Guest Blogger, Inspector Ma Lau Jai: Adventures of a Gweilo HK Cop
I’m away in India, far from lai see, poon choi, fai chun and yin fa. Well scratch that last one—there are firecrackers popping off here every night, because it is Wedding Season here in Rajasthan. Some tobacco mogul from Goa has rented out the entire palace in Udaipur—it’s as big as several city blocks– for his son’s multi-million dollar wedding, and every evening the sky starts exploding with colourful smoking flowers.
It’s almost like Hong Kong, except for the pollution.
But I haven’t forgotten the readers of Learning Cantonese at this festive time of year. I’ve found a terrific and unique guest blogger for this week leading up to the Chinese New Year: Inspector Ma Lau Jai of the Hong Kong Police Force.
Inspector M. is one of the last gweilo cops on the force, and like all gweilo cops, he’s fluent in Cantonese. In the following installments, he explains how he learned to insult your mother and interrogate Triads like a real Hong Kong native, and he recounts some of adventures he’s had along the way.
His stories are wonderful, and I was amazed to learn that this is one of his first outings as a writer. I hope it will not be the last. Please welcome Inspector Ma Lau Jai!
Part 1: “A Devil of a Language”
Most non-Hong Kongers are bemused when they find out that I’m an English cop working for the Chinese Communist Government. Fair enough, my employer is actually the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region as opposed to the PRC directly but the place was handed back 10 years ago, right?
Well, like all other civil servants the Basic Law guaranteed me continued employment after 1997 irrespective of the fact that I hold a burgundy-red passport with a golden Royal coat of arms on the front cover. Like all the other ‘gweilo bong-ban’ [lit. ghost man inspector], I was recruited by the then colonial government through a series of interviews at Hong Kong House in London. The last arrivals appeared in late 1994 and aside from the odd ‘heung jiu yan’ [lit. banana person], or Overseas Chinese, all recruits since then have been local officers fluent in written and spoken Cantonese.
The vast majority of my ‘gweilo’ contemporaries came from one of three main backgrounds: the Armed Services, the UK Police or a British university, with a preponderance of those with prior experience of living or working overseas. Retirement, the lure of better-paid private sector work or a desire to return to the Mother Country have seen numbers dwindle from about 1000 when I arrived in the early 90s to about 250-and-falling now. The Royal Bermuda Constabulary has the odd Brit amongst its ranks but we’re effectively the last remnants of the colonial cops who once served throughout the British Empire. Probably the most famous being George Orwell who was a copper in Burma during the 1930s.
Cantonese ability was not a pre-requisite for the job, although an aptitude for languages no doubt gave one an edge in the selection process. The kindly old Superintendent in London told us that it was “a devil of a language to learn” and that it might help if one could sing and read music. Then again he also warned us that it was impossible to find shoes larger than English size 9s and that safari suits (‘lip jong’) were de rigeur for young inspectors. Being musically tone deaf I remained undeterred and hoped that my desire to make the acquaintance of almond-eyed beauties might provide the necessary incentive to learn. Fortunately, I decided to wait until getting here to fit for a ‘lip jong’ and my first night on the town persuaded me that in the 1990s this was wholly unnecessary.
Cantonese was not given much prominence during the first weeks of training. The days were consumed with much marching around, lots of being shouted at by angry-looking Chinese drill and musketry instructors who put the fear of God into us and every evening spent ploughing through incomprehensible law books until the early hours. The obligatory swear words were learnt together with ‘be jau’, ‘lei ho leng’ and ‘mo man tai’ but that was it. Not much different to other expats’ experiences I suppose.
Things changed in Week 8 of training when we were separated from our local classmates and taken away to commence full time Cantonese instruction. By this stage we were physically and mentally whacked and instead of looking forward to the joys of a new language, it was a time for rest. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that the classroom was in a basement dungeon and days consisted of a full on 8 hours of instruction with minimal breaks. One of the teachers was an octogenarian called Jimmy who was a real character. He occasionally found the pace too much on long afternoons and would nod off, at which point we would creep out of the classroom quietly to ‘sik yin’. He became most animated when we got him to regale us with his tales of derring-do with the British Army Aid Group during the war. He would collapse in uncontrollable giggles whenever we brought up the subject of ‘cha siu baau’, which he claimed used to be called ‘yat boon jai baau’. There being limited meat available during the war people had to make do and, according to Jimmy, Jap soldiers who drunkenly collapsed in rear alleyways at night would sometimes ‘disappear’.
The biggest obstacle to our linguistic progress however was the fact that Jimmy was half-deaf. Given that Cantonese is a tonal tongue, this hardly helped us to perfect our accents. Neither had the course material altered much since the sixties and we had endless fun perusing the vocabulary sheets and making up phrases such as, “Hey, you Teddy Boy. Yes, the one who speaks with a glib tongue. Stop that monkey business!”