Cantonese novels

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In my estimation, there is far too little genuine topolectal literature in China.  Throughout history, nearly everything has been written either in one or another style of Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) or in the national koine / lingua franca vernacular (currently known as Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 [in Mainland China] / Guóyǔ 国语 [in Taiwan] / Huáyǔ 华语 [in Southeast Asian countries]), i.e., Mandarin.

I wish that there were vibrant, vital written forms for Hokkien, Shanghainese, Hakka, and many other varieties of Chinese, just as there are for Bengali, Gujarati, Oriya / Odiya, and so forth in India.  Considering the plethora of spoken languages in China, I believe that the development of corresponding written languages for at least the major varieties would lead to mutual enrichment and invigoration, including of the national language.  While there have been some sporadic efforts to write Taiwanese / Amoyese, a full-blown literary tradition has never developed for that language (see Sino-Platonic Papers #89, #92, and #172, as well as the works of Henning Klöter).  There have also been occasional efforts to incorporate a few words of the local language in so-called Shanghainese literature, but it usually amounts only to a sprinkling of Wu lexical items in what is basically a Mandarin matrix.  The situation for the other topolects is even less, with next to none or no written form at all.

It is only in Cantonese that there has been anything approaching true topolectal writing.  I suspect that this has been possible mainly because of the special sociopolitical conditions that obtained while Hong Kong was a colony of the British Empire.  Whatever the reason, I am always pleased when I learn of evidence that written Cantonese is clinging to life.

Consequently, I was delighted to learn about a recently published novel in written Cantonese, called naam4 jan4*2 m4 ho2 ji5 kung4 男人唔可以窮 ("A man Ought not Be Poor" or "A Man Must not Be Poor").  It’s interesting that the book originated in a series of posts on the popular HK web forum HKGOLDEN (gou1 dang1 leon6 taan4 高登論壇), which is part of a computer information portal.

Unsurprisingly, even though Hong Kong is supposedly a part of China, HKGOLDEN is blocked by the Great Firewall in the PRC.  The forum is subject to severe hacking, and has periodically had to close for repair and maintenance, but when the forum is open it flourishes.

I haven't been able to find much about the novel in English, but was very happy to stumble upon this "Blog of Cantonese Resources" with an article entitled " New Wave of Cantonese Literature: HKGolden Literature".  I recommend it heartily for basic information about "A Man Must not Be Poor" and several related novels.

This page in Chinese is quite informative.

This discussion page shows the enthusiasm with which Cantonese language literature is welcomed by readers.

Mandy Chan tells me that she has read several chapters of "A Man Must not Be Poor" and that it is written completely in colloquial HK Cantonese.  She says that the storyline isn't quite her cup of tea, but she can see how it "resonates" with what is called din6 ce1 naam4 电车男 ("train man") type of guys.  The latter notion derives from Japanese densha otoko 電車男 (movie, TV series, novel, manga, etc.), which was very popular in Hong Kong.

The din6 ce1 naam4 电车男 / densha otoko 電車男 ("train man") is akin to the zaak6 naam4 / taku otoko 宅男, i.e., otaku おたく/オタク.

Hong Kong street parlance tends to use gong2 naam4 港男 ("Hong Kong man") these days to denote the same category of Hong Kong men who are socially awkward and lacking in accomplishment, yet with a high degree of self-esteem. The gong2 naam4 港男's mortal enemy is the gong2 neoi5/2 (note change in tone from original Mid-low Rising 5 to High Rising 2 to indicate colloquial pronunciation) 港女 — Mammonish, controlling, loud (often foul-mouthed), socially aggressive, old-but-still-pretending-to-be-"cute" (kawaii) type of HK woman.

The duk6 naam4 毒男 (lit., "poison man") acts in an even more introverted fashion than the gong2 naam4 港男 ("Hong Kong man"), to the point of being a "weirdo".

Extensive discussion of densha otoko 電車男 ("train man") and related terms may be found in these Language Log posts and the comments to them.

