Cantonese Tuesdays: If Elephants Could Fly


Earlier this year, Hong Kong cartoonist Ah Toh (阿塗) published a Cantonese comic through the independent magazine Passion Times that became an instant viral hit. Based on Netherlandish Proverbs, a sixteenth century Flemish painting, Ah Toh’s version includes illustrations of 81 Cantonese idioms. See the full image with English explanations for all the proverbs here.

The cartoon shows just how colourful Hong Kong and southern Chinese idioms are. These include four-character idioms (成语 chengyu) such as “for the elephant to fly across the river” (飛象過河 fei jeuhng gwo hoh – to do something unexpected or break the rules), and everyday slang like to stir-fry squid (炒魷魚 chaau yau yu) for to get fired.

There are also a few two-part allegorical sayings (歇后语 xiehouyu). For example, in 盲公食湯丸 (maahng gung sihk tong yun) the first part illustrates a vivid image, in this case a blind person eating sweet glutinous rice dumplings. The second and often unstated part drives the message home: 心中有数 (sam zung jau sou), “to keep count or to know the score”.

Other proverbs are so colloquial they are hardly ever written down, such as 煲電話粥 (bou dihn wa juk – to boil telephone congee) for when someone is talking for hours on the phone.

Due to Canton’s humble beginnings as a collection of fishing villages, it’s probably unsurprising that so many of the proverbs have to do with domestic animals, eating and life by the water. What struck me most, though, is how many ghost-related proverbs there were. I guess Cantonese culture is pretty superstitious, especially when it comes to ghosts and numerology. It’s common to say “make a ghost face” 扮鬼脸 (baan gwai lim) for “to pull a face”. And 撞鬼 (cong gwai) means to run into a ghost, used when someone is making a scene.

The comic was created to “propagate southern Chinese culture and protect Cantonese,” and thankfully, Cantonese is spoken everywhere from Sydney’s Chinatown to the public service announcements on San Francisco’ bus system. Like this column, it merely scratches the surface when it comes to illustrating the diversity of Cantonese.

Rosalyn S is from Hong Kong and lives in Beijing

This is the final post in our August series of Cantonese Tuesdays. Check our Rosalyn's previous posts:

An Eggtart by any other name

Talking S*&# about Politics

Nine Tones of Hell