Gregory Rivers, a Superman Cantonese-learner

Ho Gwok-wing Image 1 CROPPED_6 APR 2020

Gregory Rivers is one of my Superpeople of Cantonese-learning, and not just because he happens to be Australian!

After falling in love with Cantonese pop-music as a medical student at university, he plucked up the courage to buy a one-way ticket to Hong Kong in the 1980s, and since then, he has gone from strength to strength. His story is particularly intriguing because Rivers has nothing of the polyglot about him. His obsession was with Hong Kong, and learning the language was his best way into that world. His story demonstrates the role passion and commitment plays in language-learning, as well as the overpowering attraction a different culture can exert on someone remote from it by birth in so many ways.

The following short clip, a kind of brief question and answer interview, was first aired in 2016, and was produced by Arm Channel. The name “Arm Channel”, so odd at first sight, derives from that special Cantonese word 啱 ngāam, which means different things in different contexts, but generally boils down to “correct; accurate; appropriate”.

Unfortunately, there are no subtitles of any kind provided for this video. But if you like, you can read my rough Cantonese transcription below, together with an English translation. Otherwise plunge in here! The clip runs for just over 2 minutes.

And remember to use the Sheik Cantonese on-line dictionary for anything in the transcript that you might want to check.


呢度係「啱」Channel ,我係河國榮,一齊睇啦!

This is Arm Channel and I am Gregory Rivers [河國榮 Hòh4 Gwok3 Wìhng4]. Let’s watch this together!

Q: 點解你叫河國榮? / Why is your Chinese name 河國榮 Hoh4 Gwok3 Wihng4?

我以前讀大學嗰陣時呢,er… 我都係,即係啫,我鐘意咗廣東話歌曲之後,我都表演唱歌。噉呀佢每年都會攪一次,er… 國際晚會,就係希望大家都係一啲文化交流。Er… 張國榮啱啱攞到獎呀嘛,就係唱《Monica》。噉呀,嗰年呢,我就諗住,“哎,不如我唱《Monica》啦”。噉呀唱《Monica》之後,我個 friend 對我講,話,“你又鐘意張國榮。 Er…, 佢,佢嘅名又係「國榮」,你個名係 Gregory,不如你叫河國榮呀”。噉咪變咗咪叫河國榮囉。

Back in the days when I was studying at university, I, that is, after I got to like pop songs in Cantonese, I had never done a performance, singing [in public]. Every year they [佢] put on an international party [國際晚會] in the hope that people would get to share their cultures. Ah Leslie Cheung had won a prize with a song called “Monica”, so that year I thought, “Hey, why don’t I sing ‘Monica’?” So, after I had sung “Monica”, a friend of mine said to me, “You’re keen on Leslie Cheung. [Since] his given name is Gwok Wing and yours is ‘Gregory’, why don’t you call yourself Ho Gwok Wing?” And so, as it turned out, [my Chinese name] came to be Ho Gwok Wing.

● 變咗 bin3 jó2 = (?) “as it turned out” | I haven’t found a definition of this term yet, but I have heard it often enough to think that it must be an idiom meaning something like the suggested translation.
● I’m still puzzled by the use of 咪 maih6 in 噉咪變咗咪叫河國榮囉。Sheik Cantonese has a comment in a forum discussion that says: 咪 ~= 不就 in Mandarin, but it also defines it as meaning “(often used with 囉 lō1) then; as a result; might just as well”. For the time being, I am thinking of it as meaning “then”, sometimes with the added idea of “as a result” (especially if 囉 is present at the end).

Q: 仲有人覺得你唔識講中文? / Are there still people who think you can’t speak Chinese?

Er…始終係會有嘅。噉同埋我始終都係有少少歪音,噉可能我講兩三句,佢都諗住 “Er… 你啲廣、廣東話都唔係好好啫。噉我都係同你講英文喇”。噉我無所謂嘅。不過近幾年香港嘅英文水平 . . . 基本上都係有少少下降,因爲而家英文唔係咁重要,國語係重要啲。

Yes, there have always [始終] been [people who’ve thought that]. I’ve always spoken with a bit of an accent, so perhaps someone [佢] might think: “Er, your Cantonese is not very good. I will speak to you in English”. Well, I don’t mind either way. In recent years, however, the standard of English in Hong Kong . . . has basically gone down a bit, because now English is not so important. Standard Chinese is more important.