Here is the relevant entry from the draft manuscript of the ABC Cantonese-English Dictionary by Bob Bauer:

.hw zaak6 naam4
char 宅男
ps N.
clf 個 go3, 條 tiu4
en lit. house male; fig.; term was likely orig. borrowed from Jp. into TW. Man. in 2005 in connection with the broadcast of the popular Jp. TV drama 電車男 densha otoko 'train man'; term is similar in mng. to 毒男 duk6 naam4; sl.
see also 毒男 duk6 naam4
df nerd, geek, i.e. a young man who barricades himself in his room at home and spends most of his time surfing the internet on his computer, playing video games, avoiding face-to-face interaction and communication with other people, esp., women, and neglecting his physical appearance and personal hygiene
exchar 佢面口青青,又奀奀瘦瘦,污頭垢面,成日屈住喺屋企唔出門口,成條宅男咁款
exrom keoi5 min6 hau2 ceng1 ceng1, jau6 ngan1 ngan1 sau3 sau3, wu1 tau4 gau3 min6, seng4 jat6 wat1 zyu6 hai2 uk1 kei5/2 m4 ceot1 mun4 hau2, seng4 tiu4 zaak6 naam4 gam3 fun2
exeng He's both sickly pale and unhealthily skinny, his hair is dirty and his face is oily, he shuts himself up in the house the whole day and doesn't come out, he's such a complete nerd

The author's name is sit3 ho2 zing3 薛可正.  It's his pen name and very few people actually know what he looks like (the nature of the HKGOLDEN forum membership is rather secretive).

Sit's tale isn't altogether unique, because you can find many such stories on the HKGOLDEN forum, but one of the main differences with Sit is that he managed to finish the entire novel within a reasonable amount of time.  The stories are written in episodes and it is very common for an author to let his tale peter out.  Incidentally, it seems as though all the authors of the HKGOLDEN forum novels, at least the ones I know about, are males.

Mandy once listened to a radio interview with Sit, in which he said that the story is 70% "real" — meaning that it's not necessarily his own biography, but it does contain episodes and occurrences that have either happened to him or to people he knows.  It seems that the reason Sit has been able to attract so many "train men" followers is because he is able to express their sense of helplessness and Ineffectualness.  But he writes about other things too, like his relationship with his father.

While Sit's audience is made up of many gong2 naam4 港男 type guys, he isn't writing about them per se, at least his portrayal of the main character isn't about gong2 naam4 港男 vs. gong2 neoi5/2 港女 issues, yet because his storyline is about the psychological struggle against helplessness and ineffectualness, it resonates with many Hong Kong men.  Having the story written out in Hong Kong street Cantonese is a big reason why the novel has received such disproportionate attention on the Hong Kong cultural scene.

Mandy is also writing a historical romance in street Cantonese, but it's not as easy as she thought it would be because she doesn't know how to write out some of the slang words, and she gets a headache when going over her own draft because she's not used to reading something that is written purely in Cantonese.  I wish her luck in her novelistic project.

I should say a few words about the gong2 neoi5/2 港女 phenomenon more generally.  Gong2 neoi5/2 港女 is not just about Hong Kong women, but a specific kind of Hong Kong women.  The creation of this category has something to do with the sex-ratio imbalance in Hong Kong (more females than males).  To compound the problem, many Hong Kong men of marriageable age prefer to "go north" (i.e., go to the mainland) to find their spouses.  Their defense is that mainland ladies are more gentle and tender, etc. I suppose it's a matter of personal choice, but in doing so they put down HK women (at least that's the way the Hong Kong women perceive the situation).  Because many Hong Kong women regard themselves as being mentally tougher, more independent, and less "scheming" than their mainland counterparts, the actions and speech of some Hong Kong men cause tremendous anguish among Hong Kong women.  With the passage of time, it is no wonder that gong2 naam4 港男 and gong2 neoi5/2 港女 developed into oppositional terms as a way to address this Thurberesque war of the sexes.

