If you’re a struggling, aspiring artist, you may find both consolation and enlightenment in this video about Hong Kong singer-songwriter 方皓玟 Charmaine Fong. For four years, she struggled away, working with two musicians to write hundreds of songs, and living for the most part on cheap restaurant food just to keep body and soul together. Yet she looks back on this time in steep-streeted 西營盤 Sai Ying Pun with great affection, because, as she declares:
我覺得作為一個創作人 | 其實係好需要一個艱難嘅時期 | 去俾自己學習 | 喺從中裏邊建立自己好多嘅價值觀呀
I think that, to be a creative person, you very much need, in fact, a difficult period, in which you give yourself [the chance] to learn, and in the course of which many of your own personal values are established.
Sai Ying Pun itself is credited by Fong has happening an energy conducive to creative work. On the one hand, it has all kinds of traditional Chinese shops, including 紙紮店 jí2 jaat3 dim3 — a store that sells goods made out of paper mainly used to make offerings to the dead. On the other, there are many Western-style coffee shops and places where you can buy organic produce. This eclectic hybrid vibe is described by Fong with the very neat phrase 中西交融 jūng1 sāi1 gāau1 yùhng4 = roughly, “a fusion of China and the West”.
If you have an interest in the magnificent Cantonese language, there some wonderful things you can take away from this consummately polished 1822hk production. Firstly, it reminds us that the fairly common character 跌 diht6 meaning “to fall” has a second pronunciation tit3 in the compound 跌打, a kind of traditional Chinese medicine that specializes in sprains, bruises and fractures resulting from falls.
Secondly, at 1:00, Fong uses the expression 大大話話 daaih6 daaih6 waah6 waah6, an idiom that means “a rough estimate, roughly, without exaggeration”. To be honest, this is the first time I have actually heard this phrase in use, so it was a bit of a Columbus moment for me, as it might be for you too.
Other worthwhile vocabulary items from this video include: 幕後 mohk6 hauh6 = behind the scenes; behind closed doors; 夾 gaap3 = (?) to get on well; to be on the same wavelength; 填詞 tìhm4 chìh4 = to fill in words to fit a given tune; 碟頭飯dihp6 tàuh4 faahn6 = food with rice on a plate; 感受 gám2 sauh6 = to experience; to feel; 價值觀 gaa3 jihk6 gūn1 = values; 斜路 che3 lóu6*2 = a slope; 慳錢 hāan1 chin4*2 = to save money (by limiting spending); the very Cantonese 發吽哣 faat3 ngauh6 dauh6 = daydreaming; staring blankly (also 發吽豆); and 歎 taan3 = to enjoy; to seek pleasure in.
The characters in Fong’s name (a stage-name, of course) tell a whole story in themselves and reveal something about her creative orientation. The unusual surname 方 Fōng1 has the basic meaning of “square”, but it can also mean “upright; honest”, as in the written expression 品行方正 bán2 hahng6 fōng1 jing3, “to have an upright character”. The first character in her personal name can be analysed into two parts, 白 baaahk6 = “white” and 告 gou3 = “to tell”. Combined like this they become 皓 houh6, which means “white; bright; luminous”, a character often used to describe the rather disparate entities of teeth and the moon! Finally, the very rare 玟 màhn4 — made up of 玉 yuhk6 (“jade”) and 文 màhn4 (“literature; writing”) — translates as “gem; streaks in jade” and appears for the most part in female names. At the end of the video, when you hear Fong say 希望喺自己創作裏便 | 唔好回避，能夠坦白咁講出大家嘅心聲 (“I hope that in what I create I don’t avoid [issues], and that I can speak out honestly about what we’re all feeling inside”), you will be reminded at once of the “plain telling” encapsulated in the single word 皓 . . .
You can watch the video here (subtitles in Standard Written Chinese only). If you’re interested in listening to some of Charmaine Fong’s music, you can peruse the contents of her YouTube channel here.
我諗一直以嚟 | 外界認識方皓玟嘅 project（作品）| 從來都係同社會啦，或者社區有關嘅 | 好「香港」嘅一件事啦 | 西營盤正正就係一個中西交融嘅好明顯嘅地方 | 而咁啱得咁橋呢，呢一度同我自己嘅音樂創作路有好大嘅淵源
Caption: 18 / 社區故事
喺零三年十一月我由台灣返嚟之後啦 | 噉本來一心諗住做幕後㗎喇 | 之後好偶然咁識咗阿創基同 Edmond（曾奕文）| 佢哋嗰陣時喺正街就有個 studio 啦 | 我會叫呢度做「奮鬥房」| 最初佢哋搵我幫手唱 demo（樣本歌曲）| 最尾就覺得，咦，大家都幾夾喎 | 想做啲嘢喎 | 噉啊決定咗 join 呢個團隊啦 | 我哋三個主力都係創作嘅 | 佢哋就寫歌，噉我就填詞 | 同埋唱埋 demo | 我記得真係 . . .
