The Agony Broccoli writes (3/4)

Monday 16 January 2012, 3.00am HKT


WHERE YOU STAND depends on where you sit, as the saying goes. The nice reader who wrote in about possible relocating touched on the matter of knowing the right lingo and our home countries change with times.

* * *

On knowing the right Chinese language

And also … Cantonese sounds much nicer, and probably easier for me to learn.

I’ve been saying this for a long time to one and all, but nobody believes me.

Cantonese has long been the Chinese language of the UK. (Yeah, I know how that sounds.) If you’ve lived long enough in the UK, it just ‘makes sense’ that you find Cantonese easier to handle.

(It’s roughly the same situation in Canada — but that’s another story.)

I don’t have a drop of Cantonese blood in me, but Cantonese is my mother tongue, believe it or not, mostly learnt in the UK. I happen to be an extremely fluent Cantonese speaker. Whenever I open my gob in Cantonese, many Hongkongers presume I’m an out-and-out local — that’s how locally Cantonese I speak.

A slight digression:

Right up until the most recent time (around the mid-1990s), when Chinese people came to the UK to live, work or study, they just spoke Cantonese, regardless of Chinese origin. The Hakka spoke Cantonese, the Shanghainese too, the Fujianese, the Mandarin-shleppers, Singaporeans, and the Indochinese.

“Cantonese speak Cantonese: if you don’t understand Cantonese, go back to your village.” Let’s not travel down that road about Cantonese-ness. (via Wikipedia)

Back in my day, my Mandarin-speaking friends and classmates spoke Cantonese in the UK. Every Chinaman in Blighty spoke Cantonese, and no one paid a thought about speaking any other kind of Chinese.

(In case there are morons out there who misread this, Cantonese-speaking in the UK is just a convention — a social commonality — not some pro-Cantonese ethnolinguistic rights activism like we see in China of late.)

Today, the last time I was back in the UK (2006?), I heard only Mandarin, usually in a variety of mainland Chinese accents.

It’s broadly the same story in the USA, where my family lived for a while:

  • Toishan and Cantonese in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco
  • Cantonese and Hokkien in New York City and environs
  • Cantonese for the whole of Texas, Colorado and Nevada
  • Vietnam-style Cantonese in Nebraska (!)
  • Chicago Chinese are normally Mandarin speakers but they’re pretty fluent in Cantonese too
  • Mandarin in and around Washington DC

Today, it’s Mandarin all round in America.

Srsly, if you’re planning on coming to Hong Kong, it’s Cantonese or English — don’t try anything else. Mandarin a.k.a. Putonghua is secretly dissed in the minds of most Hongkongers. Right now, with the Dolce & Gabbana ruckus going on in Hong Kong, best avoid Mandarin in public places.

That being said, be advised that Hong Kong’s manufacturing base is in China, specifically in the Pearl River Delta region about 50 miles (80 kilometres) west of here. If you don’t know Mandarin (as I don’t), you’re pretty much stuck hire-wise.

* * *

On a changed Britain

UK has changed a lot,  I grew up in the ’80s so can only remember the dreks of the ’70s. But in some ways it’s the same. And, yes, with the economy and riots and whatnot, it’s not the greatest of times.

I hear you. I was in the UK in the Seventies and Eighties, and they weren’t the greatest of times either. But in my day, the UK was latest and greatest when everything was crumbling to bits:

  • Harold Wilson and Teddy Heath taking us into the EEC
  • Decimalisation of the quid — not nice, but still a serious relief to the venerable £.s.d. because by then we had stopped learning proper arithmetic and multiplication tables so couldn’t work out Old Money anymore
  • The county of Westmorland became part of the Orwellian republic of Cumbria in the North West of England (see map) (and that’s srsly unforgivable)
  • The Spaghetti House Siege
  • Jim Callaghan and the ‘Winter of Discontent’
  • The Labour Party’s Michael Foot and his foot in his mouth
  • The heatwave of 1976
  • The rubbishmen’s strike (phooew!)
  • Maggie Thatcher (enough said)
  • The newspaper strikes that lasted more than a year
  • The Falklands invasion
  • The Harrods bombing (I was there not more than 20 feet away from the blast!)
  • The Brixton riots (I was NOT there)
  • The university fee overhaul that caused The Great British Brain Drain (a contradiction in terms!)

I have to say things seriously started unravelling by the late 80s. My last trip back was around 2006 and, boy, the UK felt more like America than anything else.

(Disclaimer: I’ve nothing against the USA. For cryin’ out loud, I’m even a cowboy boot wearer since when very young. But I do like the UK to feel like the UK, and America like the good ole’ US of A. Just sayin’.)

* * *


Look in the mirror carefully, and observe accidentally,
then prepare for reality


© The Naked Listener’s Weblog, 2012.

Images: Cantonese poster by Apple Daily via Wikipedia ♦ Regions of England and the UK both via Maps of UK.