Perhaps it is time for the gong2 neoi5/2 港女 to start writing their own Cantonese novels to defend themselves from the aspersions in all those written by gong2 naam4 港男.

[Thanks to Bob Bauer, Simon Pettersson, and Wicky Tse]


  1. Simon P said,

    August 20, 2013 @ 11:46 pm

    Thank you so much for writing about this! I'm disproportionally excited about this book and I'm really hoping this will pave the way for a genre of HK literature written entirely in colloquial Cantonese. I first read about the book on the CantoDict forums. The thread contains another book, with the long name 我將一位宅女變成女神,然後再將自己變成佢隻兵, "I made a geek girl into a goddess, then made myself into her soldier". There are also some photos of the books.

    To Mandy Chan I heartily recommend looking at the CantoDict project and the associated forum. The dictionary is an online collaborative project which contains a lot of advice on how to write unique Canto terms. They/we try to strike a balance between using the most commonly used characters and characters that are logical, historical or at least sensible, with a dislike for using latin letters. I've learned a lot about how to write good Cantonese from this dictionary and the forums.

  2. Tom said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 2:01 am

    Thanks for this post – I have been wanting to read some Cantonese lit for a while but didn't really know where to start.

    It's interesting that the terminology comes from the Japanese title, in which 電車男 is a 'train man', seemingly without interference from the Cantonese use of the word 電車 – a din6ce1 is a tram here rather than a train. So, an even more humble mode of transport ($2.3 flat fare, you know).

    Relatively few people use the trams, and I think the stereotype of a 'tram man' here would be more elderly. But I wonder how many people think of someone on a tram first when they hear the 3-character term.

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 7:08 am

    Out of curiosity, in what language does Mo Yan write?

  4. winne said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 7:23 am

    thanks for this interesting piece, but i still remember at school, we were discouraged to write in cantonese, because there was considered to be 'improper' Chinese, while the spoken language is always a dialect, like Cantonese, but also Chiu-chow, Hakka etc, we were trained to write in formal chinese….i agree it's important to preserve minority languages and i appreciate the beauty of all these languagees, but we're already witnessing
    the worsening chinese standard among our young people, so i'm not sure if things will get worse with the popularity of cantonese novels…
    apparently no matter which language we're using, be it standard Chinese or cantonese, it's crucial not to mix them up…

  5. J. Xiao said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 8:37 am

    @ Ralph Hickok

    The national koine, that is.

    I've always liked Bob Bauer's work. Even though I wasn't a linguistic major or minor, I took his sociolinguistic course back when I was an undergraduate. It was a delightful experience, and his works do encompass many interesting aspects of modern Cantonese development, written or spoken.

  6. Lane said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 9:26 am

    How much of this novel would a Mandarin-speaker who doesn't know Cantonese be able to understand?

  7. Lane said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 9:31 am

    Put another way, two more specific questions:

    1) If you took a passage of 1000 characters from this novel, how many of them would be recognisable to the Mandarin speaker with the same or nearly the same meaning?

    2) How much do

    – different character combinations (Cantonese-only polysyllabic words)

    – word/character order, and

    – extra and crucial Cantonese-only characters

    confound the understanding of the characters that *are* shared?

  8. Renato Montes said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

    Oh for the love of God, when are you going to stop teasing us by quoting Bauer's upcoming Cantonese dictionary? When will that finally get published?

  9. JQ said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 12:57 pm


    While a lot of basic prepositions / pronouns and simple verbs are different (like "he", "at", "give", "how", past-tense markers), they tend to be substituted one for one with standard Chinese, so if a Mandarin-literate got over that hurdle, they would generally understand. Word order is more or less the same.

    However, a large amount of the vocabulary will be slang and full of cultural references. There may be puns which only make sense in Cantonese. Different terminology is used for certain things (as in AmE and BrE). English words may be used to express some concepts. In essense, the point of writing in Cantonese is to make it inaccessible to non-speakers.

