Hau Houh

Here in downtown Hong Kong, there’s no escape from the upcoming Legco by-election. The posters began popping up last week. Shop windows, building walls, market stalls, every merchant in my neighborhood is coming out of the closet to show support for their favorite candidate. This is not such a great thing. A moral dilemma now confronts me every time I run an errand. The stall of the stinky tofu seller in the gaai sih, the Graham Street market, is awash in Regina Ip posters–should I go buy my stinky tofu from a less odiferous shop? My beloved Perfect Laundromat has, thank goodness, decided to keep its politics separate from the dirty linen, but its competitor down the street, the Ho Ho Laundry,  has two dimpled photos of democracy doyenne Anson Chan on its walls. Should I be supporting Hong Kong democracy by changing my laundromat, even if it doesn’t use my favorite fabric softener?

I head down Lyndhurst Terrace, to the bank, and as I’m standing on line I notice a mini-shrine to Anson Chan in the window of the Tai Cheong bakery:

This one’s no surprise. Tai Cheong is the bakery that hangs its reputation on the loyal patronage of Chris “Fatty” Patten, Hong Kong’s egg-tart-loving colonial governor (Anson Chan was Patten’s number two). Eat daan taat for lunch, support Democracy in Hong Kong!

The staunch support for Regina Ip amongst the fishmongers, pork butchers and vegetable hawkers in the old market, though, doesn’t make much sense to me. Regina Ip is pro-goverment, and this is the same government that is about to steamroll over the Central Street market with an urban renewal project–aka, two luxury apartment towers, a hotel, some office buildings, and a “heritage corner” that will “preserve” the old food market by re-creating several stalls in a shopping mall. These vegetable sellers and pork butchers will have to abandon their businesses and retire, or move out to Tuen Mun, thanks to the visionary people at the HK government who see nothing wrong with bulldozing another of Hong Kong’s most famous attractions, Asia’s oldest outdoor food market.

Surely the market vendors don’t want more of this sort of government policy. So why in the world are they backing Ms. “I’ll Do Better Than My Best”?

Or, I should say, Ms. San dik yat yihp gang cheut sik, which is the official Cantonese slogan, or hau hou, of the Regina Ip campaign. This is as good a moment as any to tell you that I love the Chinese characters for “hau houh”.


…which consist of the character , which means “mouth” and the character, which is used for a lot of things: number, position, symbol. You’ll see it most frequently in addresses, and on the doors of houses and buildings, sometimes on license plates–think of it as the Chinese #.

But back to Regina’s hau hou. As readers of this blog will have guessed by now, Ip’s Cantonese slogan has absolutely nothing to do with her (pretty lame and arguably ungrammatical) English one. It’s a wordplay that riffs off the character for Ip’s surname, which in Cantonese is pronounced yip, and is the same character and sound as the Cantonese word for leaf. Literally translated, it goes like this: (The) New Leaf (Is) Even More Outstanding
<a style="font-weight: normal; font-family: Verdana;" onmouseover="return overlib('san1
new; novel; fresh; beginning; ‘,CAPTION,’

‘, AUTOSTATUS, WRAP);” onmouseout=”nd();” class=”help charlink” href=”http://www.cantonese.sheik.co.uk/dictionary/characters/716/”&gt;

You don’t have to be a brilliant campaign strategist to get what Ip’s handlers are trying to do here–position their candidate as an All! New! Improved! No MSG or Article 23! reformulated product.

Will the Ip–or Yip– hau hou do the trick? My guess is not. Any savvy campaign strategist will tell you that if you want the public to forget about your past actions, you stop mentioning them and move on to the next news cycle. But embedded in Ip’s campaign slogan is a constant, nagging reminder of the “old leaf”–Ip’s previous incarnation, as the Bureaucracy Broomhead who tried to ram through legislation that would have allowed police to search and seize property without warrant any time they suspected that “national security” was being breached.

The other problem with Ip’s slogan is that it is ripe for, um, reinterpretation:

The night before last, Long Hair showed up at a Regina Ip rally waving–what’s this!?–a big Regina Ip poster. But wait a minute, what’s that hau hou?


In Cantonese, it sounds almost the same: San Dik Yat Yip Mouh Cheut Sik. But it’s a clever parody that dumps the original meaning of the slogan on its head by substituting a different “yip” character for Regina’s surname. The meanings of this yip are as bad as it gets–evil, monstrous, bastard (son of a concubine). The “new, improved” Regina hau hou states: (The) New Evil (has) No Future.

Actually, it’s even worse than worst. Long Hair (“Yes of course I wrote this. It only took me a minute”) told me that the yip Chinese character he used has a Buddhist/Taoist connotation to it. “It is like the most evil of evil. The kind that you need to expurgate and work through so you don’t carry it on to your next life. And if you don’t get rid of the bad karma you have no future, you could be re-incarnated as an animal.”

Or a broom? Seriously, as long as we’re getting all Taoist here, I would like to point out something that I’ve yet to see mentioned in the reams of commentary that have been spun out about this special election for the future of Hong Kong’s Democracy movement–aka the six remaining months of an unexpired seat in Hong Kong’s hamstrung legislature. And that is not the hau houh but the houh.

Houh as in number. Regina Ip’s poll position is the deadly 4–the sei, that rhymes with sei that means death (which is the reason why this Legco seat came available in the first place…coincidence..or destiny?). Note how Ip’s graphic designers have tried to downplay the fatal digit by burying that 4 in an uninspiring light pastel orange against a blurry background (compare this to the bright red, eye-popping and bad-omen-free “7” on Anson Chan’s poster).

They know. Regina Ip cannot run away from her yip past, or her unfortunate houh. That’s it. This Sunday, sei la!–she’ll be history.


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