The Sausage Positions

Saturday afternoon I head out to the headquarters of the League of Social Democrats in Tsim Sha Tsui. How could I miss this event? Anson Chan is coming to pay a visit to the feisty leaders of Hong Kong’s feistiest band of politicians: ex-talk show host and restauranteur Wong Yuk-Man, district councillor “The Bull” Tsang Kin-Sheng, crusading epidemiologist Dr. Lo Wing Lok, perennial Legco gadfly Albert Chan Wai Yip, and the King of Feist himself, Leung Kwok Hung.

Scratch that last one. “I’m not going,” says Long Hair, when I call him to find out if it’s okay if I show up. (Anson Chan requested–can’t say I blame her– that the Q and A meeting with this potentially hostile grassroots band be conducted behind closed doors, no press). Why aren’t you going? I ask. “It would be awkward. I don’t support her. If I go, all the attention will be on our confrontation and that would be bad.”

Even though Long Hair’s absence means that fireworks probably won’t be on the afternoon’s program, I decide to go anyway. I’m interested to see how Anson Chan, member of the board of directors of Cartier, handles herself around the jeans-and-trainers working class LSD bunch. I’m also curious to hear how she comes across in Cantonese. Will she be as old-school and pleasantly formal in both languages as Margaret Ng? Or will her plummy British accent morph, like Emily Lau’s does when she shifts languages, into the speech of a baat poh, a cranky Hong Kong nosy neighbor.

When I get to the old office building on Kimberley Road where LSD has its headquarters, I am surprised to see party chairman Wong Yuk Man, wearing a spotless, perfectly pressed white jacket and an “anxious host” face, waiting with a couple of party members on the sidewalk outside–they’re waiting there to greet their guest Mrs. Chan the moment she arrives. It’s the right, polite Chinese thing to do, after all, to be haak hei. There’s a very old fashioned gentility and formality about the customs of Hong Kong party politics that you miss if you just read about it in the papers–or listen to Donald Tsang rant about “opposition parties” as if they were packs of raging beasts. 

The LSD didn’t want Mrs. Chan to be the pan-Democratic candidate in the Central district by-election, and Dr. Lo (their candidate) attacked her aggressively when they debated last month. But today, Dr. Lo is among the dignitaries waiting to greet Mrs. Chan on the tin toi, the terrace of the office building.  Chairs and a microphone are set up; little boxes of juice and sponge-and-cream cakes have been laid out. I say hi to Dr. Lo, and we chat for awhile about the Queen’s Pier demonstrations of last summer. Dr. Lo joined the sit in with the young demonstrators. When he found out they were writing protest posters to present to the government, using their own blood instead of paint, Dr. Lo donned rubber gloves, and brought sterile needles to draw their blood. “I wanted the children to be safe from infection,” he smiled. “Do you know it takes at least four pricks of the finger to write just one Chinese character?”

I ask him if he’s planning to run for the Central seat for the four-year term in the “real” election of 2008, and he says he is. Then, our talk shifts to the hot political topic of the day, which is not the dimpled grandmother with pearls about to ascend the elevator, but Leih Chiu Ming–Martin Lee. What do you think is up with these vicious attacks on Martin Lee? I ask the good doctor. I mention that I read the original Wall Street Journal article that the pro-Beijing hacks in the DAB are making such a big fuss about, and that I found it pretty weak tea. Innocuous, in fact.

Dr. Lo shakes his head. “It’s because of the translation into Chinese. They translated it wrong, and now everyone is shouting and screaming that Martin Lee’s a traitor.”

Matters of (mis) translation, of course, are of great interest to Learning Cantonese. so I ask Dr. Lo to explain the problem to me in detail. The doctor writes it out:


Martin Lee’s original article was a plea for the international community to use the occasion of the Olympics to make a “direct engagement” with Chinese leaders on the subject of human rights, democracy in China and Hong Kong, etc. Say the words “direct engagement” to any native English speaker, and their eyes will begin to glaze over–it is one of those overly-used high-minded blah blah blah phrases that means, well, blah blah blah. Discussion, diplomacy, face-to-face talks. But the article’s Chinese translators turned “direct engagement” into a stronger, meatier four character Chinese phrase: Jik jip gaai yahp. The last character is the killer: yahp means to go in, enter–a room, a territory, a country. Read the translation, and you come away with the impression that Lee wants America and the rest of the world to go in and make a “direct intervention.”