    As Victor's friend said, it's easy to give yourself a headache when reading Cantonese. You can't skim read because of 1) lack of practice due to dearth of Cantonese reading materials, and 2) you often need to sound words out (in your head or aloud) before you understand, making it slower and more painful. Subtitles on HK TV are written in formal language and do not match up with exactly what is said, so regular viewers are used to converting what they hear into what they see.

    It is probably similar to reading in Scots.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

    @Renato Montes

    It's cheeky of you to say that I'm teasing anyone. I wish as much as you that Bauer's dictionary would come out soon. It will probably go to typesetting around November. After that, if all goes well, it may come out by the middle of 2014. Let's hope.

  11. Simon P said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

    In general, the narration can be sorta understood by a Mandarin speaker once they learn the most frequent substitutions. The dialogue will be a lot more difficult. Looking over the text, most of the dialogue is stuff like this:
    Pretty much the only characters in this quote that are used the same way as in Mandarin are 你 and 做, meaning "you" and "to do". The rest is pure Cantonese. In Mandarin it'd look something like this (sorry, my Mandarin is a bit rusty):
    So the difference between Mando and Canto has a lot to do with the register.

    Regarding standards of "written Chinese" declining in HK, personally I think the priority should be knowing proper Cantonese, since it's the language of Hong Kong. Written Mandarin should come second, as a natural second language. You could learn to speak and read it at the same time, which would lead to less confusion than today's way of writing Mandarin but pronouncing it in Cantonese. I think it's an outrage that in a huge city like Hong Kong, with a long tradition of being a cultural hub of importance, a single book written in the language everyone speaks is considered to be huge news.

    A friend who has lived in Taiwan told me "Taiwanese think HK is a cultural wasteland. There are hardly any bookstores." It's telling that most great HK authors were actually born on the mainland. With the entire population being forced to read and write a foreign language, is it any wonder that they're not interested in literature?

  12. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

    I should have mentioned this in the original post:

    Snow, Don. 2004. Cantonese as Written Language, The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

    As for the problem of representing Cantonese morphemes with Chinese characters, the following publication is essential:

    Cheung K.H. and Robert S. Bauer. 2002. The Representation of Cantonese with Chinese Characters. Monograph Series No. 18. Berkeley: Journal of Chinese Linguistics.

  13. Mandy said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 10:49 pm


    " I still remember at school, we were discouraged to write in Cantonese" — this has not changed. Students are still discouraged to write in Cantonese in formal education. However, I think "the worsening of Chinese standard among young people" may have little to do with the popularity of Cantonese novels, but education policy flip-flops by the Hong Kong ruling elites. How many times have they changed (or have tried to change) the curriculum? Many English-language public schools are forced to switch to 母语教学 ("teaching in the mother tongue") when the teachers themselves were trained in English education! The entire education system was overhauled – the HKDSE (Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education) replaced the O and A levels with its new 3-3-4 scheme.

    Why would students call the new Chinese exam paper 死亡之卷 ("the paper of death")? Because the exam questions are often framed in such a way that is difficult to understand/interpret. But unlike the past Form 5 O-Level Chinese exam (会考), no one knows for sure what to expect or how to prepare for the new paper. The news media and teachers often make fun of students who did poorly on the new Chinese paper, but I would like to see how the complainers would perform if they take the exam themselves.

    Will the students' ability to write "proper" Chinese deteriorate with the increased popularity of Cantonese novels? I'm sure that some people will experience this language regression (but if a sound language education is in placed, this should not happen), but as a social trend? I honestly don't think so, but I don't think it is wise to make any assumptions without keeping in mind the drastic changes in contemporary Hong Kong education policy and how this affects the internet generation.

    The "would-colloquialism-be-detrimental-to-literacy?" is an age-old debate. The last time when an author made use of colloquial/slangs in his novels, he (Naguib Mahfouz) won a Nobel prize for literature. For decades, Arabic writers have been debating about the pros and cons of writing in MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) and dialects.

