Ngoi Gwok Yan

“But I don’t think that foreigners would like to read your blog. It will be too difficult for them to understand. Cantonese is very, very difficult for a foreigner to learn.”

It’s Leung, calling me from somewhere in the bowels of the MTR on his way to Tsuen Kwan O. Yesterday I told him about Learning Cantonese and gave him the website address. Now he’s reporting back to me on his findings, and even over the roar of the train I can tell from his tone of voice he’s trying to advise me gently that I’ve launched a slightly mad, overly-idealistic campaign whose chances of ever succeeding are dubious at best.

This is Longhair speaking. The lone Trotskyite in Hong Kong’s legislature.

I’m not discouraged because by now I’m used to the way Cantonese react to a foreigner trying to come to grips with their language and culture. A foreigner who, indeed, has a head-over-heels crush on it. I won’t go on about it here because the encounters between Cantonese language students and native speakers are well-documented in other students’ blogs, and also by me in articles like this one and this one.

Basically the reactions fall into two categories: well-meaning (if overly-effusive and polite) praise at your willingness to throw yourself into what they consider a hopeless task. Or a finger-wagging, “Why don’t you study Mandarin so you can speak good Chinese?”

And then people will switch the conversation to English.

That’s why Hong Kong is often a frustrating place for a wanting-know-speak-Cantonese-language ge outside-country-person.


“Foreigner”, in Cantonese is ngoi gwok yan–or literally,  “Outside Country Person”.  But “outside” is a slippery concept in Hong Kong, a city of immigrants where almost everybody, Westerners as well as ethnic Chinese, has roots someplace beyond the boundaries of the city. “Ngoi gwok” also gets messy and politically charged in another way, since it involves the word gwok, country. Does that gwok mean country as in nation, or country as in heritage? Is a Taiwanese in Hong Kong a ngoi gwok yan?

In everyday speech, heritage seems to trump politics. The phrase ngoi gwok yan generally is used interchangeably with sai yan (west person) as a more polite way of referring to a Westerner than the slangy, somewhat pejorative gwailo.

So in daily speech, a Hong Konger like my friend Tim (who was born and raised in Hong Kong of Anglo-British parents) is a ngoi gwok yan. And my friend Joyce, with Hong Kong-born parents, who grew up in the U.S. and is bilingual but English-dominant (she can’t read Chinese and speaks and writes in colloquial American) is called a “Hong Kong person”. But what about Tiffany, English-speaking, born in HK, whose mom is Hong Kong Cantonese and whose dad is Anglo-Australian?

The confusion about what a ngoi gwok yan is, and what language that yan ought to be speaking makes for some hilarious theater sometimes. Last night I went out to dinner with a couple of friends of a friend who were visiting Hong Kong from New York. Stephanie and Candace are both in their forties, hip (they work in fashion), extremely well-traveled, sophisticated foodies–the perfect tourist demographic to really appreciate this city’s delights. The Hong Kong tourism board’s shopping-paradise-Disneyland propaganda completely misses the mark for travelers like these, who are in search of some Hong Kong soul. So, even though I was kind of tired, I revved up and got into my Discover Cool Hong Kong tour guide mode.

First, I took the out of towners on a walk through incense-choked alleys and down snakelike stone staircases from Central to Sheung Wan. Candace loved the gaai sih, the open air Central food market that’s one of the best in the world, and was incredulous that the HK government might be thinking about shutting it down someday for “urban renewal”. I told her about the recent Star Ferry debacle and she looked stricken. “They’re replacing it with a highway and a shopping mall?”

Finally, we reached Sheung Hing, that famous old Chiu Chow place on Queen’s Road West. It was perfect. The restaurant was packed, and the headwaiter suitably brusque and grumpy in that almost cinematic Hong Kong way. I asked him, in Cantonese, if he had a table for three.

“No room! No room!” he shouted in English, waving his hands in the air and hustling us out to the sidewalk.

He ran off down the sidewalk to the other branch of Sheung Hing–the restaurant occupies two un-attached storefronts, each with a separate kitchen, and the staff spends all night rushing along the sidewalk, hustling hot dishes back and forth from one kitchen to the other. When the headwaiter made the return trip I corralled him again and asked, again in Cantonese, if there was any chance of getting a table and how long it would take.

This time, finally, he responded in his native language. “Dang dang hah.” Wait a while.

But he wasn’t speaking at me. He was speaking straight at Stephanie.

Stephanie’s a native New Yorker. But her parents emigrated there from the Toisan area of Guangdong province. She looks Cantonese, although she can’t speak it–just some Mandarin from school, and some Toisan-wah from home.

But to the waiter, Stephanie’s Chinese face made her the Designated Cantonese Driver in our group. I’d talk to the waiter in Cantonese, he’d look away and direct his comment in Stephanie’s direction. It’s the inverse of what often happens in America and England, when overseas born or and/or educated Asians have to contend with strangers speaking to them loudly and slowly–as if the listener doesn’t understand his or her own first language.

Like I said, hou fuk jaap. Really confusing. But I like confusing.

In the end, the three of us didn’t have to wait on the sidewalk very long. After about five minutes, the headwaiter opened a rickety folding table, crammed it into the vestibule of the restaurant, and set down an extra stool so we could all squeeze in. We ordered the famous Chiu Chow dishes, of course, the steamed cold giant crab and the incomparable goose braised in sauce, lo seui ngo….

鹵水, or lo seui is made with soy sauce and other herbs and spices–even tangerine peel I think–that’s been slow cooked for hours and hours, and then the leftover gets re-used to make the next batch so it gradually grows more tasty and subtle. The goose gets slow-cooked in it along with strips of tofu, they absorb the flavor of the sauce, and the end product is sublime. You could die happy eating this. I think I prefer this Chiu Chow style of goose preparation to the traditional Cantonese roasting method that you find at restaurants like the well-known Yung Kee.

My friend Ah Lan makes lo seui, and one of these days I will take her up on her offer to teach me how to do it. Until then I’ll have to go to Sheung Hing (or if you know a better place please tell me!) to enjoy a Hong Kong treat that is, for this ngoi gwok yan, something really ngoi sai gaai. Out of this world.


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