A grey day in Hong Kong. This morning when I came downstairs, Mrs. Wong, my doorlady, was taking down the last cardboard Santa cutouts and straggly tinsel strands that have been adorning the lobby of Profitable View Court for the last three weeks. The holidays are officially over.
Mrs. Wong’s usual cheery “Jo saan!” sounded glum–it will be at least a month before she’s able to redecorate the lobby with bright paper lanterns and red fai chun (Chinese proverbs on paper scrolls). Last year “Merry Christmas” and “san nin faai lok” segued seamlessly into each other. But this year the moon-driven feast of Chinese New Year falls several weeks later, so there’s a grey January-long gap in the Hong Kong holiday calendar.
To cheer myself up, I walk down the hill to a place where the holidays never end: the Eastern Spring Water Electric Company.
I love this place. It stays open until odd hours. Often I will be walking up Lyndhurst Terrace after a late dinner and Eastern Spring’s ever-twinkling light displays will still be going. The electric supplies shop is run by a husband-wife team. They speak just about enough English to do business with the expats who, especially in the last year or two, have been moving into the little flats all over the neighborhood.
This neighborhood–I guess you’d call it Central, edge of Soho–is in big time transition. It’s full of old four to six story Chinese buildings, tong laus, that used to be the homes of working class Hong Kong Chinese. The original flats–warrens of small rooms–are being cut open and renovated into the open “loft-like” spaces preferred by global urban trendsters. A familiar story to all of us who live in cities.
But the Eastern Spring shop is riding the new wave well. Everybody, rich, middle class, poor, Western and Chinese, needs extension cords, replacement bulbs…and especially blinking strings of Made-in-Mainland-China lights!
Confession: I translated the shop’s name–Yuen Dung Seui Dihn– a bit too poetically up there.
It should be Eastern Spring Utilities Company. “Seui Dihn” does indeed mean “water-electric” but the combo of the two characters is the Hong Kong shorthand for utilities.
It’s always tempting to go for the more evocative translation when you are going from Chinese into English. Because the language, even in an everyday ordinary context like a street sign, can make your head spin with all the possible allusions.
Take this shop’s name. Yuen can mean spring or source, but it also can mean fountainhead, which works so beautifully with the seui or “water” character. Water and electricity are both flowing rivers of abundance. And, just to ratchet things up even further on the metaphoric scale, the Cantonese word for water, seui, is sometimes used to mean money. Your san seui is your monthly salary.
But why? I asked my first Cantonese teacher, the venerable Mr. Wen. Why use one character to mean two completely different things?
Mr. Wen sighed impatiently at his slow-witted student.
“They are not different. Money is like water. Without it, no life.”