Mmmm. More Sign Language

Yesterday I was out walking in Causeway Bay. And when I looked up to admire this lovely example of classic Hong Kong restaurant neon, I realized I’d left out an important category of Hong Kong street signs in the article below.

These are the signs that say one thing in Chinese, and then say something completely different in English. I call these the “It doesn’t work in both languages so why bother
trying to translate it?” signs. There are concepts that just don’t travel well from language to language. As one of our readers points out, sometimes a name or phrase that sounds just fine in Chinese can sound really bad in English, and vice versa. That’s when you need to forget about trying to translate, and start from scratch.

It’s fairly common for Hong Kong restaurants to have two different names, in English and Chinese, that don’t bear any relation to each other. Like this place, the “Red Pepper Restaurant”. The Chinese characters aren’t a translation of “Red Pepper” at all. They say: Naam Baak Lau, which means “South North Restaurant”.

“South North” is a very catchy and informative term for Cantonese speakers, for “north” and “south” are shorthand for regions of China.  So a Hong Kong person will understand from the name that this restaurant serves a variety of dishes from different Chinese cuisines–that it is not a Cantonese style eatery (although there may be some Canto-dishes on the menu).

Most Western customers would not get this at all. So the restaurant has re-branded itself in English as “Red Pepper”, which makes the place sound very attractive to foreigners, many of whom are used to eating some variation of Hunan-Sichuan cuisine in their home countries, and who expect “authentic” Chinese cuisine to set off a fire alarm in their mouths .

Hong Kong Cantonese, by and large, are not big fans of the hot stuff (although that’s changing in the younger generation). A big restaurant that called itself “Laat”, hot-spicy, would probably fold fast–nobody’s grandmother would go near the place.

Two languages, two names, for two kinds of customers. Hey, it works.

By the way, I’ve never eaten at Naam Baak/Red Pepper restaurant, so I can’t vouch for its food (the menu looks heavy on the Sichuan dishes). Let me know what you think if you’ve tried it.

But I love their old sign. Sadly, I’ve found that the Hong Kong restaurants with the most spectacular neon signs often fail to live up to the promise of those bright blinking lights. One big exception is the classic 24 hour downtown cha chaan teng, Tsui Wah where the sleepless can go sip tea and munch on fa saang do si, peanut butter toast, under blazing-bright flourescent tubes at 4am.

And then there’s this place, right around the corner from Naam Baak/Red Pepper, which should be at the top of your “Things to do in Causeway Bay” list. Sorry, I can’t find a good shot of Yee Shun Milk Company‘s terrific neon cow sign in my files. But never mind, we should just cut to the heart of the matter…and it is a wonderfully milky, velvety, delicate matter. Get ready to taste one of the most extraordinary treats Hong Kong has to offer:

Skillfully hand-made ginger syrup double-boiled milk!


I can’t even remember how I landed in here the first time. Swallowing spoon after
spoon of the intoxicating, warm and tangy milk custard that comes in
these sweet little bowls is such a heady experience that I’m afraid it
has messed up my memory.
I think I wandered in on my own, drawn by the blinking neon cow and the jiggling, tender bowls of custard. Yee Shun’s always packed, and if you come in alone you’ll be seated with a stranger. Maybe a kind Hong Kong stranger across the formica table was the first person to initiate me into the cult of geung jaap dan naai.

Speaking of spoons, for the ginger juice steamed milk, you’ll be offered a choice of porcelain or plastic scoop. While the porcelain is more aesthetically pleasing, you’ll soon discover the plastic one is a better bet, because it is sharp-edged, and your repeated scoops will not cause the fragile custard to break up and turn watery. Oh, and when the server asks if you want yours hot or cold, you say yit ge, hot, of course.

In the back kitchen of Yee Shun Milk Company, which has branches in Mongkok and Macau, they are constantly steaming milk custards for their huge turnover of customers. That’s why this custard has no equal anywhere else in the world–it’s the kind of last minute-y preparation that only works as a business if you have a lot of customers, and a famous place dedicated to making the specialty. Over and over, perfect every time.

I’ve seen “double boiled milk custard” on the menu in other places. One cold New York winter’s night, longing for Hong Kong, my friend Ping and I ordered it at a Chinatown place called Sweet and Tart. Big mistake. It had so much egg white binding it together you could taste it, and I swear there was gelatin in there too. New York is a cold, custardless place.

To that Chinatown cow’s milk, ngau naai, I said nay. An English word which doesn’t quite capture the elusive sound of the Cantonese ng. Ng is hard to describe, for it is one of the few Cantonese pronounciations that has no English (or Mandarin!) equivalent. The ng is as special to the Cantonese language as ginger steamed milk is to Hong Kong.

If you want to ng, think nasal, put your tongue in the back of your throat, then go mm. That’s still not quite it.  Actually, ng is not that easy for Cantonese speakers to say either, and that’s why it is an Endangered Sound.

Seriously, linguists predict it may not exist in Cantonese for much longer, since Hong Kongers of this generation tend to drop the hard-to-say ng altogether. And an initial “n” sound often morphs, lazily, into an L. So ngau (cow) has become au, naai (milk) is usually laai. It’s totally confusing and I have enormous difficulty keeping my ng, my n, my au’s and aai’s straight. Thank goodness I am lucky to have some sharp-eyed and terrific readers of this blog to help me.

When Ng stands alone, it turns into a low, thoughtful sounding Mm. Hong Kongers refer to the Civic Party’s brilliant pro-democracy legislator as Margaret Mmmm.

(Many Ng –surnamed Cantonese people, concerned about their name’s evaporating presence in the world of pronounciation, have opted to change the transliteration of their surname to the Mandarin equivalent, Wu. But they can’t hide for long, because the cute little stick figure man character
in their Chinese name gives them away. John Woo, the famous Hong Kong director, is actually John Ng. )

Anyway if you want to hear the perfect ng before it’s extinct, you should sign up for Cantonese lessons with a good teacher, fast. And then head down to Yee Shun Milk company, where ngau naai–with ng’s and n’s and a creamy, delicious taste intact is in no danger of disappearing.

Yee Shun Milk Company
85 Percival Street, Causeway Bay
Hong Kong

(P.S. There are also two in Macau, one right on Senado Square, and one on San Ma Lou. I think these are the original shops, but don’t quote me. To me the custard in the Macau shops has a slightly creamier texture and milkier taste than the Hong Kong version–different ngau naai, maybe?)


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