● 外界 ngoih6 gaai3 = outside; external | ● 交融 gāau1 yùhng4 = to blend; to mingle | ● 啱得咁橋 ngāam1 dāk1 gam3 kíu42 (?) = just by chance; as it happens | ● 淵源 yūn1 yùhn4 = a source | ● 幕後 mohk6 hauh6 = behind the scenes; behind closed doors; backstage; offstage; backroom; in the background | ● 奮鬥 fáhn5 dau3 = to struggle; to fight; to strive | ● 夾 gaap3 = (?) to get on well; to be on the same wavelength | ● 團隊 tyùhn4 déui6*2 = a team | ● 主力 jyú2 lihk6 = main force | ● 填詞 tìhm4 chìh4 = to fill in words to fit a given tune
I think that all along the outside world [外界] has recognized that the projects of Charmaine Fong are a very “Hong Kong” affair, and have always been about the society or the community. Sai Yung Pun is precisely a place in which China and the West are blended in a very obvious way and, as it happens, this area [呢一度] has been a major source [for] my own road [to] musical creativity.
Caption: 18 / Community Stories
After I came back from Taiwan in 2003, I was totally intent on working behind the scenes [做幕後]. Later, quite by chance, I got to know Ah Chong Ki and Edmond (Tsang Yik-man). They had a studio in Centre Street at that time. I used to call it “the Struggle Room”. Originally, they came to me to sing on some demos. In the end, I felt we got on pretty well, so wanted to do some things together. I decided to join the team. The main force of the three of us was creativity. They would compose melodies and I would write the lyrics to them and sing on the demos. As I recall . . .
【1:00】. . . 大大話話喺度都寫咗成幾百首歌 | 呢個奮鬥階段其實足足有四年咁耐囉 | 初頭寫歌可能你即係寫一百首都唔會中幾首吖嘛 | 噉但係你又要繼續努力去寫喎 | 所以，啫係，呢段時間 | 對於我將來創作有一個好深嘅影響啦
零六年推出嗰張大碟《歡迎光臨》| 入便全部歌都係由呢個階段嗰度寫出嚟嘅 | 噉咁啱嗰陣時啱啱喺香港出道啦 | 好多嘢都重新學習啦 | 噉啲歌就同佢哋兩個合作寫嘅 | 感覺就係好窮喇 | 但係就好充實 | 嗰陣時生活其實好公式嘅，即係好公式化 | 每日返去就係不停咁創作啦 | 辛苦完一日之後 | 就落樓下嗰間「聯華」度食碟頭飯囉 | 噉三個人迫埋一齊 | 噉同埋所有嗰度食嘢嗰啲碟都有冧把㗎 | 我哋就叫呢一度做「監獄飯」啦 | 如果去食「尼斯（餐廳）」嘅話呢 | 呢間食西餐嘅 | 卌呀幾蚊個餐已經係大餐嚟㗎， 對我嚟講
● 大大話話 daaih6 daaih6 waah6 waah6 = a rough estimate, roughly, without exaggeration | ● 推出 tēui1 chēut = to release | ● 大碟 daih6 díp6*2 = album; LP | ● 出道 chēut1 douh6 = serve out one’s apprenticeship and start one’s career| ● 公式 gūng1 sīk1 = formulaic | ● 碟頭飯dihp6 tàuh4 faahn6 = food with rice on a plate | ● 迫埋 bīk1 màaih4 = (?) to squeeze up close together | ● 冧把 lām1 báa2 = number | ● 呢一度 nī1 yāt1 douh6 = (?) here; in this place | 卌呀幾 sei3 aah6 gei2 = 40-odd; 40 and a bit more | ● 大餐 daaih6 chāan1 = banquet, feast, a special meal or dish
. . . we really did write several hundred songs here, more or less. This phase of struggle lasted, in fact, for a whole four years. When you first start writing songs, you can write a hundred of them but only make use of a few of them [都唔會中幾首]. Nevertheless, you must go on doing your best to write them. So, this period of time had a really profound influence on my future creativity.
