Eat Smoke

Thursday evening. I go to meet David and some friends for drinks at my neighborhood joint, Club 71. It's the first time I've been out to a bar since Hong Kong's new anti-smoking law took effect last Monday.

I should explain Club 71 a bit for you out-of-towners. It's a magic little place, located on a small lane off of Hollywood Road--to get there, you walk down an extremely steep side street, then duck left into a dark alleyway that's a bit scary at first because the entrance is patrolled by a squadron of smelly stray cats.

If you make it past the furry gatekeepers, you'll be welcomed into what is probably Hong Kong's only genuine Bohemian enclave, a real paradise for those of us who remember Bob Dylan, all night college bull sessions, and peace demonstrations.

There's a guitar hanging on the wall. Flyers from artists, alternative theater groups, and political and human rights organizations on a special shelf in the back. Hemlock hates the place. He thinks its a magnet for that sorry, furry-haired and down at heels Hong Kong species, the sad gweilo (c.f. Lamma Island).

That is sometimes true. But usually not. I like to go to Chaat Yat because on a good weeknight it draws a crowd of interesting regulars, mainly Hong Kong Cantonese, who've been hanging out with each other at Grace Ma's different bars for a decade or more. (Feminist and activist Grace Ma is Chaat Yat's co-owner.)

Anyway, I get there and David is saving a chair for me at the bar. We order drinks, wish each other Happy New Year, and suddenly I notice something odd. Although the night is quite chilly, David and I are the only two people actually in the bar. Everybody else--Wilson, Long Hair and a bunch of other guys-- is outside huddled around one of the folding tables Grace sets out in the lane

Welcome to the wonderful new world of smoke-free Hong Kong.

Long Hair is obeying the law, but he's not a happy camper about it. He's out there at the table, rolling cigarettes from Drum tobacco, and joking about how Macau should seize the moment and take advantage of a Hong Kong full of disgruntled smokers. "They should offer half-price discounts on the ferry to Hong Kong smokers! Come over to can smoke here!"

As we all learned in the 60s, the political is personal. I'm thrilled about the smoking ban. I have a touch of asthma. It hasn't bothered me since I was a teenager, but last winter I started to wheeze again from the fragrant breezes of economic expansion drifting down from Guangdung province. And from hanging out with too many interesting characters in tiny HK bars and restaurants--why are they all smokers?


One of the things I love about Cantonese is the way it gets straight to the down and dirty. In Mandarin, when somebody lights up, they say "kap yin", "inhale smoke." But the Cantonese say "sik yin", which means, literally, to eat smoke.

The character for smoke

is the one with the little figure at the edge that looks like a stick man with arms and legs. If you look carefully at it, you'll notice that it is actually a picture with three separate elements (the stick guy on the left, and two other glyphs on the right side, top and bottom. These parts are called radicals. They correspond, in a way, to root woods and suffixes and prefixes in English.

Just like root words, radicals are clues. If you see a character you don't understand, but can recognize a radical inside it, you can hazard a guess as to what the character's meaning is. Or you can use the little picture as a mnemonic. The little guy with the arms and legs, for example, is fo, fire, and you'll also find him dancing inside the characters for barbecue, lights, and fireworks.

At the bottom right, that cross-like thing is the character for earth, tou. And above it that thing that looks like pi surrounded by a square, is the character that means "West". I have no idea what the buried story inside the "smoke" character actually is--maybe someone can tell me.

But I've made a story up anyway. "West", in Chinese culture, is the direction of death, and represents the afterlife. I imagine the smoke is rising from the earth character below, up to heaven in the West, the way it does when Chinese burn paper money and offerings to their departed. In other words, yin is a little stick man dancing at his own funeral.

One of the reasons I hate (detest! Don't get me started on this subject!) the simplified characters they use in Mainland China is that the design of most of these new characters obscures or even eliminates the radicals. Plus, they're ugly and look pretty awful when used in Chinese calligraphy.

Back inside, at the bar, I mention Learning Cantonese to David and his friend Mok, a philosophy professor. Mok instantly groans. "That must be a depressing blog." Why? "Because learning Cantonese for us was painful."

David explains that, back in their school days in the 1960s, teachers would routinely beat them if they didn't learn their characters and do their homework. The parents supported the teachers. This was the atmosphere in which every Hong Kong kid of a certain age learned to read and write Chinese. "Actually, we got tortured sometimes," says David. "I had one teacher who would do this...."

He puts his hand down on the bar, fingers splayed, then takes a pencil and rolls it back and forth, hard, over his digits and knuckles.

He laughs, I cringe. What a way to get literate. No wonder most of my Hong Kong Cantonese friends eat smoke.

