Cantonese term on a traffic sign

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Jeff Demarco writes:

My son snapped this photo on his way home from Hong Kong Disneyland. Wasn't quite sure what was intended…

Since most people driving on this road will be in cars, the English wording may prove to be confusing to many drivers.

For Mandarin speakers, the Chinese wording is even more opaque:

gǎidào kào zuǒ —  xì chē chúwài

改道靠左 — 細車除外

"diversion, keep left — except for fine cars"

You'd have to ask yourself if the car you're driving counts as a "fine car".

Reading the same eight characters in Cantonese yields:

goi2dou6 kaau3 zo2 — sai3 ce1 ceoi4ngoi6

改道靠左 — 細車除外

"diversion, keep left — except for small cars"

The usual, common Cantonese word for "little, small" is sai3 細.  The term “sai3 ce1 細車”, literally “small vehicles”, supposedly refers to cars such as sedans, SUVs, station wagons, etc., as opposed to “daai6 ce1 大車” ("large vehicles) like trucks and lorries.

Bob Bauer notes:

The expression "細車  sai3 ce1" looks like a specialized Hong Kong Chinese / Cantonese word, and I don't think that it occurs in mainland China standard Chinese. Given that it has been translated into English as "cars", I'm going to assume that it is has been specially created by a HK government department, such as the Highways Department. I would translate it literally into English as "small vehicles", that is, "cars, automobiles", as opposed to large vehicles, such as buses, trucks, semi-trailers, etc.

So, if you're literate in Cantonese, you shouldn't have too much trouble with this sign, but if you're only literate in Mandarin or English, it may take you a while before you figure out what you're supposed to do.

See: Keith Tse, "Hong Kong Cantonese: a fascinating hybrid", Asia Times (4/4/18)

[Thanks to Abraham Chan and Zeyao Wu]


  1. chris said,

    April 11, 2018 @ 8:43 pm

    The parking lot where I work has some spaces marked "cars only" — they're the ones near the pedestrian walkways, where SUVs would obstruct visibility too much. So I'm already familiar with "cars" being a narrower category than "motor vehicles", even without multiple languages being involved.

    Although that still leaves room for doubt about where exactly the line is drawn. As I understand the term, a pickup, an SUV or a minivan are not "cars", but if you're defining cars in opposition to full-size buses and tractor-trailers, then even a van might still fall on the "car" side of the line. "Small vehicles" has the same kind of problem, unless it's so ubiquitous that everyone already knows exactly what is included.

  2. Chris Lawrence said,

    April 11, 2018 @ 11:46 pm

    In context I'm not sure the English is particularly ambiguous; most people would probably contrast "cars" and "trucks" (NAmE) or "lorries" (BrE, probably HKE too) and "buses" by lumping light trucks (pickups, etc), station wagons, and small vans/SUVs in the "car" category, and they would understand that the message would apply to non-car-like motor vehicles.

    The only English-speakers who might be really confused are motorcyclists (assuming they are allowed on this road, which I would figure is a motorway/freeway/expressway from the use of UK-style motorway lane signals).

    Having said that, normally in NAmE at least that would be signed with a message like "All commercial vehicles must keep left" or with an appropriate weight or width restriction. The HK equivalent would probably be (assuming British usage) "HGVs, buses, and coaches must keep left." Neither of these would fit on the sign while including the "Diversion ahead" line, but I'm not sure that's necessary.

  3. John Swindle said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 2:18 am

    Wouldn't a lot of Mandarin speakers in Hong Kong be familiar with the Cantonese word for "little"?

    In Honolulu on a regular surface street (N. King St. at River St.) we have have "No left turn except cars and small trucks". It bothers me as a bicyclist.

  4. ~flow said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 6:05 am

    Is there no equivalent in English and Chinese for the German PKW (Personenkraftwagen) / LKW (Lastkraftwagen)? They even have their own traffic-moji (

  5. Mr Punch said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 7:28 am

    The restricted-access parkways in the Boston area used to have signs that read "pleasure vehicles only."

  6. Keith said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 9:52 am

    Is this translation of 細 as "fine" similar to the use of "fine" in English to mean small, especially thin, as in "fine distinction" or "fine paper" (or even "fine-toothed comb")?

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 10:50 am

    In California, AUTOS is used to refer to cars as distinct from trucks or buses.

  8. Neil Kubler said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 12:48 pm

    There are many examples of this in daily life in Hong Kong and Guangdong Province. Just spent a few days at a hotel in Guangdong Province and on each table in the breakfast restaurant was a sign with the table number in the format 第八台 'Table 8' and so forth. 台 (or in its traditional form 枱) is pronounced toi (high rising tone) in Cantonese and means 'table'. Given the context, Mandarin speakers would understand this but find it curious.

  9. Bruce Humes said,

    April 12, 2018 @ 8:40 pm

    Mandarin speakers don't necessarily find terms using 台 for table as alien.

    Two that I can think of that I often heard in China:

    拼台=share a table with other guests at a busy restaurant

    算台钟="per session" rate charged by a masseuse or bar girl

    I suppose one or both may come from Cantonese, but they are common enough in Mandarin-speaking areas.

  10. Rodger C said,

    April 13, 2018 @ 7:37 am

    @Coby Lubliner: Could that be a Hispanicism?

  11. PB said,

    April 15, 2018 @ 12:17 pm

    In Swiss standard German, "car" means a large (overland) bus/coach such as used by tour companies ("Reisebus" in Germany). So, if you come across a parking space marked CAR or CARS in Switzerland, you're not supposed to park your passenger car there. It's for buses exclusively. See Bickel/Landolt, "Duden: Schweizerhochdeutsch" 2012, p. 23.

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