Guest Blogger: More From Inspector Ma Lau Jai

(The English Inspector’s progress in Cantonese continues as he encounters the language’s more “colorful” vocabulary….)


Part 2: “Police Terms and Expressions”


The most useful lesson we had, and the one that grabbed our attention more than any other, was when they brought in a senior local officer from the Organised Crime & Triad Bureau to teach us Police Cantonese. The lesson sheet for this was a blank sheet of paper entitled ‘Police Terms & Expressions’. We soon found out why it was blank, as he proceeded to reel off some of the most unprintable swear words and phrases imaginable. By the time we hit the beat for the first time, we may not have been able to string a useful sentence together in the local lingo but this lesson at least enabled us to recognise whether someone was being derogatory and gave us the ability to fling back an equally colourful reply. Cantonese has a reputation as a language with a particularly graphic collection of swear words. However, before being sent in to quell the boat people riots we were given a crash course in Vietnamese, which is an even more vivid language in this regard.


Fortunately for us, not to mention the public, we were always accompanied (read baby sat) by a hardened local sergeant during our first uniformed forays into the jungle of Mong Kok’s rear lanes and dens of iniquity. This is where the rudiments of Cantonese learnt under training blossomed into something approaching a working knowledge. Despite 150 years of British rule we soon discovered that unlike in Training School, 95% of the populace including our own constables could not communicate in English. It was a steep learning curve: some managed it but many did not. Fortunately, for the latter group it proved possible to get by in English with a smattering of Cantonese. The vast majority of paperwork and management level work remains in English to this day and there are many ‘gweilo bong ban’ whose knowledge of ‘baak wah’ is limited. However, for those who enjoy Police work at the sharp end, a respectable command of Cantonese is essential. Just to complicate matters (as if Cantonese is not difficult enough to learn as it is) Police ‘Chinglish’ is almost a patois on its own. Even now many of the, to my ears, wholly Chinese terms are incomprehensible to anyone outside of the Force. I can quite happily chat away to my lads and lasses in the canteen but were I to be speaking to a group of local office workers they may not grasp half of what I was coming out with. Triads on the other hand could probably understand just as much as the PCs!



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