In 2006, the album We Welcome You [《歡迎光臨》] was released. All the songs on it were written during this time. As it happened, it was at that time that my apprenticeship in Hong Kong came to an end. There were many things that I learnt all over again. The songs were written with those two collaborators. At the time, we felt very poor, but very fulfilled [好充實]. Life at that time was very formulaic, very regimented [公式化] — every day we would go back [to work] constantly creating [music]. After a day of toil, we would go downstairs to the Luen Wah Café to eat a plate of food with rice, all three of us squeezing up together. All the food plates there had a number on them, so we called this “prison food”. If we went to the Nice Restaurant instead, we’d eat Western food. A meal costing 40 plus dollars was like a banquet to me.
【2:00】嗰陣時根本冇能力攞錢返屋企㗎嘛 | 啫，只可以維持個生計啦 | 個志向好清晰啦 | 就係日日返去 studio 做嘢囉 | 噉所以就儲埋有好多感受 | 呢一種不斷掙扎嘅感覺呢 | 係我哋由三個 | 冇人識嘅創作單位 | 慢慢奮鬥努力去再獲得市場一啲嘅認同咁樣行落去囉 | 感謝可以喺台灣返嚟嘅時候遇到佢哋啦 | 因為佢哋俾咗一個好美好嘅時光我去成長 | 我覺得作為一個創作人 | 其實係好需要一個艱難嘅時期 | 去俾自己學習 | 喺從中裏邊建立自己好多嘅價值觀呀 | 同埋穩定自己嘅志向
其實我屋邨長大啦 | 噉但係同時都去過國外讀書 | 都受到西方文化嘅影響 | 噉咁啱西營盤呢笪地方呢，佢有好多唔同嘅商鋪 | 跌打鋪呀、茶葉鋪呀、花店呀、紙紮店呀、棺材鋪呀 | 噉呢種舊嘅鋪頭通通都有齊嘅
● 維持 wàih4 chìh4 = to keep; to maintain; to preserve| ● 生計 sāng1 gai3 = means of livelihood; livelihood | ● 志向 ji3 heung3 = aspiration; ideal; ambition | ● 感受 gám2 sauh6 = to experience; to feel | ● 掙扎 jāng1 jaat3 = to struggle | ● 認同 yihng6 tùhng4 = to approve | ● 價值觀 gaa3 jihk6 gūn1 = values | ● 穩定 wán2 dihng6 = stable; steady | ● 商鋪 sēung1 pou3 = a shop | ● 跌打tit3 dáa2 = bone setting; Die-da or Tieh-ta; traditional Chinese medicine specialized in injuries from falls, fractures, contusions and strains | ● 紙紮jí2 jaat3 = (?) paper offerings; bundled paper products (for the dead) | ● 棺材 gūn1 chòih4 = a coffin
Back in those days, I basically had no capacity to bring in any money back home with me. I could only earn enough to support myself. The aspiration was very clear: to go off to the studio every day and work. For this reason, [I] collected [儲埋] a lot of experiences. We kept going with this feeling of unrelenting struggle — a creative unit made up of three unknown [individuals] — gradually fighting and striving to get some recognition from the market. I thank my lucky stars [感謝] that I met those two [Ah Chong Ki and Edmond Tsang] on my return from Taiwan, because they gave me a very beautiful time in which to grow. I think that, to be a creative person, you very much need, in fact, a difficult period, in which you give yourself [the chance] to learn, and in the course of which many of your own personal values are established. Your aspirations also become more stable.
Actually, I grew up on a housing estate. At the same time, I went overseas to study, coming under the influence of Western culture. As it happens, there are many different kinds of shops in this place, Sai Ying Pun: bone setting shops, shops that sell tea, flower shops, paper-goods shops, shops [which sell] coffins. Here you can find all these old[-style] shops.
