Listen to Podcast | Special Episode 3: Differences between Singapore & Hong Kong Cantonese

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Podcast Transcript | Special Episode 3: Differences between Singapore & Hong Kong Cantonese

Hello! This is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg, bringing you the 3rd episode of our special series of Cantonese – How Do You Say Podcast. Well, do you travel frequently to Hong Kong? Have you noticed that the Cantonese used in Hong Kong and Singapore may be different? Now, our guest speaker, Eric Chau, is from Hong Kong, but he has been living in Singapore for many years. So I thought he is the best person to ask about the differences between the Singapore & Hong Kong Cantonese. I learnt lots from him, so you shouldn’t miss this out too!

Eugene

All right Eric, we were talking about the myths of learning Cantonese previously. So we debunked the myth that Cantonese is exactly the same everywhere. And given that you have experience with both Singapore and Hong Kong Cantonese, I have some questions that I really like your help in answering. Specifically, how do you learn Cantonese when you were growing up in Hong Kong? Any tips?

Eric

Well, firstly, it is 24-7 Cantonese, almost! When you wake up in the morning, you will hear your parents talking in Cantonese. When you go to school, your school friends and your school teachers will all be talking in Cantonese. Even when you read your textbook for a Chinese subject, the Chinese characters are pronounced in Cantonese. So that’s basically how we learn it. When you go home from school, you switched on TV and you’ll get Cantonese programs. Not only TVB dramas, but even for cartoons like Popeye and Ultraman. Yes, Ultraman is in Cantonese, so you see them fighting and shouting in Cantonese. At night, of course, you have the news and movies. These are English movies dubbed in Cantonese. Everything is Cantonese – 24-7.

Eugene

Thereafter when you move to Singapore, did you notice a difference between Singapore and Hong Kong Cantonese? Are there any funny or interesting conversations or miscommunications due to all these differences?

Eric

There were a few occasions when I misunderstood my son. I asked him, “have you finished your homework?” You know, to parents, homework is a big thing. But to the children, it is a different thing. So he replied to me – zou zor (做咗) – in Cantonese, which I should have been more appreciative because at least he was trying. I could understand him, but as I was in a rush, I just wanted to make sure he had done his homework. I became irritated when I heard him saying zou zor, because zou zor is a very curt reply that you use when you are irritated or impatient. So he was reprimanded by me. But after sitting and cooling down, I felt that there was nothing wrong with what he was saying. Zou zor in Mandarin is zuo le (做了). I know for him, he was literally translating his Mandarin into Cantonese, substituting the sentence structures, words and characters into Cantonese. Nothing wrong with that. I mean, to him, it is really nothing wrong. It is logical for him, but for me as a listener, because I grew up with different culture. I will take it as you are not being patient with me. So I realized that I reprimanded him unnecessarily.

Eugene

So how would you expect somebody to respond in a polite manner?

Eric

Zou zor le (做咗了). And I often realized that in Hong Kong Cantonese, you will end a sentence with a word which is not exactly meaningful. Zou zor le, sek zor le (食咗了), tak mei aa (得未呀)? For example, tak mei ah and tak mei can say something about the frame of mind of the person speaking. For example, tak mei can indicate the person getting a little bit impatient, annoyed or is about to explode. Tak mei ah is more mild. It may still mean that the person is getting frustrated with you, or he is not really frustrated with you. Yeah, so the last word, the last particle – this is the tricky part in Cantonese.

Eugene

So I think to relate to our Singapore listeners, it’s more like our Singlish. There’s a difference between leh, lor, la, laa… those subtle differences would make a difference to what we are trying to convey in a sentence.

Eric

Yes, exactly, especially if you grew up learning Mandarin, and you try to substitute the pronunciation word for word. For example, if you just say zuo le (做了), chi le ( 吃了), but substitute them with Cantonese pronunciation, it can end up as a misunderstanding.

Eugene

Okay, so that’s something for us to take note of.

Eric

Oh yeah, I have something to add. When I first moved here, I saw a lot of differences. But over the years, I think I have assimilated to the extent that sometimes when I have friends coming from Hong Kong, I have to pause and figure out how I should talk to them appropriately, so that they can understand me. For example, at one point of time, I was doing some trading. The traders like to speak to me in their Singapore-style Cantonese. There were a few occasions when I replied them in Hong Kong Cantonese and they corrected me. For example, certain share was trading at $1.20 cents and they asked me to help them buy at that price. Yat kau yi (一摳二) – $1.20 – is used in Singapore and Canada, but the word – kau – is actually derived from, if I’m not wrong, Hokkien.

