Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Swearing in Cantonese

I was a middle child, with an older (5 years) brother and a younger (7 years) brother.   We all got on reasonably well,  the age differences helped, but we had our moments - still do, I guess.  ;-)

When I was almost eight, way back in the very early '60's, my father was given a three-year married, accompanied post to Hong Kong.     I remember those days pretty well, the sights, sounds, the smells...though the less said about the smells, the better.

I have lots of interests and hobbies and in and around real life, hobbies and grandchildren, I read.   I read a lot.  I dip in and out of genres though I avoid politics, religion, fantasy, zombies, and books with too much sex, swearing or violence...having said that, some of my favourite Scottish detectives are prone to rather ripe language and murder is generally quite violent.

One of my recent reads include a marvellous autobiography by Martin Booth, Gweilo.    Not long ago I was extolling the virtues of 'The Piano Teacher' a story which is set in Hong Kong around the time of the second World War.    Gweilo was even better.

I was totally transported to the Hong Kong which I knew and loved.

The author was there a decade before us, but he brought it all to life for me.   The forgotten, or half-remembered names of places, roads, mountains, festivals.   Stephen and Stitt, the big bronze lions which guarded the entrance to that wonderful old building, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank - now, alas, gone.  Replaced by a more modern building.

(Somewhere or other I have a maroon-coloured plastic replica, a money box.   I'm not sure that I ever actually put money into it though, I was far more likely to run down to the little shops and spend my money on pencils, rubbers, crayons and exercise books.)

His description of the droughts, typhoons, and the killer humidity were all familiar.  I revelled in his memories, wallowed in the descriptions.   I felt I was back there.

As well as being a vehicle for nostalgia, the book gave me lots of information and background which was new to me.  

Martin Booth died in 2004, he was just 59 years old and had been suffering from a brain tumour.  He wrote this book for his children.  A beautiful gift, and an insight into his early years.

Many books, once I have read them, are donated to charity but Gweilo is staying on my bookshelves. I know that in a few months I will want to read it again and I can't tell you how rarely that happens to me.

So, swearing in Cantonese?   My brothers and I used to mutter the words "Muc-tao, melogyi, sing-sing, gweilo' in the belief that we were using Cantonese swear words for 'monkey, wooden-head, ghost, white devil...not quite sure that we had quite got all of them right.

Still, we knew what we meant!


  1. I was the oldest of four kids. When I was seven or so, I got the notion that "body"
    was a naughty word. When I heard the radio show "Fibber McGee and Molly" had a character named "Mr Peabody" I thought that must be the ultimate dirty word! We weren't allowed to say words like "darn" or "heck" but for some reason, there was no parental objection to "Peabody". As time went by, we four kids added variations to make our special brand of cussing even more explicit. We would freely call each other "Dumb-dope Peabody" whenever the situation warranted it. We grew out of it as the years went by and our (babytalk) cuss-words were thankfully never replaced by more hardcore swearing.

  2. I know some numbers, knee, bat, say, (all phonetically said). I remember bat the most as the character is )( and we used to think it was the sign for bum cheeks. do not ask me why.

    I forget the rest, as it gets mixed up with Japanese which I remember as a rhyme. Ichy, knee, sand, sea, go, rocco, sitsy, hatsy, koo-you, jew. Again phonetically said.

    can you remember lots of Cantonese? I would love to be fluent in another language.

  3. Its lovely to remember happy childhood memories and Its amazing how much a book can transport you to places and allow you to escape. I don't swear in English and don't know any other languages the worst I say is Oh Pants :-) dee


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