Hong Kong protesters' argot

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The whole world is transfixed by the gutsy rebellion of Hong Kong citizens against the militarily powerful PRC imposed government under which they live.  Language — spoken, written, and gestural (see the "Readings" below for examples of all three types) — plays an important role in maintaining their solidarity and camaraderie and in emphasizing their identity as Cantonese citizens.  Their common mother tongue of Cantonese already sets them off from Mandarin speakers from the north, but their development of a unique jargon further distinguishes them from Cantonese speakers who are not part of their movement:

"Hong Kong's Protestors Have Their Own Special Slang. Here's a Glossary of Some Common Terms", Hillary Leung, Time (9/6/19):

Although many would accuse the protesters of making light of violent unrest, the use of slang “keeps people sane,” argues Wee Lian Hee, a language professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “If [protestors] talk formally all the time, I suspect the movement would soon become tiresome,” he tells TIME.

The following are ten examples of terms with distinctive meanings as used by the protesters:

手足 Sau Zuk (“Hands and Feet”)

Protestors refer to each other as “hands and feet.” The term conveys the idea of unity: when the hands and feet of a protestor are injured, other protestors feel his or her pain.

發夢 Faht Moong (“Dreaming”)

“I dreamed that I threw a petrol bomb last night,” a protestor might say — except he wasn’t actually dreaming. Many use the word to avoid directly stating that they were involved in unlawful activity.

行街 Hahng Gaai (“Shopping”)

Similar to “dreaming,” the term “shopping” (literally to stroll around, or walk the streets) is used euphemistically to mean one was out at a protest. With clashes between police and protestors often occurring in busy retail districts that are home to glitzy malls, the “shopping” metaphor is oddly apt.

黨鐵 Daung Teet (“Communist Party Rail”)

Ever since it started shuttering train stations closest to protest sites, the city’s subway operator has been accused by protestors of siding with the police, who in turn are seen as an arm of the Beijing-backed government. Protesters have responded by vandalizing stations, destroying equipment such as ticket machines, and referring to the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) with this derogatory term, which rhymes with the actual name of the MTR in Cantonese.

鬼 Gwai (“Ghost”)

Undercover cops are referred to by protestors as “ghosts.” Young, black-clad and wearing face masks, these non-uniformed officers fit right in on the barricades before springing into action to make arrests. Two fired warning shots during violent clashes last week.

落雨 Lok Yu (“Raining”)

When front line protestors shout “It’s raining!” it may actually be — Hong Kong’s summers are notoriously wet. But most of the time, it’s a shorthand way of saying “Everyone open your umbrellas,” often because police are about to use pepper spray.

接放學 Zeep Fong Hok (“School Pick-up”)

When clashes between police and protestors last well into the night, long after train services have stopped, chat groups on encrypted messaging app Telegram start buzzing with information about “school pick-up” services. Supporters of the protestors who have cars — or “school buses” — let protesters know where to meet them, how many people they can pick up, and which districts they’re able to drive to.

豬嘴 Juu Jui (“Snout”)

Surgical and construction masks hide identity, but are useless when police fire salvos of tear gas. Proper gas masks — nicknamed for the snout-like shape of their filters — have become standard equipment.

出魔法 Chut Morh Faht (“Use Magic”)

To “use magic” means to start fires. Sadly, it’s a term that has gained traction in recent weeks as hardline protestors become increasingly reckless in their actions, setting barricades and other objects ablaze.

淺藍/深藍 Cheen Laam or Sum Laam (“Light Blue” or “Deep Blue”)

Blue is the unofficial color of supporters of the police and government (as opposed to yellow, which represents the pro-democracy camp). “My grandma is so deep blue,” a protester might say. “But my dad is only light blue.”

Speaking this kind of in-group language promotes bonding and loyalty among individuals devoted to a danger, but righteous, endeavor.


[h.t. Ben Zimmer]


  1. JB said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 11:06 pm

    手足 Sau Zuk ("Hands and Feet") reminds me of the old slogan "divided we march, united we strike."

  2. Chaak said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 11:35 pm

    Here are the words in Jyutping romanisation.

    手足 sau2 zuk1 ("Hands and Feet")
    發夢 faat3 mung6 ("Dreaming")
    行街 haang4 gaai1 ("Shopping")
    黨鐵 dong2 tit3 ("Communist Party Rail")
    鬼 gwai2 ("Ghost")
    落雨 lok6 jyu5 ("Raining")
    接放學 zip3 fong3 hok6 ("School Pick-up")
    豬嘴 zyu1 zeoi2 ("Snout")
    出魔法 ceot1 mo1 faat3 ("Use Magic")
    淺藍 cin2 laam4 ("Light Blue")
    深藍 sam1 laam4 ("Deep Blue")

  3. Lai Ka Yau said,

    September 8, 2019 @ 2:16 am

    手足 has always been used to refer to brothers (literal or metaphorical), and is a common word in Hong Kong for as long as I can remember. I doubt it has anything to do with hand or leg injuries. (Incidentally, I've always assumed the word first came from the line in Romance of the Three Kingdoms 兄弟如手足,妻子如衣服, though there could well be earlier attestations I'm unaware of.)

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    September 8, 2019 @ 3:17 am

    No-one who believes that a nation has a fundamental right to determine its own autonomy could argue that the Hong Kong protesters are misguided in their beliefs, but I believe that they are misguided in resorting to tactics such as petrol bombs, clearly intended to harm, maim or kill. They may (and perhaps would) argue that there is no longer any alternative, and that they are simply meeting force with force, but I sincerely hope that a more peaceful alternative can (and will be) be found and used.

    Oh for the day when there finally emerges one supreme international court of justice to which all nations and peoples can appeal and by the judgements of which all nations and peoples are legally bound.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2019 @ 6:36 am

    Things have gotten so chaotic in Hong Kong that one doesn't know how much of the violence may be attributed to agents provocateurs, both local and from outside the region, and how much to small factions within the protesters who are more disposed to disorder and confrontation.

    I have been following the events in Hong Kong very carefully for the last three months, relying on a wide variety of published information and direct reports from informants in Hong Kong. I'm certain that the vast majority of Hong Kong protesters want to present their message to the government and to the world peacefully and without physical conflict. On the other hand, I'm equally certain that many of the incidents of violence that have occurred were perpetrated by subversive elements whose purpose in committing them was to discredit the protest movement and to provide justification for bringing in armed forces from the PLA and / or PAP.

  6. KC said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 12:43 pm

    Besides 黨鐵, there is also occasionally 狗鐵 ("dog rail") graffiti on the MTR. This combines the usual Chinese derogatory use of 狗 "dog" with the name for the old KCR (Kowloon-Canton Railway) system that merged with MTR, commonly abbreviated 九鐵 (homophonic in Cantonese).

  7. Siu Jiu said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 7:08 pm

    Victor: Thank you for that accurate and fair comment.

    Some perspective: Millions of Hong Kongers have protested. Tens or hundreds of thousands march every weekend. Only a few hundred have committed acts of violence, and almost all of those have been against police, government, or MTR property. (Many protesters regard the MTR as allied with the police and treat it accordingly.)

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