● 歪音 mé2 yām1 = distorted pronunciation; an accent (in a foreign language)
● It’s interesting to note that 啲 dī1 is used with languages here, perhaps as a kind of measure word (or classifier).

Q: 香港人 = 中國人?/ A person from Hong Kong = a Chinese person?

地理上,我哋都係中國嘅。文化上,我哋就唔同呀。Er… 我哋諗嘢嘅方法、我哋 . . . 做嘢嘅方法、我哋點樣睇其他人嘅方法,都,即係,同 er 中國嗰便都係有分別嘅。

Geographically[-speaking], we are all part of China [我哋都係中國嘅]. In cultural terms, we are different. Er . . . The way we think about things [諗嘢嘅方法], the way we . . . go about doing things, the way in which we see [點樣睇] other [kinds of] people ⸺ all these things are, that is, different from over there in China [中國嗰便].

● In this passage, there is a couple of uses of 上 seuhng in 地理上 . . . 文化上 . . . , which means something like “in terms of” or “with respect to”.

Q: 動物權益問題? / On the issue of the rights of animals?

第一呢,就唔好去買,真係收養。第二呢,就諗清楚你個情況,因爲動物呢,都係需要有人陪伴。噉如果你成日返工唔喺屋企嘅,er 冇人陪佢呢,噉你諗清楚先呀。

First of all, don’t go and buy [an animal]; it’s really about adoption [收養 sāu1 yéuhng5]. Secondly, make sure you’re clear about your situation, because animals need human companionship. If you’re at work all day and not at home, and er there is no one to keep it company ⸺ well, make sure you’re clear [about this] first up.

● I’m not sure whether there’s some idiomatic nuance in 真係收養. Literally this means “truly it is adoption”.
● 陪伴 pùih4 buhn6 = to accompany; to keep someone company
● Usually, 返工 fāan1 gūng1 means “to go to work”, but from the context it means something more like “to be away at work (that is, not at home)”.

Q: 返 TVB 拍劇? / Would you go back to TVB to make TV dramas?

簽部頭就可能會嘅。噉始終,冇TVB ,冇河國榮吖嘛?呢個係事實嘅,但係始終拍 TVB 係以前嘅事,唔係將來嘅事。

Perhaps, on a part-time basis. Hasn’t it always been a case of “no TVB, no Ho Gwok-wing”? This is a fact, but all along [始終], making [dramas] for TVB is something from the past, not something for the future.

● The term 簽部頭 chīm1 bouh6 tàuh4 is a bit unusual. According to my Hong Kong informant, it suggests that a contract is signed for work on a particular drama, making it something akin to piece work rather than full-time employment (呢度嘅意思係一部、一部劇咁簽約, piece work, 唔係 full time appointment).
● 吖嘛 āa1 máah5 added at the end of a clause usually indicates self-evident information: “obviously/as everyone knows”.

Q: 鐘唔鐘意食香港嘢? / Do you like to eat Hong Kong food?

鳳爪 heh,我係會食。Er… 其實呢,er …牛柏葉都會食。其實,好多嘢你哋以爲我唔會食我都會食。如果係上大陸呢,我係即係對野味係冇興趣。“請你食飯!唔該你,我唔要特別嘢,我要普通嘢得喇!”

Chicken claws, heh, I eat them. Er, actually, er, I also eat tripe. In fact, many of the things you think I wouldn’t eat I do eat. If I go to the Mainland, I, that is, I have no interest in wild game [野味]. “Come and have something to eat! I’m sorry, I don’t want anything fancy [特別嘢], everyday ordinary food will do just fine for me!”

● Use of 會 wúih5 is used here has a modal verb like “can” or “could” or “would”; what it mainly does here is to suggest a high likelihood of something happening.
● 牛柏葉 ngàuh4 paak3 yihp6 = cow stomach; tripe
● 以爲 yíh5 wàih4 = to think, but with connotations of “incorrectly/mistakenly”.
● Meaning “game; venison”, 野味 features a changed tone for the second character: yéh5 méi6*2.
● 得㗎喇 dak1 gaa3 laa3 = that will do; that will be fine; that will suffice

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