The Agony Broccoli writes (2/4)

Sunday 15 January 2012, 9.00pm HKT


We continue with my facepalmingly overlong, overwritten response to the very nice reader who wrote in about possibly relocating to Hong Kong.

* * *

On choosing the right time to land

Well, from what you said, looks like I’m stuck here [in the UK] until I get to travel out to Hong Kong in [sometime this year], at least to visit […].

Our hottest months are from July to October basically. If ever coming over during then, know that, after long living in the mild weather of the UK, you are highly likely to break out with some sort of skin condition because of the heat and humidity. Not trying to scare you, but just sayin’.

Hong Kong is a subtropical country: you can’t survive without air-conditioning.

Read my overlong, overboring, overwritten exposé of ACs myths.

* * *

Choices are your own, and you might actually have to live with them

I’ve already started learning Mandarin, and when I went to Beijing with my friend, got to practice it. I enjoyed it a lot, and I think as a choice between Hong Kong and Beijing, I’d choose Beijing for the weather and the girls, and Hong Kong just for family roots.

I’ve never been to Beijing myself, but I am inclined to agree that northern birds are better cleavaged and more personable (to some extent) than southern womenfolk. But then again, I’ve been known to pay only scant attention to birds other than for their obvious endowments.

Srsly, seems like this roots vs. someplace else thing is a common-enough issue with overseas-born or -raised Chinese.


If you’re choosing a place you have family roots in, the upside is obvious — you have kith and kin to fall back on in case of trouble.

English: Category:Exhibits in Hong Kong 展品 Cat...

You make your own roots (via Wikipedia)

However, people who are willing and able to relocate to another continent tend not to be troublemakers and tend not to get into scraps. So here in Hong Kong a.k.a. the City of Stairs and Celestial Rents, the fallback translates more usually than not as access to free or free-ish accommodation while you look for piss-pauvre employment and more permanent living quarters that cost you an arm and a leg.

The downside with the family-roots choice is that after a short while here your life becomes somewhat structured according to your relatives’ (especially if you’re a live-in at their place). And if your other folks tend to be somewhat old-fashioned, you end up with various obligations and atavistic practices especially during holiday festivals.


If you want to go the completely-new-place route (like choosing Beijing or any other place where you have no family ties), the upside is that your life and living carries on in very independent fashion. You are your own man (or woman), and you can do whatever you bloody well feel like it, thank you very much.

United Kingdom: stamp

(Sem Paradeiro via Flickr)

Take Beijing, for instance. If you can handle the massive redtape, the money-grubbing ways of the more personable chicks, or the more sinocentric attitudes of the Pekinese, then fine.

Long living anywhere gets to anyone sooner or later. Unlike Hong Kong, Beijing is user-frustrating if you (regardless of passport) want to take off to some city or country for a long weekend.

In Hong Kong, have money, will travel.

The downside of choosing a place with no ties is that you’re on your own. By that, I don’t mean in the sense of getting into some fracas with the local authorities or favourite local mob (same thing, really). It’s just that you have to start from ‘zero’ (and long lead times) in making friends, getting about, living the local life, living the expat life, learning the social ropes, etc — and that can be hard and gut-wretching for some people.

Protip: Check how you socialise in your current community. Broadly speaking, this will be a good indicator of how you’re likely to fare in another city or country.

For example, when I was in the UK, I was quite the character and lots of people (apparently) wanted to hang out with me, so I got regular invitations to parties and various other “do’s.” I was (and still am) entirely comfortable with the young, the midaged, the geriatric — whatever their age.

And then I turned up back in Hong Kong, and then the parties were no more because Hongkongers here don’t ‘hang out’ mainly because of the high cost. (Sigh)

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

Cantonese roast duck:
Not every duck is Peking duck, and the eating is different. Namsayin’?

* * *


Know the right lingo, because even your home country changes


© The Naked Listener’s Weblog, 2012.

Images: Air conditioner via c4c ♦ Cantonese roast duck via Cook at Home ♦ All other images powered by Zemanta/WordPress.

The Agony Broccoli writes (1/4)

Sunday 15 January 2012, 3.00pm HKT

A VERY NICE READER has written to me about the blog, and about potentially relocating to this dump Hong Kong.

Then I realised the reader’s questions and remarks have thrown up some highly interesting points dying to come out into the open.

I’ve encountered the same kind of questions and concerns many times before in others, so these must be quite typical issues for people thinking about coming over here.

Riders added here that were not in the original communication.

Certain parts of the original communication have been redacted for the purposes of this post to protect the reader (obviously) and myself (even more obviously).

(No, this is not an Agony Aunt/Agony Uncle post.)

* * *

Planning is everything; the plan is nothing

Interesting blog. I’m a British-born Chinese thinking of going to Hong Kong but my Cantonese is non-existent. And if I went there as an English teacher, I wouldn’t get to learn Cantonese. Plus I love the cool weather in the UK but hate that there’s not many Chinese here [in the UK].