Eugene

I think I know what you’re talking about, Kau as in Kor (箍) in Hokkien.

Eric

Yes, that’s right. In Hokkien, it’s zit kor nng kak (一箍两角). But for me, I say it as gor yi (個二). And they thought I was talking about gok yi (角二). Gok means 10-cents. So the person is understood as 12 cents, right? Yat gor yi (一個二). But to me, gor yi means $1.20 cents in Hong Kong.

Eugene

Yeah. So yat go. Go.

Eric

Yes, Yat go. Gor yi. So I immediately corrected myself and followed their style. Friends from Hong Kong, when you visit Singapore, be careful with what you’re saying, so that you don’t create misunderstanding.

Eugene

So a very big difference, especially if you’re trading between 12 cents and $1.20 cents – 10 times difference. So apart from this kau yi and gor yi, what are some of the slangs that locals in Singapore and Hong Kong use differently?

Eric

Okay, one such difference came to mind instantly. Many years ago, I hanged out with a friend. We were playing card games. Then someone was cheating and one of my friends shouted, “nei waan cau (你玩臭)”. To me, the phrase – waan cau – is not normally in my vocabulary. Waan cau in Hong Kong means you’re being tricked, you’re being trashed, you are being fooled, big time.

Eugene

Just to clarify in our local terms, waan cau in English it means to play dirty. In Mandarin it means wan chou (玩臭). So I guess Eric’s friend who said nei waan cau means “you’re play dirty”. That’s probably a Singapore Cantonese trying to express his displeasure with the other party, who’s trying to cheat during the card game. Is that right, Eric?

Eric

Yes, exactly.

Eugene

Let’s say in Hong Kong, if you want to accuse somebody of playing cheat, how would you say it then?

Eric

Nei ceot cin (你出千) or nei gaan maau (你姦猫). Now, this is exactly how you will say it in Hong Kong.

Eugene

So it’s either nei ceot cin or nei gaan maau.

Eric

More frequently, it’ll be called gaan maau.

Eugene

Versus the Singapore version of nei waan cau?

Eric

Yes, yes.

Eugene

I think the conclusion essentially is that in Singapore’s context, when you try to say that somebody is cheating in a poker game or a game of cards, then you say nei waan cau. But in Hong Kong’s context, if somebody is accusing somebody else of cheating, they will say nei gaan maau or nei ceot cin. So that would be some of the slangs that is used differently between Singapore and Hong Kong. So upon listening, are you able to tell whether a Cantonese speaker is from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam or Singapore?

Eric

Okay, Hong Kong, definitely and there’s no doubt about it. Between Singapore and Malaysia, the differences are very mild. We have to listen a bit more to figure it out. But generally, I will say that people in Malaysia, even the young people (i.e. people in the 20s), are quite proficient in Cantonese. So when someone is speaking Cantonese and he/she is a young person, more or less, you may think he/she is from Malaysia. Yeah, another difference between Singapore and Malaysian Cantonese is that when Malaysians speak Cantonese, somehow they speak like they are speaking Malay. I’m not too sure whether it is influenced by the usage of Malay in their everyday language. But I believe so, as it sounds a bit like Malay. For Singapore Cantonese, I will say that the way they speak Cantonese is influenced by other dialects – by Hokkien or Teochew. I’m not saying that those from Malaysia are not influenced by Chinese dialects, but somehow you can tell that they have some kind of Malay influence.

Eugene

Okay, I’ve read online before, for example, that they tend to mix Malay words inside. So for example, when they say “everything”, as in “how much is everything?”…

Eric

Oh yes, they say sou ma (semua in Malay). Yes, that’s a very big difference between Singapore Cantonese and Malaysian Cantonese.

Eugene

Let’s say the Malaysians uses sou ma. What’s the Singaporean equivalent?

Eric

I have heard people saying cyun bou (全部), but the older generation may express it as sou ma. Okay, the same as roti: the older generation of Singaporeans will called bread as roti, more often than younger people. So this is something I observed frequently in Malaysia – roti, or lok gaai maai roti (落街買roti).

Then they always like to use the word, liu (撩). Nei heoi bin dou liu? (你去邊度撩)?

Eugene

What does liu means?

Eric

Liu is actually waan (玩). Nei heoi bin dou waan (你去邊度玩)? Where are you going to enjoy yourself or play?

Eugene

So liu will be used by Malaysians. Is that what you’re saying?

Eric

They are used in Singapore and Malaysia. But increasingly, as the percentage of Singaporeans speaking dialect is decreasing, you don’t hear it so often. So when someone is to use the word – liu – there’s a higher tendency that the person is from Malaysia.