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  • 1/5/2007 2:30 PM Anonymous wrote:
    Daisann, your blog is wonderful! I've learned more Cantonese in the past week than in the previous 14 years put together. Or maybe I shouldn't admit that. Anyway, thanks.
    Reply to this
  • 1/6/2007 7:17 AM julian wrote:
    I'm loving this blog. "fragrant breezes of economic expansion"? Brilliant.

    I've never been to Hong Kong. My girlfriend, however, grew up there. I can't wait to go. I've been enjoying the stories you've posted quite a bit. Thanks.
    Reply to this
  • 1/7/2007 3:32 AM Kempton wrote:
    Hello Daisann,

    Nice to hear HK is finally having a smoking ban. Love your story and explanation about the character for "smoke".
    Reply to this
  • 1/8/2007 4:16 PM siu82 wrote:
    Hi, I'm a HK local. Just stumbled upon your blog. I love your writing and your stories of learning Cantonese. Just wanna share what I know about the character 煙.

    You probably know that a majority of Chinese characters are "pictophonetics" (ying sing ji 形聲字), and the word 煙 is one of them. A pictophonetic character is normally composed of a ying part (a picture that gives you hints on the meaning of the word) and a sing part (representing the sound). In the word 煙, 火is the picture, and 垔 represents the sound. There are a number of other words that contain the same sing part, like 甄, 湮, 禋, all of which have the same pronunciation in standard Mandarin.

    hope this helps. =)
    Reply to this
  • 1/9/2007 3:07 PM Adrian wrote:
    I noticed the change at Club 71 as well. I went there last week, and one of the owners kept coming outside to ask everyone to be quiet because they were getting noise complaints. And then two days ago a friend told me the outside tables have now been chained up and you can't sit outside anymore. I hope that's not true.
    Reply to this
    1. 1/10/2007 4:24 PM dm wrote:
      Not to worry! The chairs and tables were out at Club 71 last night.
      Reply to this
  • 1/10/2007 11:20 AM Chinawatcher wrote:
    Hi Daisann. It's getting better and better. I referred your blog to a friend of mine who's new to HK and grappliing with Cantonese. She's already in love with it, but because she doesn't have Chinese fonts on her computer, she misses out on some of nuances - like "sik yin" here. She tried downloading from the Net, but hasnt had any luck. Can she buy a CD with the fonts (where? which?) - or can anyone here refer her to some websites from where one can download Asian fonts?
    Reply to this
    1. 1/10/2007 4:23 PM dm wrote:
      I don't know about this, because my computer and browser seem to have the Chinese fonts in them, no problem. You might want to refer your friend to sheik's Cantonese dictionary site, which has lots and lots of info for beginners, and I think some advice about software. The site is linked on my sidebar on the left side of the page.
      Reply to this
  • 3/24/2007 5:44 PM YTSL wrote:
    Hi there --

    I thought that bars were among the places exempt from Hong Kong's smoking ban? And FWIW, I'd be ecstatic to hear that they're not as I'm one of those people who likes to drink but not smoke -- and used to go to the Dublin Jack near the travelator whenever I was in Hong Kong because it was the rare smoke-free bar in the territory until I was told when I visited last year that it had closed down. (Not enough customers after it became a smoke-free bar!)
    Reply to this
    1. 3/25/2007 7:53 PM dm wrote:
      Some bars were eligible to apply for an exemption from the smoke-free regulations that lasts until 2009. Karaoke places, mah-johng parlours and massage parlours are also exempt until then. The majority of bars, though are smoke-free. So what's happening here is the same thing that happened in New York City--smokers are hanging out on sidewalks by bars and in sidewalk cafes. Walking the Hong  Kong streets in a bar-filled neighborhood is probably a health hazard, although since it just gets mixed in with the crap air that blows down from Guangdong, it's not really going to make that much of a difference.

      Reply to this
  • 4/7/2007 5:40 PM Wing wrote:
    Interesting...I too had asthma when I was younger, but it hadn't bothered me for a while too, until a trip to HK in August. So I didn't carry my inhaler with me. I guess the pollution got to me too, I started wheezing and ended up going to hospital just to get an inhaler. I stayed in hotel in Jordan this time, but it was so small and smelly! We normally stay with family in Cheng lung tao and the more I think about staying in HK for a while, the more I think about staying somewhere out of the way, and not in busy areas. What a good I idea having your back to the mountains and the sea in front (booi saan mein hoi) (if you can afford it), but having an MTR next to you these days seems more of a selling point. Oh and the hotel…the shamrock in Jordan, please see it first before you plan a stay there!
    Reply to this
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