It’s too late to re-translate Martin Lee’s mis-represented English words. The Hong Kong Chinese language media–and the local Red Guards of Hong Kong’s DAB– have fixed the phrase jik jip gaai yahp in the public mind. A quick poll taken the other day shows that around 70 percent of Hong Kong people strongly disagree with Lee’s position. Or at least, they disagree with the bad translation of it.

But I don’t have any more time to talk with Dr. Lo about mistranslations, because Anson Chan yahp lai la! She sweeps through applause and smiles and takes a seat behind a table with Wong Yuk-Man and cameras  emerge from every other LSD member’s pocket.

As soon as she starts to speak, my heart sinks and I know I’m in trouble. Her Cantonese isn’t precise and bookish like Margaret Ng’s (and therefore easy for me to catch). What’s more, the microphone is terrible, her voice is soft, and I can barely make out what she’s saying above the street noise, the whirr of the fan, the background buzz of the LSD members on the fringes of the meeting. I can understand the topics under discussion–June 4th, the poverty of Tin Shui Wai, her bureaucratic background, the staggering inequities of Hong Kong society–but I can’t hear what she’s saying well enough to quote her. Just as well. This is supposed to be an off-the-record meeting. And so it shall remain.

Well, except for one quote. Listening to Chan, I hear her mentioning again and again something about her laap cheung. This totally throws me off because laap cheung is the Cantonese word for Chinese sausage.  I figure I must have heard it wrong. But then someone stands up and asks her again about laap cheung. Is this some old-school Cantonese slang that I’ve never heard before?  Torn between enormous feelings of stupidity and overwhelming curiosity, I finally cave and lean over to ask Andrew To: “Why is Anson Chan talking so much about sausage?”

His look says one thing: What in the world is in the woman’s box of iced chrysanthemum tea? I try again. “Anson’s talking so much about her laap cheung. Is th
is some slang?”

Finally, Andrew figures me out. “No, no! Laap cheung means POSITION– not Chinese sausage.”

I look it up when I get back home. According to my dictionary, I haven’t been hallucinating. In Cantonese, the two words–sausage (臘腸) and position (立場
)— are pronounced exactly the same way. But unless you know this, you will end up thinking that Anson Chan is making her delicious Cantonese-style stuffed pork intestine absolutely clear. Really, the road from Cantonese to English and back is a treacherous one. I feel Martin Lee’s pain.

So does Albert Chan Wai Yip. He’s restless, shifting around in his seat during the meeting with Anson Chan. He is the only one present who questions her aggressively enough to peel the smile from her face. Afterwards, he disappears from the meeting, and when he comes back, he tells me, in a low voice, “I just called Martin Lee to tell him I support him completely. Really, it is disgraceful that the Democratic Party has not stood up strongly behind him.”

Why aren’t they? I ask Chan.

“The District Council elections. They’re in trouble there, and they’re afraid if they stand strong behind Martin they will lose. But I say, what is the point of having a party if you are afraid to stand up for what you believe?”

And at this moment, as if on cue, Anson Chan finishes answering the last question, and the members of the League of Social Democrats stand up to applaud. “The Bull” clasps his hands in front of his chest in a “gung hei” position, and leads them in a cheer: “Jaan Chan taai! Jaan Chan taai” Praise to Mrs. Chan!”

Yes, this is Cantonese politeness and guest manners in action. But the whole thing still seems surreal to me. Bear with me, and follow my train of thought. The real reason Martin Lee is being attacked by Beijing and the DAB is not because he wrote a tepid Wall Street Journal article about human rights, but because he’s the hak sau, the black hand, behind Anson Chan’s candidacy–a move that challenges Beijing’s script. The attacks succeeded in scaring Martin Lee’s own party away from him during a difficult local election. Meanwhile, the LSD– which until last week was the least-enthusiastic group of Democrats in Anson Chan’s coalition–is standing up to praise Mrs. Chan.

Hong Kong politics, indeed, makes for some strange sausages.

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