Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Victor Chung, a 20-year-old student from CUHK is a big fan of Cantonese culture who loves Cantonese proverbs and Cantonese opera. He thinks the decline of Cantonese sayings maybe due to Hongkonger’s increased exposure to foreign cultures and the introduction of more Putonghua teaching in schools.

“We use more English grammar and words such as ‘for’, ‘anyway’ and ‘okay’, leading to the fading of some traditional Cantonese sayings,” says Chung.

However, he is not unhappy about the diminishing use of certain proverbs. Chung says language is constantly changing and people in different times will adopt the usage that is most comfortable for them. As the language evolves, it may absorb elements of other languages and the mixing allows new terms and sayings to emerge. What is a pity, he says, is the lack of preservation of proverbs that give us a window into the past.

Chung is fascinated by Cantonese television drama series set in the 1960s to 1980s, such as 2003’s The Driving Power (非常外父) and 2005’s Scavengers’ Paradise (同撈同煲). These dramas not only include many Cantonese proverbs and vintage slang in the dialogue, but also reflect the social background of the times. “When it [the drama] reflects the appearance of the past, you understand why some sayings are like that,” Chung says. “I won’t say those are terms only used by the older generation or that it’s passé.”

Proverbs from the past give us a glimpse of how people used to live and what their values were. Tang Sze-wing, associate professor of the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at CUHK, explains this by using the example of “[laughed] like a boiled dog’s head (烚熟狗頭)” which is used to describe someone laughing or smiling with a big toothy grin. It is usually meant in a derogatory or sarcastic way. According to Tang, this shows that people used to consume dog meat and dogs were regarded in a relatively negative way.

Once the original environment or social context is lost, it is inevitable that some of the sayings will fade out.

“Certain relevant things or social context have obviously disappeared. Therefore, even if we re-use [the sayings], we have lost that kind of vividness,” says Tang.

For instance, Tang says the idiom, “paring off metal from the nose of a needle” (針鼻削鐵) means to gain the narrowest margin of profit. We can still visualise this proverb – no more steel can be pared from a fine needle – but the saying is no longer used as we seldom use needles or pare metal any more.

Local cartoonist Ah To agrees that it is inevitable and expected that some proverbs will vanish as the relevant social context is lost. Some of them may be replaced with new sayings. For instance, “watch the horses fighting from the top of the fort tower” (企喺城樓睇馬打交) could now be replaced by “eating peanuts while watching movies” (食住花生等睇戲). Ah To thinks such buzzwords from the internet are the proverbs of the new era.

While he accepts it is normal for languages to change and evolve, he cannot accept the erosion of Cantonese for “abnormal” reasons. Ah To lists some of the reasons he sees for the decline of Cantonese – the use of Putonghua to teach Chinese in schools, more Mainlanders coming to Hong Kong and students starting to speak Putonghua in primary school. He has noticed that some people are now extolling other languages and see Cantonese as vulgar or even shameful.

Ah To draws sketches

This is why he started creating Cantonese-related illustrations such as The Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs containing illustrations of 81 Cantonese proverbs, which was inspired by the Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandist Proverbs.

Ah To thinks that promoting Cantonese proverbs is one of the many “relatively soft approaches” to conserving and propagating Cantonese. He says Cantonese proverbs are vivid because they utilise metaphors, which make them suitable to visualise through images.

“In this internet era, images always come first. People are lazy about reading words. This makes images a relatively easier channel to propagate proverbs,” he says.

Ironically, Ah To says the greatest repository for Cantonese proverbs may not be found in Hong Kong, or even in Guangdong, but in overseas Chinese communities. He says overseas Chinese react more enthusiastically to his works as they retain their identity by using their mother tongue while living in a foreign environment.

“Language is a vessel for culture,” says Ah To. “So many thoughts and views of Cantonese people have been put into their proverbs and idioms, and these in turn have influenced their values.”


Edited by Karen Yu


The proverb and its literal meaning Implication / explanation of the proverb Number of people who know the meaning

In a crisis, even a horse will cross a field.

To be flexible, to adapt to circumstances in an emergency (a reference to the rules of Chinese chess).



I have eaten more salt than you have eaten rice.

I have more experience than you.



Spilled a basket of crabs.

Be all in a muddle; messy



Monk holding an umbrella



無髮無天 “no hair no sky” , which sounds like 無法無天 “no law no heaven”

Means unruly


Money can make a ghost push a grinder

Everything is possible with money



Standing on the fort to watch horses fighting

Keeping oneself out of a matter



Eat cooked-rice out of slippers.

Used to describe a man who is supported by a woman / sponge upon a woman 5

A chicken coop without door

The place where everyone can go in and out as one wishes. 6

From Varsity’s proverb mini test


  1. Guan Jiecai’s “A Dictionary of Cantonese Colloquialisms in English”,
  2. “The Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs” (by Ah To)