If you're going to Hong Kong, you might figure that English will be spoken widely, and you would be correct. You might also think knowing a little Chinese might come in handy. But which form of Chinese? Cantonese is the dominant form of Chinese in Hong Kong. In fact, when Hong Kong was handed back to China from the United Kingdom in 1997, only a fourth of the residents of Hong Kong spoke Mandarin, the official language of mainland China.
Cantonese, which is central to the Hong Kong identity, originated around the year 220, while Mandarin dates to the 13th century. Mandarin spread widely in China after the Communist takeover in 1949 and is now the dominant form of Chinese on the mainland.
So knowing a few words and phrases in Cantonese could come in handy as you wander around Hong Kong's bustling city center, marvel at its skyscrapers, check out the Temple Street Night Market, and have a one-of-a-kind suit made by one of Hong Kong's world-renowned tailors.
Cantonese: Not for the Faint of Heart
Cantonese is one of the world's most difficult languages to learn. The tones in Cantonese make it a tongue-twister and a high mountain to climb even if all you want to do is get familiar with a few simple phrases and words. Learning the Cantonese language is made more difficult by its nine distinct tones; this means that one word can have up to nine meanings, depending on both the tone and context.
The good news is the majority of residents of Hong Kong can speak at least a little basic English, and you're unlikely to find a total lack of Cantonese will impede you at any point. However, if you want to impress the locals, here are some basic phrases you might like to try.
The examples below are written in the Roman alphabet and because of the tonal differences, their pronunciation can make them difficult to understand.
You can listen to Cantonese pronunciation techniques on many of the phrases below, as well as plenty more, at this Cantonese lessons webpage.
- Hong Kong: Herng Gong
- America: May Gwok
- China: Chung Gwok
- Britain: Ying Gwok
- 1: yat
- 2: yee
- 3: saam
- 4: say
- 5: mm
- 6: lok
- 7:- chat
- 8: bat
- 9: gow
- 10: sap
Saying these universal greetings to the locals in their own language is polite and goes a long way toward encouraging good feelings and a good impression of both you and the United States in Hong Kong.
- How are you: Lay hoe ma
- Good morning: Jow sun
- Goodbye: Joy geen
- Excuse me/Thank you: M goy
- My name is: Ngor guw
- I don't understand: N gorm ming bat
Restaurants and Shopping
As a visitor to Hong Kong, you will spend a lot of time in restaurants and shops. Here are some phrases that are helpful as you dine and buy.
- How much is it: Ching mun, gay daw cheen
- Check please: M goy, mai dan
- Too expensive: Tai Gwei le
- Where is the restroom: Chee saw hai been doe ah
- Do you have any: Lay yow mo
- Do you serve beer: Leedo yow mo bair tsow yum ah
- Yes, we do: Yow ah
- No, we don't: Mo ah