Ho Yih

Deja vu time. Exactly one year after starting this blog, once again it is New Year’s Day. and once again I’m riding a bicycle down Queen’s Road in Hong Kong with a group of democracy activists from the League of Social Democrats. This time, though, our marvelous (and rare) bicycle tour through downtown Hong Kong has a more extensive route. At two pm, we gather by the waterfront in Fortress Hill, and ride through busy Causeway Bay and Wan Chai before streaking in double file towards the finish line across the street from Statue Square. “The route is longer this year,” explains the demo organizer, activist Lau San Ching. “Because this year the road to democracy in Hong Kong is longer, too.”

The sky is postcard blue, the air clear and crisp–there’s a “cold” warning up at the Hong Kong Observatory (which means that it might plunge below–yes, you Canadian readers are welcome to laugh now–50 degrees Fahrenheit. But hey, that’s pretty freezing when you live in buildings with no insulation or central heat). As we weave through crowds of afternoon shoppers, somebody fixes Long Hair up with a headset microphone so he can shout out the march’s key slogans while maintaining a firm grip on the handlebars. “Heung Gong Yi Ling Yat Yi Seung Po Syun!” “Faan Deui Leung Dihn Ga Ga!”

I take it all in, and notice I’m taking in much more than usual. In the last few weeks my Cantonese has finally moved off the miserable frozen plateau where it has been languishing all year. While my ability to read Chinese characters has steadily improved all year, my conversational Cantonese had gotten so bad that I could hardly get through daily pleasantries with the amazing Mrs. Wong Syut Ha, my doorlady. So a few weeks ago I signed up for some conversation classes, and it’s recharged my Canto-vocabulary batteries. Also, I gave myself a vacation from writing in English for the last couple of weeks, which really seems to help. When I’m wrapped up too much in one language, there doesn’t seem to be room for a second to find its way in.

In any case, I am thrilled to be understanding just about everything going on around me –from the slogans (“Hong Kong 2012 must have universal suffrage!” “Oppose the two electric company’s price hikes!”), to the instructions of the police as they guide our merry band of cyclers across intersections and around busses, trucks and cable cars.

We reach the Legco building, dismount, and a bunch of us–Long Hair, Ah Ngau (the Bull, Tsang Kin-sheng), Wong Yuk-man and Albert Chan Wai Yip–stroll over to Canteen, the only cheap cafeteria in the super-pricey Prince’s Building.

The exertion of the ride, and the beauty of the day, has worked magic–everyone’s smiling and laughing. I’m  feeling so good, I break my moratorium on greasy cha chaan teng cuisine and order siu ngaap faan–that’s a bowl of rice topped with slices of barbecued duck (mostly the skin and fat parts. As the old saying goes: Yauh yauh, yauh peih, yauh meih! If it’s oily and has skin, then it’s tasty. Yum!).

Comfort food for discomfiting times. For anyone who cares about the future and well-being of Hong Kong, it’s been a really, really crappy couple of days. Right before Christmas, as the world and the media were shutting down for the holidays, and half of Hong Kong was about to split town, the National People’s Congress sprung a surprise. Guess what! This week we’re going to meet to consider and vote on Hong Kong’s electoral future!

Those of you who’ve read about this in the international press are probably wondering why this was an event that sent the Big Chill to Hong Kong’s democracy movement. The headlines, mostly, read: “Hong Kong to have Universal Suffrage in 2017, says Chinese Government.”

Okay, so it’s a long way off, but now the Chinese leaders have committed to a timetable, so this is a huge step forward, right? That’s what Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang proclaimed, with a triumphant smirk on his face, to the Hong Kong people after the decision was announced.

As is always the case in politics–and especially in politics conducted in the Chinese language–the devil’s in the details. In two little words, actually: ho yih.