I know what you’re thinking. I tell you, you got to have a working ability in Cantonese in Hong Kong today.

Not to put too fine point on things, you also need an ability to write Chinese — no kidding, Hong Kong is THAT changed now.

Mandarin is becoming increasingly ‘desirable,’ if you get what I mean.

I myself don’t read or write Chinese, though English and Cantonese are my mother tongues. My inability to read and write Chinese is a major problem for me, professionally speaking. My work is chiefly a printbroker — I sell printing services to the financial community. While I’m problem-free with the bankers/wankers (who are reasonably good English speakers), the difficulty kicks in with the printing and paper people (who don’t speak or write English). So everything has to be conducted by speech, which, you could imagine, can sometimes be a real butthurt.

My advice to you:

  • You gotta bring up your Cantonese, no debate.
  • You gotta have an airtight employment contract before you start coming over, otherwise you could be left in the lurch.
  • You gotta have proper accommodation before you come over — you just can’t make do with hostels etc while you’re looking for more permanent digs (the rent here is scary high).
  • You gotta play up your ‘Englishness’ if you’re ever hired as an English teacher here  — Hongkongers are a bunch of snobs, and if you seem to be ever-so-slightly less English, you’re done for.

I’ve seen people just get up and go, and end up in a rut here. Hong Kong is a town far too costly to come to without some careful planning.

* * *

On powers of observation

I enjoyed your blog by the way on the [Clockenflap] festival. You have an astute observation on the different types of Chinese, ABCs, BBC girls, amusing stuff, you should be a published writer.

I am in me mum’s words “a little bit of a naughty boy.” So if I wanted to make people feel jealous, I would probably say (in a French accent), “Thank you, mais oui, it is because I have lived in so many places around the world and that makes me possible to see through many things.”

Truth is, if my observation really was/is astute, I reckon it’s more to do with growing up with very open-minded parents and grandparents, and less with living a baton-relay race all over the world. This, I find, is the case with observant people I know.

Broadly speaking, grandparents are naturally more conservative than parents — they must be! surely, because of the times and circumstances of their formative years.

That being said, if grandparents and parents are open-minded about things in life, we see life from their perspective (or at least we have an idea of theirs). From that, almost imperceptibly, we take on a freer-form worldview of people and things — and (more importantly) of circumstances. It’s hard to explain.

English: Sai Yeung Choi Street South, Mongkok,...

What do you notice, or want to notice? (Mongkok district in Hong Kong via Wikipedia)

Nobody ever said you can’t be open-minded and conservative at the same time.

Here’s a small digression. If you know how to ‘read’ it, then you’ll have an idea about living here for real:

A classic example of orthodox closed-minded conservative attitude is that pointless faggotry about less vs. fewer that we typically run into from grammarfags (plus that dylexic bunch from linguistics). It’s poison to reasonable observation.

Nearly everyone knows ‘less’ is for mass nouns and uncountable things, and ‘fewer’ for numbers. (Less butthurt from fewer asshats, no?) We got the memo!

And nearly everybody has seen that proverbial supermarket sign


and knows it IS wrong by strict grammar. But that phrase has been in accepted currency for a very long time, and practically speaking should be treated as an idiom — or just one of those exceptions to the rule.

Knowing that “10 items or fewer” is right but “10 items or less” is not wrong makes for a healthier, happier mental life. You’ve got a choice between the two, and choices improve quality of life. There are many other things that help burst your blood vessels already and we need no stinkin’ less vs. fewer for it, thank you very much.

But, no, there are actually people who get into furious indignation about it — some going into overdrive and force the supermarket to reword the sign, and think it’s some kind of altruistic achievement or personal victory in upholding some nebulous standard of decency. Sorry, I go to the supermarket for groceries, not grammar.

There’s at least one movie by that name (“10 Items or Less,” 2006, starring Morgan Freeman) and a TV series (also 2006) on Turner Broadcasting System. Journalists (even top-flight journos like David Frost and those on “60 Minutes”) regularly ask interviewees to explain some crap in “25 words or less.”

Indeed, I write to my clients that I could finish their printjobs in 25 days or less — and get paid for it. And I (as a non-practising lawyer myself) can assure the grammarfags that phrases like

‘this hearing should last three days or less’

‘stolen 10 items or less’

come with unnerving regularity in court straight from judges’ and barristers’ mouths.

There’s a lot of that one-size-fits-all attitude around the world, and it’s very strong in Asian societies.

(In fact, I don’t want to see a “10 items or fewer” sign in a supermarket — a case of reverse orthodox closed-mindedness?)

SVG map of Hong Kong's administrative districts.

18 items or MORE
Administrative districts in Hong Kong
(via Wikipedia)

* * *


When you should choose to land,
and why you have to live with your choices


© The Naked Listener’s Weblog, 2012.

Images: Hong Kong coins via Learn Cantonese ♦ All other images powered by Zemanta/WordPress.

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