Lik Go!

I live in Central, near Hollywood Road, the tourism crossroads of Hong Kong, if not Asia and the world. Every day I occupy the same points in space where Sun Yat Sen and his colleagues once ate noodle soup in restaurants that no longer exist. So it is natural that whenever I walk outside to buy Apple Daily, or to lo chin from the ATM at HSBC, I am always seeing ghosts. No, not the dead spirits of Chinese revolutionaries past. I mean the gwailo–Hong Kong’s Western tourists.

They are easy to spot. They’re the people wearing shorts and Birkenstocks even though it is 17 degrees C and “winter” and all the Hong Kongers (me too!) are wearing mufflers and wool sweaters.

(Years ago, during my first September in Hong Kong, I noticed that all the shop windows in the Kowloon Tong mall suddenly displayed mannequins wearing nubby wool coats and puffy down vests. This worried me, since I was planning to be in Hong Kong through December and hadn’t even packed a sweater. Concerned, I went up to a salesclerk at Agnes B and asked her, “Does it really get cold enough in Hong Kong over the winter to wear all this heavy clothing you have in the window?

She looked at me for a minute, then smiled reassuringly. “You are a Western person. You don’t need a coat. Only Chinese people get cold.”)

Anyway, back to the tourists. I will often see them stranded on the little traffic island between Hollywood Road and Lyndhurst Terrace, looking with bewilderment at the street signs, and then back at their guidebook maps. Then they look up to see if there is anyone they can ask for directions, and see Chinese faces everywhere.

This is where I rush in. It’s my karma. I can’t pass by anyone with a map and a puzzled expression without trying to help.

Usually, I’m able to orient them, then send them on their way with a few suggestions for sightseeing and restaurants. And, sometimes, the tourists will ask the helpful expat a question or two. This was yesterday’s:

“So, did they have to change all the street signs in Hong Kong from English to Chinese after the handover to China?”

Well, no, I begin explaining, because of course the signs were already written in Chinese before 1997, and because the English street names were already bilingual, and, actually, if you can read Chinese you’ll notice that…

The Western tourist looked at me blankly, and I cut my story short. “No. The street signs didn’t change after the handover. Enjoy your trip.”

How could I possibly explain in a minute, to someone who doesn’t read Chinese, the marvelous inter-linguistic brilliance, the cacophony of inspired cross-cultural collaboration that exists (for those who can read it) in just about every single street sign and advertisement in Hong Kong?

There are a lot of websites nowadays that specialize in finding bad, laughable Ching-lish and clumsily translated Chinese signs. The vast majority, if not all, of these signs are in Mainland China, where English is a recently introduced language, and where most Chinese translators are working from dictionaries, not from people.

But Hong Kong is a place where English and Cantonese speakers have lived side by side and have been talking to each other for more than a century. Everybody who lives here for a while picks up some of the other guy’s lingo, even if it’s just a few words. Daily communication in Hong Kong is linguistic collaboration.

The decades of back and forth have resulted in a street-level translation style that is almost like a third language. For someone who loves languages, reading through the wordplay of Hong Kong’s street signs is a delight without end. When I read the way that English becomes Cantonese becomes Chinese on these signs, I get knocked out by the ingenuity of average people who figure out, day after day, how to make two of the world’s most different sounding (and looking!) languages work together.

A picture, as they say, is ten thousand words, etc. From time to time I’m going to put up examples of “Cool Chinese-English Signs In Hong Kong” as a antidote to those other “Bad Chinese Translation” websites.

There are three basic genres of Hong Kong signage. The first, or simplest one, is this:

Staveley is a street in Central with an English name that has been phonetically translated, using Chinese characters, into Cantonese. This is a most common form of English-Chinese signage, and it is the reason why Hong Kong Chinese will often pronounce English street names quite differently from Westerners. It is not because of a bad accent. It is because they are “reading” the characters, which may come close to the English pronounciation, but don’t always exactly match. In the case of “Staveley Street,” the charaters are pronounced like this:

Si Ta Fa Leih

Not quite, but close. (Come to think of it, I’m not even sure how to pronounce “Staveley” in English!) Likewise, you have Yi lei gan for “Elgin” street, and Ho lei woot for Hollywood. You get the idea. Oh, incidentally, the name on the old sign above is meant to be read from right to left. Nowadays though, most Chinese signs read left to right, Western style. People who don’t understand Chinese often ask me how I can tell which way to read the signs. My un-helpful answer is: You can just tell.

Okay, now for the other simple sign type. These signs take the meaning of the English name or saying, and do a straightforward translation into Cantonese words, using Chinese characters. So you have:


Gau Gwong Dung Tid is Cantonese for “KCR East Rail”, and Jung Gaan Douh means Middle Road. This is probably a good place to point out, for the benefit of non-Cantonese speakers, that Chinese characters are pronounced differently in Cantonese than they are in Mandarin. There’s a great advantage in learning to say your Chinese characters the Cantonese way, because then you can tell taxi drivers and other folks where you are going, just by reading aloud the signs or the legends on a Chinese character map.

Finally, we come to the my favorite sign genre: Staggering Flashes of Cross-Linguistic Brilliance. There are lots, everywhere in Hong Kong, but here’s one close to my home:

“Let’s Go” is the name of my local meat market. The first two characters on the left (it reads from left to right) are pronounced Lik Go. Lik Go…Let’s Go…get it? Even better (and more subtle) the lik character takes the lowest Cantonese tone, and the go takes the highest, so that when you say the phrase in Cantonese you even approximate the English language inflection…”Let’s go!!!!”

But it gets even cooler when you dive down into the sign at the subtext level of the Chinese characters. Here we have lik,
which means strength, power, vigor. And
usually means high, tall or rising, but it also carries the meaning of top or first class (Hong Kong’s High Court is called Go Kap Faat Yuen).

In other words, the person who named this shop and wrote and translated its sign did much more than simply transliterate the sound of its English name into Cantonese.  This very clever and talented translator selected Chinese characters that add yet another layer of meaning. Everyone who reads Chinese will get the message.

So, if you need powerful and vigorous, top-class meat, what are you waiting for?  Lik Go!

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