Bel Canton: Units of Measurement in Hong Kong

Israel

Pianist-composer, polyglot, Hongkonger, explorer, ex-programmer, ex-author-to-be, son and brother. Discovering myself through discovering the world. Blogging my language adventures and spreading the Cantonese joy.

It’s finally time to open the Pandora’s box of Cantonese! Despite having lots of colloquial and expressive stuff planned, I suddenly had the idea to start with something simpler, but extremely useful in daily life: units. The world appears to be divided into metric VS imperial when it comes to units, and you might wonder how we make our measurements in Hong Kong. In a way we are like the UK: depending on situation, we use a mix of both, plus our traditional units. But there is a general trend: my generation is educated in the metric system, so the other systems might end up going out of use in the future, for better or worse. But for now, let me tell you how I and people I know measure things. And believe me, the Chinese names of the ‘western’ units are just as easy!

Slight note, before you read this, you might want to check out my guide to the word-by-word breakdowns below!

Length and distance

  • 米 mai5 (transliteration of “metre”): metre. E.g. 你幾高呀?我一米七/一米七二。nei5 gei2 gou1 aa3? ngo5 jat1 mai1 cat1 / jat1 mai1 cat1 ji6 (you to-what-extent tall ah? I one metre seven / one metre seven two). Notice the change in tone in daily conversations and how we express 1.7m and 1.72m.
  • 厘米 / 釐米 lei4 mai5 (centi metre): centimetre. E.g. 我有隻五厘米/cm長嘅倉鼠。ngo5 jau5 zek3 ng5 lei4 mai5 / si1 em1 coeng4 ge3 cong1 syu2 (I have [counter for animals] five centi metre / cm long [descriptive suffix] hamster ~).
  • 寸 cyun3: inch. Despite there being (various) traditional inches in Hong Kong and other parts of China, the inch I grew up with is same as the American one, i.e. 2.54 cm.
  • 尺 cek3: foot. Again, in modern times we use the American foot, i.e. 12 inches or 30.48 cm.
  • 公里 gung1 lei5 (public Chinese-mile): kilometre. 公 shows up quite often in units, especially the Taiwan names for them. I suspect it has something to do with “standardised units”, thus converting the original meaning of Chinese miles into the standard kilometre. But correct me if I’m wrong. We also say km (kei1 em1) especially among people educated in English.

Now the important question is, when do we use each of them?

  1. It’s more a generation gap. Teens at my age (around 20) are educated in the metric system, so when it comes to things like body height and daily measurements, we prefer cm and metres. Personally I always have to convert heights from feet to metres. My parents, in contrast, use feet for height, which can be quite inconvenient.
  2. When it comes to things like screen sizes, we switch to inches, just like we do in English.
  3. Inches are also used as some sort of approximate, figurative language. For example, “嘩,本書成寸厚” waa3, bun2 syu1 seng4 cyun3 hau5 (wow, [counter for book] book almost inch thick). Had I said “almost 3 cm”, it’d still feel more concrete.
  4. We basically use kilometres exclusively for distances, such as driving distances. The above-mentioned traditional Chinese mile is used, again, figuratively, such as in the set phrase 十萬八千里 sap6 maan6 baat3 cin1 lei5 (ten ten-thousand eight thousand Chinese-mile -> 108000 miles), which just means incredibly far.
  5. Speed is expressed formally in the standardised way, where 每 mui5 stands for “per”. E.g. 五十米每秒/公里每小時 ng5 sap6 mai5 mui5 miu5 / gung1 lei5 mui5 siu2 si4 (five ten -> fifty metre per second / kilometre ~ per little time -> hour). However this sounds very textbook-ish and when driving we just say the number: 喂你揸到成百二,你以為喺德國咩!wei3 nei5 za1 dou3 seng4 baak3 ji6, nei5 ji2 wei4 hai2 dak1 gwok3 me1! (hey you drive until almost hundred two, you take as in Germany ~ meh) Dude do you think we are in Germany, driving at 120 kmph?!?!?! (The fastest highway in Hong Kong is capped at 110 kmph.)
Highway towards Lantau Island

Take it easy man, we’re in no hurry!