    In defense of the use of colloquialism in Arabic literature, well-known Arab novelist Elias Khoury once said in an interview (it was posted on arablit but it's been a while and I don't know if it's still on there): "I think we have to use colloquial. And when I read any novel in any language there are some parts which I don’t understand – you make an effort, if I am reading an English novel I make an effort. So if you are reading an Arabic novel why not make some effort to understand that the Tunisians say nejim [?] to mean I can? It seems very bizarre to us in the Levant.” (To laughter to he said that ‘ma nejimish’ means “I cannot” and that he knows Tunsian very well). So I don’t agree about this point.I think the only way a language will be alive and renew itself is through the spoken , we cannot write without the spoken. I think one of the merits of what we can learn from the Egyptian novel actually, from writers like Sonallah Ibrahim and others is the use of colloquial."

    So don't be afraid to embrace language pluralism.

  14. Simon P said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 11:35 pm

    @Mandy, well said! How is an author supposed to express her characters if they can't talk in the language the authors speaks? There can never be a Cantonese Dickens or Twain as long as authors must write their prose in a formal, unnatural and foreign manner which doesn't reflect the spoken language around them.

  15. Simon P said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 11:37 pm

    And thanks for the book tips, Professor Mair! I have the Don Snow book and it's excellent. I'll have to look up the other one, too. It looks interesting!

  16. Bob said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 12:13 am

    both websites and have a lot of writings in Cantonese

  17. Bob said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 12:18 am

    re writings in Taiwanese: my own understanding is, that have been gaining market, since the legalization of the Taiwanese Independency Movement

  18. Bob said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 1:13 am

    the late popularity of writing in Cantonese in Hongkong, perhaps, has an unspoken root: another way to resist the domination from Beijing. With all Chinese speaking and writing in one single language (Putonghua) is the stated goal of the Chinese government, –at least, for the formal, legal occasions, and in education– people in HK can feel the pressure to submit coming.

  19. Simon P said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 1:21 am

    @Bob, that might be part of it, I agree, but I think the reason it takes off now (assuming it does) is probably linked to places like HKGolden and Facebook, where writing in Cantonese is the norm rather than the exception. People are becoming more used to using written Cantonese to communicate.

    Regarding Taiwanese literature, I though the main problem there was the lack of a commonly known writing system?

  20. Bob said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 10:25 pm

    @Simon P, writing Cantonese/Taiwanese are employing mostly the same standard Chinese characters, as for Mandarin/putonghua. In the case for Cantonese, some 1oo+ words with the side 口 incorporated on the left side, to indicate that it is for sound effort only, with no association to the original meaning(s) of the character. –Microsoft has already provided a separate character input system for computers, with these 口 sided words included–

  21. Victor Mair said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 11:07 pm


    The book by Cheung and Bauer that I mentioned in an earlier comment lists over a thousand special characters for writing Cantonese, and they are by no means limited to those with a "mouth" radical. Even that is not enough to write all the morphemes of Cantonese, since some people feel compelled to use Roman letters from time to time to express terms for which there are no characters.

    There are many morphemes in Taiwanese for which the standard set of Chinese characters do not suffice. Indeed, the most frequent morpheme of all, the possessive, relativizing particle, has no commonly accepted character associated with it, hence one often sees it written with the Roman letter "e".

  22. Simon P said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 11:37 pm

    Right, my belief was that whereas Cantonese has a more or less stable written form, Taiwanese has not. Cantonese has some variation (使/駛/洗, 啲/的/D (unfortunately nobody seems to use the wonderful character 尐)), but no matter which character a person uses for a certain phoneme, they will usually recognize the other ones and understand, even if they are not used to it. With Taiwanese, I believe, the standard is much less clear, and trying to find a way to write a certain morpheme by no means guarantees that the reader will understand what you mean.

  23. Cleo said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 12:17 am

    HK has NEETS? that sounds impossible – HK homes are just not conducive to being shut ins and there is too much to do outside the home plus no one is spoilt enough and certainly not subsidized enough to be able to copy Japan in this respect – also, don't forget this culture is the OPPOSITE of Japan in that the blood elves are famous for dishing it out AND taking it – these men do not pass out from confrontations, they manufacture opportunities to be smartasses.