Eugene

Okay, and then how do the Hong Kong people say it then?

Eric

Nei heoi bin dou waan (你去邊度玩)?

Eugene

Well, Cantonese has so many variations. Now, to learn Cantonese, what do you think are some of the more challenging tones? We’ve talked about either 6, 9, or 12 tones and you personally think that it should be 9 tones. So what do you think are some of the more challenging tones to pronounce for Singaporeans who are just beginning to learn Cantonese?

Eric

Okay, so there are a few words, in particular, which I have seen Malaysians or Singaporeans having difficulty in pronouncing accurately. First word is koeng (強), strong. The most famous vocab will be siu koeng (小強), the cockroach.

I have listened to so many people in Singapore and Malaysia – they pronounce it as siu keong. So it is a very strong indication that it is heavily influenced by dialect. Because in Hokkien and if I’m correct, keong is pronounced as kiang. So you have a very strong qi tone at the front.

And the phrase, gan zoeng (緊張). You’ll realise that the zoeng and the keong, I pronounced it quite similarly. In Singapore and Malaysia, I hear people pronouncing it as gan cheong. Cheong. So cheong is stretched. This is similar to how they pronounced koeng- keong.

Another example would be the word, crab. Crab in Cantonese is haai (蟹). And my Singapore friends pronounce it in such a way that I must correct them in order to avoid any kind of confusion when they go to Hong Kong. Okay, right and I do not want to say it here okay. *laughs*

Eugene

We’ve got to share this! I think a lot of our listeners will also be going to Hong Kong quite a bit, so it’s for their benefit. I have a feeling that is going towards a body part. *laughs* So let’s just share so that everybody can learn from it. So in Singapore, crab will be pronounced as haai, is that right?

Eric

No, in Hong Kong, it is pronounced haai. But people in Singapore can end up pronouncing it as… are you sure you want me to say it?

Eugene

Yes, please. We are all ears.

Eric

Hai (閪). And for the person who listened to you, who is not aware of where you’re coming from, he can interpret it as an insult. This refers to a body part and is used commonly as a vulgar language. Nowadays in Hong Kong, you’ve got to be careful of what you are saying and who you are talking to. Imagine you talk to a mata and then you ought to be careful. Oh yes, mata is one word, which can tell you are either from this part of the world (i.e. Singapore) or from Hong Kong.

Eugene

Yes, in our case, mata means policemen. In Hong Kong they use ging caat (警察).

Eric

Ging caat. Yes, I see.

Eugene

Alright, so just remember to pronounce ‘crab’ correctly. It will be haai.

Eric

Don’t say it in a high pitch tone.

Eugene

Don’t say with a high pitch tone. So keep it to the haai tone. Okay, so that would be some of the things to look out for in the pronunciations, in terms of the consonants, vowels as well as the tones.

All right, that’s very good. Thank you, Eric, for sharing with us all these wonderful experiences – how to differentiate the Cantonese used in Singapore and other countries; differences or the importance of pronouncing certain tones correctly, so that you don’t get misunderstood for swearing; or when you’re asking for crab in Hong Kong.

So how is it going? We are at the halfway mark of this special 6-part series of our Cantonese – How Do You Say Podcast. For the next 3 episodes, be prepared to… Say It Like You Own It! Yes, we are going to help you sound like a pro when you speak Cantonese. You’ll learn to ask some really neat Cantonese questions to get to know someone or even asking someone out for a date. Stay with us. This is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg and we’ll speak again in the next episode!


Transcript has been edited for readability and clarity.

The opinions expressed by the guest speaker in this podcast are his own and do not reflect the view of LearnDialect.sg.


Keen to learn more about Singapore Cantonese? Here’s the link to our interactive Cantonese Course for Beginners. While spots last!


Our Philosophy for Learning Cantonese in Singapore

At LearnDialect.sg, we want to make learning Cantonese fun, easy and practical for daily conversations in Singapore. As such, rather than figuring out which of the 10 or more Cantonese romanization system to use (e.g. Jyutping, Yale or Cantonese Pinyin etc.), we encourage you to form your own phonics, so that you make an association with these Cantonese words in the quickest way possible. To illustrate, the romanization of the English word, “eat”, is “Sik” using Jyutping and “Sihk” using Yale. However, in our “Have You Eaten?” podcast transcript, you’ll find that we use “sek”, which we think relates to us better. That said, you may use other romanization (e.g “sake”, “xig”, etc), as long as it helps you to make sense of what you hear.