. Mmgoi (Thank you/Excuse me) – There are two ways to express thanks to the locals of Hong Kong. First is “Dotse Sai”. This is how you thank somebody who had done you a huge favour or when somebody gave you a gift. You use “Mmgoi Sai” on the other hand to be used in general as a respectful way of expressing thanks. Well, actually, the excuse me part is more of translated as, “Thank you for giving me a way to get through”.
  3. Sek (color) – is a suffix that follows every color/hue/shade. Here are some that I remember which you may find useful when you are shopping and when you are competing for a wardrobe in Mong Kok with another expat. You can tell the vendor of the color in Cantonese so that she could understand and serve you faster. Pa (White) so you say it = Pa SekHa (Black), Lam (Blue), Lok (Green). To those who have kids enrolled in a local school, knowing the colours could help you out as you manage them in making their assignments once it involves colours.
  4. Fan (Rice) – When you order steamed rice, it is considered white rice so you put together the color Pa and rice, Fan = Pa Fan (White rice), Yang Chou Chow Fan (Yang Chou Fried Rice).
  5. Ngo (I/Me) – This is to address yourself.
  6. Lei (You) – This is how you address the person in front of you.
  7. Koi (Him/Her) – This is how you address a third party.
  8. Li do (Here) – Pretty explanatory
  9. Li ko (This) – So, somehow, “Li” pertains to something that is nearby.
  10. Bin (Side) – Something that is usually preceded by “Jo” (Left), “Yeow” (Right), Hao” – (Behind/at the back). Putting it together, It becomes: Jo Bin (Left Side), Yeo Bin (Right Side) and Hao Bin (Behind).

I believe there’s still a lot to share so perhaps, this will have a part two very soon! A little bit of trivia about Hong Kong’s dialect:

The Cantonese language has 9 tones for one word.

Compared to the Mandarin language that has 4, many non-Cantons find learning Hong Kong’s mother language hard to study. The reason why I continuously try to know the language is for me to be able to guide my daughter somehow as she goes to school. It would be on her own advantage if she’d get accustomed to Cantonese but I need to catch up with her at some point. At least, in terms of speaking because writing it? I don’t know. That might be too hard.

Here are 3 things as well that may help you go learn the words in no time:

  1. What I do to be able to memorise them is to find the common word that would lead me to speaking a phrase that is somewhat related to the other. “Bin” is “side”, “Ho” = as I learn and use this word, I realised it is an affirmative word. It means/is a shortcut for “yes” and when you put it together with another Cantonese word, it means he’s affirmative or on the positive note. “Ho sai” is “very sunny”. When it is being mentioned as, “Ho sai a!!!!“, this may be heard as a local. If I put together “Ho a!“, it means, yes. If somebody says, “Ho yit!“, it means “very hot”. Then “Yit” means “hot” so if you would like to order something hot, you put “yit” as a prefix when ordering a “hot” drink, like “Yit lai tsa” = hot milk tea, of “yit cafe” = “hot coffee”.
  2. Listen. Meaning, you may also need to hang out with locals so that you would get the local twang infused with your learned words. This gives you that confidence that you talk like them. Also, hanging out in the marketplace, at old men’s checker games and bars may give you a dose of how they really talk. Like for example, “My name is Katrina.” is such a formal approach in introducing myself at a very casual gathering unlike if I say it this way: “Hi! I’m Katrina.”
  3. In return, converse as much as you can with locals by practicing pronouncing where you live to a taxi driver in Cantonese instead of just showing your hotel card or a google map search to the driver; Properly address them like if it’s an older woman, add “Tsieh tsieh” to your “Mgoi sai” to make it warmer sounding: “Mgoi sai, tsieh tsieh“.

Related posts:

  1. 10TH YEAR IN HONG KONG – Living in this melting pot for 10 years, I have put a brief list of 10 Things That Every Visitor Should Know About Hong Kong in planning their itinerary.
  2. MY CROSSFIT EXPERIENCE AT FITNESS ACADEMY HK – Being a mother of a toddler pushed me to embracing a healthy lifestyle, to meet the demands of my current job and that of my daughter’s hunger for playful attention.
  3. PHIL D MUSIC – This splendid guy who had been working hard to put his share in the music world is slowly putting up South Africa’s name on a pedestal because of the fruits of his labor. I am just proud of him. At the end of the interview, he gives a treat to all of you.


I have a deep regard for your time. It's when I write and cook that time becomes non-existent. I love learning and while you think I am the kind of lady who has a lot of things to say, just take it that I was sharing what I had learned with full impact over a cup of Joe.

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