  24. Cleo said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 12:19 am

    HK has mold that grows in closets in a matter of days – no Chinese dude would stay in one spot INDOORS like that – it's not really possible plus don't forget the food and the attractive gamines outside their doors – NO WAY would HK men stay secluded like that

  25. Mandy said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 2:55 am


    NEETS certainly exist in Hong Kong. There are enough of them that makes 星期日档案 (TVB's show "The Sunday File") did an episode on them. One of the NEETS guys featured in the show is called 阿源, who was once a 毒男 ("poison man") and was regarded by the 高登 community as an "icon". Search for this show on youtube.

    What you said is contradictory: "there is too much to do outside the home plus no one is spoilt enough and certainly not subsidized enough to be able to copy Japan in this respect." If they are not subsidized, how are they supposed to engage in outdoor activities and other leisure pursuits? The NEETS in Hong Kong tend to be from a lower stratum of the society with no social and financial means to "make it". The parents of these 毒男 often receive government subsidies.

    Are you just theorizing scenarios or have actually lived in Hong Kong? If you are really from there, I'm actually quite surprised that you don't know NEETS exist, particularly in the older neighborhoods like Cheung Sha Wan (长沙湾)or the newer government estates/projects like Tin Shui Wai (天水围). In these places, you will find a ton of NEETS there, supported by their parents, who are in turn subsidized by the government.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 8:59 am

    From Dwight Reynolds:

    Thanks for this! The Arabic world is changing incredibly rapidly with the new pan-Arab satellite TV channels. Stations like Al-Jazeera are featuring "man in the street" interviews with people speaking their local dialects, and even talk shows where people of different dialects carry on conversations. People seem to becoming more and more used to hearing and trying to understand different colloquials. In the old days, one only saw colloquialisms in the dialogues of a novel or a short story, and they were completely opaque (especially since Arabic doesn't show the short vowels when written), but dealing with them in live situations aurally is quite a different matter. If nothing else, when a strange colloquialism crops up, the interviewer or host can simply ask — what does that mean?

  27. Victor Mair said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 10:17 pm

    From Leopold Eisenlohr:

    Written colloquial Arabic really is interesting and very dynamic – when I was living in Damascus it seemed like everyone would write in latin characters with a kind of transliteration koine that varied between regions – 2 = hamzah, 3 = `ayn, 5 = khaa', 6 = Saad, 7 = Haa', etc, but now it's much more common to see colloquial Arabic written in the Arabic script, and for each region's written colloquial do be differentiated. But it's variable and dependent on register. For example the word "annahu" (that he) is written by the same facebook friend:
    هلا من كل عئلك عم تكتب جريدة مفكر أنو لح يقتنعوا
    …ما انتجته الثورات العربيه هي انه اصبح من الممكن ان

    the colloquial Shaami pronunciation being "ennoo" or "annoo." Something interesting is to see verbs written with the initial b-, a characteristic feature of shaami Arabic, though most people said they were unaware of it, at least when I asked "why do you start verbs with a b?" Eg "huwwe bye7ki" – he speaks (yaHki) = بيحكي but I don't know really how much uniformity there is. Or a word like bi2uul / b2ool (yaquul) as either بئول or بقول since sometimes the qaaf, which becomes a hamzah in shaami, is written and sometimes not. There have to be reasons for why people choose what they do, but it's definitely true that things are changing fast, not least thanks to online games like Counterstrike (a shoot-em-up military game), where kids definitely do more writing in chat windows than they ever have to do in school. Every internet cafe was full of Counterstrike players, at least when I was there… I wish I knew more about the Chinese situation. I have been trying to become familiar with it by playing online games like 光荣使命 (the one developed by the PLA where you fight against Japan on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands) but I don't really have a good sense for colloquial online gaming dialect Chinese yet.

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