The Language of Hong Kong’s protests (I)

Lennon Wall at the Hong Kong International Airport.

It’s been over a year since Hong Kong’s latest fight for freedom began. Over this period, the movement has come to develop its own lingo. If you have tried to figure out what people are talking or writing about the protests, you might be confused by the vocabulary that’s missing from dictionaries.

I initially created the ‘Bel Canton‘ section on this blog precisely for something like this: to document the ever-changing Cantonese language, and to keep you, lovers of Cantonese-speaking culture, up to date. Now, let’s tread some dangerous ground, and find out what these *ahem* pesky troublemakers *ahem* are babbling behind your backs!

The Factions

Hong Kong, like many other societies, has been rapidly polarised over the past years. Today, instead of left- or right-leaning political views, there are colour-based factions.

These came from the 2014 Umbrella Movement, when its supporters would wear 黃絲帶 wong4 si1 daai2 (yellow silk band → ribbon) on themselves. When they eventually put the ribbons in their Facebook profile pictures instead, the opposing faction used 藍絲帶 laam4 si1 daai2 (blue silk band → ribbon) profile pictures to denote their stance. Blue here represents the police, just like in the US.

Nowadays, these are usually shortened to 黃絲 wong4 si1 and 藍絲 laam4 si1. Angry netizens from both sides express their disdain of the other side with a simple word play: they replace si1 with si1 (corpse). So when you see people talking about 黃屍 and 藍屍, you know what it’s about.

Morbid word plays are a very common way of insulting someone you don’t like. The city’s appointed leader, 林鄭 lam4 zeng6 (Carrie Lam-Cheng — married female public figures are often referred to by their combined surnames) is nicknamed 林奠 lam4 din6 by the opposition. 奠 means to make an offering to the dead, and the character in supersized form is plastered all over traditional funerals. You can tell this is a written word play, because instead of playing on the pronunciation, it plays on the shape of the character.

Peaceful protest

Most protesters are peaceful, or 和理非 wo4 lei5 fei1 (peaceful rational nonviolent — an abbreviation of 和平、理性、非暴力 wo4 ping4, lei5 sing3, fei1 bou6 lik6). In 2014 there used to be a second fei1 for 非粗口 fei1 cou1 hau2 (non rough mouth → non-cussing), but I guess they eventually decided it was irrelevant.

Apart from 遊行 jau4 hang4 (travel walk), or marches / demonstrations, and 三罷 saam1 baa6 (three strikes — short for 罷工、罷課、罷市 baa6 gung1, baa6 fo3, baa6 si5), i.e. ‘stop work, stop schools, and stop the market’, they constantly come up with new ways of nonviolent protest. For example, in July-August 2019, there was a series of 和你飛 wo4 nei5/lei5 fei1 (with you fly) rallies, a pun on 和理非, where protesters occupy the arrival area of the Hong Kong International Airport, in hopes of intimidating Hong Kong’s flourishing aviation industry and affecting the government’s profits.

Violent protest

It’s always what happens after the peaceful demonstrations that catches everyone’s attention, or arguably, brings about changes, for better or worse. These protesters are called 勇武派 jung5 mou5 paai1 (brave martial faction). Those who frequently take part in these acts are 前線 cin4 sin3 (front line). There was a widely known graffiti that said 今生只嫁前線巴 gam1 sang1 zi2 gaa3 cin4 sin3 baa1 (this life only marry front line brother), where 巴打 baa1 daa2 is a slang word for ‘netizen’ that came from ‘brother’. When talking about their activities with one another online, they usually call protesting 發夢 faat3 mung6 (happen dream), as in ‘last night I dreamt of fighting on the streets’, to avoid being taken as a confession of wrongdoing.

Violent protest tactics usually involve things like 路障 lou6 zoeng3 (road obstacle) / RB (for ‘roadblock’) and 火魔[法] fo2 mo1 faat3 (fire mystic [ways] → fire magic, a video game-inspired nickname of Molotov cocktails). They are usually met with TG (tear gas, which is confusing because it also stands for Telegram, the movement’s main channel of communication). In response, they would yell ‘be water‘. While this isn’t even Cantonese, it’s definitely Cantonese in origin. It’s a Bruce Lee quote that signals protesters to stay flexible and avoid arrest, to live to fight another day. This is the opposite of the Occupy Central campaign that was originally planned for 2014; back then, participants would sit still and accept arrest as a form of civil disobedience.

Alternative methods of protest

Early in the movement, whenever a business—usually large chains and corporations—came out in support of the government and the police, supporters of the movement would promptly 罷買 baa6 maai5 (stop buy); replace 買 with sik6 (eat) if it’s a restaurant, or any kind of verb for consumer activities. Hongkongers became so accustomed to mobilising their buying power that it became the 黃色經濟圈 wong4 sik1 ging1 zai3 hyun1 (yellow colour economic ~ circle) / 黃圈 wong4 hyun1. Under this campaign, supporters only shop and work with yellow-ribbon businesses, so that capital remains in pro-democracy hands as much as possible.

Another daily act of protest involves 文宣 man4 syun1 (text advertising). This dates back to the Admiralty 連儂牆 lin4 nung4 coeng4 (Lennon ~ wall) during the Umbrella Movement, filled with colourful post-it notes encouraging the movement. After attempts to revive the old Lennon wall, protesters began to set up similar walls in every corner of the city. They would be supplied with post-it notes and pens were provided to write supportive words. Eventually, they began to cover the walls with campaign posters as well as informative materials, aiming to draw the attention of politically neutral passers-by and gain their support. These walls were frequently vandalised by opponents, but would soon be replenished with new materials—a policy of 撕一貼百 si1 jat1 tip3 baak3 (tear one stick hundred), once again related to the ‘be water’ philosophy.

Another form of protest—probably the safest, before the enactment of the National Security Law—is being a keyboard warrior. Rather than participating in internet debates (the kind of keyboard warrior we usually imagine), these contribute by raising awareness on the 國際戰線 gwok3 zai3 zin3 sin3 (country between war line), or ‘international front’. In late June 2019, they even managed to crowdfund full-page newspaper ads in multiple countries. Prominent activists instead push for policies in other countries that benefit protesters or harm the Chinese and Hong Kong governments. These include the USA’s Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Act, which recently began to 制裁 zai3 coi4 (sanction) Hong Kong officials.

To be continued…

Featured image by Mozhizhai / CC BY-SA