Units of Weight

This is where it gets complicated, with an interplay of multiple international and local units.

  • 斤 gan1: the traditional catty, roughly equivalent to 600 g. Used in wet markets.
  • 両 loeng2: a unit used mainly in Chinese medicine. It corresponds to 1/16 of a catty and approximately 1/12 of a pound. I reckon it could be called the “Chinese ounce” for the sake of this post.
  • 公斤 gung1 gan1 (public catty): kilogram. As mentioned, 公 replaces the unit with the standardised equivalent. Schools use kilograms for measuring pupils’ body weight, as do a lot of my peers. As above, we also say kg (in the first tone).
  • 克 hak1: gram, used mainly in school and standardised measurements like on food packages. Personally I’ve always said gram (in the first tone) instead of this – you can see the extent of code mixing.
  • 磅 bong6: transliteration of pound, i.e. the international pound, around 1/2.2 kg. Pounds and kilograms are both widely in use. I grew up using pounds for body weight in my family, so I usually know my weight in both units. E.g. 死啦,食下食下就肥到百五磅 sei2 laa1, sik6 haa5 sik6 haa5 zau6 fei4 dou3 baak3 ng5 bong6 (die la, eat [once] eat [once] then fat until hundred five pound) Oh shit, I just kept eating and now I’ve grown to 150 pounds!

Some relevant vocabulary:

  • 磅重 bong6 cung5 (pound heavy): to weigh oneself. E.g. 我去磅下重先 ngo5 heoi3 bong6 haa5 cong5 sin1 (I go pound [once] heavy first) Lemme quickly go and check my weight.
  • 秤 cing3: to weigh something OR a balance. E.g.幫手秤下包菜 bong1 sau2 cing3 haa5 baau1 coi3 (help hand weigh [once] [counter for packages] vegetables) Help weigh this bag of veggies.
  • 半斤八両 bun3 gan1 baat3 loeng2 (half catty eight Chinese-ounce). Since half a catty is equal to eight Chinese ounces, this colloquial idiom expresses that two things are equally lacklustre. For example, 你睇下兩兄弟,半斤八両 nei5 tai2 haa5 loeng5 hing1 dai6, bun3 gan1 baat3 loeng2 (you look [once] [counter for two] elder-brother younger-brother, half catty eight Chinese-ounce) Look at these brothers, they suck just as much. Also a famous song by Sam Hui.
  • 斤両 gan1 loeng2: a slight old-fashioned metaphor for ability. E.g. 睇下你有幾多斤両!tai2 haa5 nei5 jau5 gei2 do1 gan1 loeng2! (look [once] you have how many catty Chinese-ounce) Let’s see how good you really are, shall we?

Sam Hui's 半斤八両

As a side note, the currency pound is called 鎊. It’s pronounced identically to the unit 磅, but unlike in English, we differentiate the two by the radical. 鎊 gets a 金gam1 (gold) radical because it’s used for money, while 磅 gets a 石 sek6 (stone) radical to stand for weight/mass.

That’s it for now! I’ve covered the most widely used and confusing units of measurement in Hong Kong. Next time I’ll go into more expressive words – but if you enjoyed this post and want more, do tell me in the comments, since we certainly still have some local specialties to cover. Do leave a comment if you think I left out something or if you have suggestions to improve the format. Above all, stay tuned to my next post!

  • Neil Murray

    Hi Israel,
    Thanks very much for this explanation of units. Very helpful and handy indeed. I have a question concerning “bun3 gan1 baat3 loeng2”. I have been using it in the sense of the English expression “six of one, half a dozen of the other” ie.when two choices are basically the same, either one will do. Am I right in using it this way or is an element of – as you put it – “lacklustre” always involved in its use.
    Regards,
    Neil