Ho yih”,  可以 , is a compound Chinese word comprised of two characters– the first, ho, means can, able, may,  and the second character, yih means “implement”. Together, the phrase is usually translated as or “may”, “permitted” or “it is possible”. According to the text of the National People’s Congress decision, the Hong Kong people ho yih have universal suffrage to elect the Chief Executive in 2017. At some time after that, (the declaration doesn’t specify when) the Hong Kong people ho yih elect their Legislative Representatives by one-person-one vote.

But ho yih, just like the English “may”, is slippery, fuzzy, indefinite. Just because you “ho yih” do something, doesn’t mean you’ll actually be able to do it. Ho yih belongs to the realm of polite expressions. The radical, or root, of the character is the mouth character, 口, or hau. The mouth radical, as you’d expect, usually shows up in Chinese words that have to do with the spoken word. (In the so-called “bad” vernacular writing practiced by Hong Kong tabloid newspapers like Ta Kung Pao, you’ll notice the 口 radical appears at the left side of many colloquial Cantonese characters. It’s there as a marker to let you know that the character is a transcription of spoken Cantonese speech and not “correct” standard written Chinese.)

In other words, “Ho” is a character that has at its middle an open mouth. It might be filled with good intentions, but also might be filled with hot (albiet polite) air.

It’s a commonplace belief among non-Chinese speakers that Chinese is one of the world’s most ambiguous languages. While there’s some truth in this (Cantonese, for instance, has no words that are the exact equivalent of the English “yes” or “no”), Chinese is not lacking in direct, strong and clear language. If you want to proclaim that Hong Kong people, without any shadow of a doubt, will have universal suffrage in 2017, there’s a wide variety of phrases and expressions at your disposal, from ying goi (should), to yauh (have), to yat dihng (certainly). Or, you might use that handy, all-purpose word, one of the most widely used in Cantonese, and certainly one of the most fun to say:

Dak dak dak! says Mrs. Wong as she tells me that yes, certainly, she can collect my groce
ry delivery in case it arrives while I pop out. DAK! smiles the clerk at the stationery store when I ask if I can pay for my computer paper with the EPS card. Melvin, the genius shoe-repair guy on Cochrane Street can have my heels replaced by next Friday at the latest, dak!

The radical, or root, of the character is
彳, which means step. As in action, forward motion, accomplishment.
Hong Kong, Asia’s proud, can-do metropolis, is a city of daks–just walk down any street, and your background music is a bubbling, staccato chorus of short, high-pitched, emphatic exclamations of positive action.

The National People’s Congress resolution on the future of Hong Kong’s political development contains not a single .

What it does contain, besides those fuzzy ho yihs, is a lot of conditions. Beijing will consider the possibility of universal suffrage for Hong Kong people in 2017–if they first get a proposal from the Hong Kong government. The proposal has to be passed by two-thirds of the Hong Kong legislature. Since the legislature cannot (m’ ho yih ) be selected by universal suffrage until after the Chief Executive electoral process is settled, that means that all proposals for suffrage plans have to please a majority of the 30 Legco members in the Functional Constituency. These are the guys who are not popularly elected, who come from the moneyed, special interest classes. Will they sign on to any suffrage proposal that doesn’t give them control of the nominating process? M’ dak!

And so, the Beijing ho yih becomes even more of a ho yih. In fact I would even demote it to a yauh gei wuih (there’s a chance) or even further, to a waak je. A perhaps.

Roadmap to democracy? What roadmap? This decision from Beijing is like a beautifully presented and packaged invitation to a party. You open the heavy vellum envelope with great anticipation, and pull out the folded card, only to discover at the bottom, in small engraved print, the information that the party’s not happening until ten years in the future. And then, in even smaller type, down at the bottom, comes the kicker–that if you care to accept the invitation, you’ll have to first pay a very, very high fee.

It’s enough to make you want to burn a tire on the steps of the Chief Executive’s mansion. Or eat an entire bowl of greasy siu ngaap faan. And it adds yet another entry to the many meanings of ho yih. Now, next to “can, possible, permitted, maybe”, you can insert: Hong Kong people yearning for a voice in their own future: screw you.


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