Eat Smoke

Thursday evening. I go to meet David and some friends for drinks at my neighborhood joint, Club 71. It’s the first time I’ve been out to a bar since Hong Kong’s new anti-smoking law took effect last Monday.

I should explain Club 71 a bit for you out-of-towners. It’s a magic little place, located on a small lane off of Hollywood Road–to get there, you walk down an extremely steep side street, then duck left into a dark alleyway that’s a bit scary at first because the entrance is patrolled by a squadron of smelly stray cats.

If you make it past the furry gatekeepers, you’ll be welcomed into what is probably Hong Kong’s only genuine Bohemian enclave, a real paradise for those of us who remember Bob Dylan, all night college bull sessions, and peace demonstrations.

There’s a guitar hanging on the wall. Flyers from artists, alternative theater groups, and political and human rights organizations on a special shelf in the back. Hemlock hates the place. He thinks its a magnet for that sorry, furry-haired and down at heels Hong Kong species, the sad gweilo (c.f. Lamma Island).

That is sometimes true. But usually not. I like to go to Chaat Yat because on a good weeknight it draws a crowd of interesting regulars, mainly Hong Kong Cantonese, who’ve been hanging out with each other at Grace Ma’s different bars for a decade or more. (Feminist and activist Grace Ma is Chaat Yat’s co-owner.)

Anyway, I get there and David is saving a chair for me at the bar. We order drinks, wish each other Happy New Year, and suddenly I notice something odd. Although the night is quite chilly, David and I are the only two people actually in the bar. Everybody else–Wilson, Long Hair and a bunch of other guys– is outside huddled around one of the folding tables Grace sets out in the lane.

Welcome to the wonderful new world of smoke-free Hong Kong.

Long Hair is obeying the law, but he’s not a happy camper about it. He’s out there at the table, rolling cigarettes from Drum tobacco, and joking about how Macau should seize the moment and take advantage of a Hong Kong full of disgruntled smokers. “They should offer half-price discounts on the ferry to Hong Kong smokers! Come over to Macau…you can smoke here!”

As we all learned in the 60s, the political is personal. I’m thrilled about the smoking ban. I have a touch of asthma. It hasn’t bothered me since I was a teenager, but last winter I started to wheeze again from the fragrant breezes of economic expansion drifting down from Guangdung province. And from hanging out with too many interesting characters in tiny HK bars and restaurants–why are they all smokers?


One of the things I love about Cantonese is the way it gets straight to the down and dirty. In Mandarin, when somebody lights up, they say “kap yin”, “inhale smoke.” But the Cantonese say “sik yin”, which means, literally, to eat smoke.

The character for smoke
is the one with the little figure at the edge that looks like a stick man with arms and legs. If you look carefully at it, you’ll notice that it is actually a picture with three separate elements (the stick guy on the left, and two other glyphs on the right side, top and bottom. These parts are called radicals. They correspond, in a way, to root woods and suffixes and prefixes in English.

Just like root words, radicals are clues. If you see a character you don’t understand, but can recognize a radical inside it, you can hazard a guess as to what the character’s meaning is. Or you can use the little picture as a mnemonic. The little guy with the arms and legs, for example, is fo, fire, and you’ll also find him dancing inside the characters for barbecue, lights, and fireworks.

At the bottom right, that cross-like thing is the character for earth, tou. And above it that thing that looks like pi surrounded by a square, is the character that means “West”. I have no idea what the buried story inside the “smoke” character actually is–maybe someone can tell me.

But I’ve made a story up anyway. “West”, in Chinese culture, is the direction of death, and represents the afterlife. I imagine the smoke is rising from the earth character below, up to heaven in the West, the way it does when Chinese burn paper money and offerings to their departed. In other words, yin is a little stick man dancing at his own funeral.

One of the reasons I hate (detest! Don’t get me started on this subject!) the simplified characters they use in Mainland China is that the design of most of these new characters obscures or even eliminates the radicals. Plus, they’re ugly and look pretty awful when used in Chinese calligraphy.

Back inside, at the bar, I mention Learning Cantonese to David and his friend Mok, a philosophy professor. Mok instantly groans. “That must be a depressing blog.” Why? “Because learning Cantonese for us was painful.

David explains that, back in their school days in the 1960s, teachers would routinely beat them if they didn’t learn their characters and do their homework. The parents supported the teachers. This was the atmosphere in which every Hong Kong kid of a certain age learned to read and write Chinese. “Actually, we got tortured sometimes,” says David. “I had one teacher who would do this….”

He puts his hand down on the bar, fingers splayed, then takes a pencil and rolls it back and forth, hard, over his digits and knuckles.

He laughs, I cringe. What a way to get literate. No wonder most of my Hong Kong Cantonese friends eat smoke.


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