【3:00】噉同時又好多外國西式嘅 cafe 喎 | 亦都有好多 organic store | 呢一種中西交融嘅感覺我覺得非常之有趣 | 因為嗰陣時，呃，有家庭喇 | 小朋友就，啫，斜路多唔方便咁 | 所以就變咗會搬屋囉 | 正街係我事業爆發期嘅一個重要階段囉 | 啫，譬如我拍《一念無明》裏面我嘅角色叫 Jenny 嘅 | 佢係一個為咗供樓要捱麵包慳錢嘅一個女仔啦 | 我就嘗試用 Jenny 嘅角色去過生活啦 | 噉嗰兩個月就日日不停喺度食包囉 | 第一街有間麵包舖（加利年餅屋）| 佢哋就賣緊兩蚊一個甜餐包 | 嗰陣時我日日買個包，然之後就攞埋個包去開工咁樣啦 | 麵包店嘅伯伯 | 係同我一齊 grow 咗個角色出嚟嘅
《分手總約在雨天》| 《你是你本身嘅傳奇》 | 同埋《假使（世界原來不像你預期）》| 都係喺西營盤嘅創作嚟嘅 | 我記得嗰陣時寫《傳奇》就因為，啫，屋企隔籬裝修好嘈啦
● 中西交融 jūng1 sāi1 gāau1 yùhng4 = roughly, “a fusion of China and the West” | ● 斜路 che3 lóu62 = a slope | ● 爆發期 baau3 faat3 kèih4 = ? cf. 爆發 = to erupt; to burst out; to break out | ● 供樓 gūng1 láu42 = mortgage | ● 慳錢 hāan1 chin4*2 = to save money (by limiting spending) | ● 甜餐包 tihm4 chāan1 bāau1 = (?) sweet plain bun
At the same time, there are many foreign Western-style cafes. There are also many organic stores. I find it extremely interesting, the feeling of this fusion of China and the West. Because I had a family by then, and all the hill-slopes were hard on small children, I then moved away. [That time spent] in Centre Street was an important phase in the break-out period [爆發期] of my endeavours [事業]. For instance, when I was shooting [the film] Mad World, I played the part of Jenny. She was a woman who lived on bread to save money to pay off her mortgage. I tried to live the role of Jenny in my own life. For those two months, I ate buns here every day, without a break. There is a bakery in First Street (Catherine Bakery). They were selling sweet plain buns for two dollars. Back then, I’d buy a bun [there] every day and take it off to work with me. I grew the role of Jenny together with the older fellow [伯伯] [who worked] in the bakery.
The songs “Break-ups Always Happen on Rainy Days”, “You Are Your Own Legend” and “What If the World Wasn’t as You Expected” were all created in Sai Ying Pun. I remember that when I wrote “[You Are Your Own] Legend”, I did it in the café downstairs . . .
【4:00】噉我就走咗落去樓下間 café 寫嘢 | 般含道上面有間餐廳叫做 Czarina（莎厘娜）嘅 | 噉但係而家已經變咗做中原地產喇 | 嗰陣時就喺嗰間café嗰度寫歌詞囉 | 寫咗個 verse（主歌）出嚟之後 | 就好順利咁一路寫埋成首歌出嚟 | 我都覺得嗰個位 | 都算係西營盤嘅一個創作嘅「文昌位」嚟嘅
獨居係我嘅快樂時代嚟嘅 | 因為你成個生活就係專心寫嘢啦、睇書呀 | 我嗰陣時有好多作家我都覺得係我自己啲 friend 嚟嘅 | 啫，日日返到屋企睇住佢哋嘅書 | 我覺得好有佢哋個精神同我一齊囉 | 又會得閒睇吓經呀、種吓花呀 | 噉或者望住天花板發吓吽哣呀 | 我覺得如果一個人可以一世咁樣過呢啲咁嘅生活呢，就非常之快樂喇 | 「歎」嘅生活就係咁樣囉 | 嗰陣時去拍嘢啦，有工車嚟接我嘅
● 文昌位 màhn4 chēung1 wái6*2 = wen chang location, a feng-shui position said to create active qi that energizes the brain, making it useful for thinkers, writers and students | ● 獨居 duhk6 gēui1 = to live in solitude | ● 發吽哣 faat3 ngauh6 dauh6 = daydreaming; staring blankly (also 發吽豆) | ● 歎 taan3 = to enjoy; to seek pleasure in | ● 工車 gūng1 chē1 = work vehicle; company car
. . . because the place next door was renovating and it was very noisy. In Bonham Road there used to be an eating place called Czarina — it has now become [a branch of] Centaline Property. Back in those days, I wrote the lyrics [to “Legend”] there. After writing a verse, the writing for the rest of the song came very easily. To me, that place was a creative wen chang location in Sai Ying Pun.
Living alone was my happy time, because you could focus on writing things and on reading. In those days I knew a lot of writers whom I counted as friends. Every day when I got back home I would read their books — I had a strong sense of their spirit being with me. In spare moments I would read religious scriptures or do some gardening. Or I would stare up at the ceiling day-dreaming. In my view, if a person could spend her whole life like this, she would be happy in the extreme. This is what I would call “savouring” life. In those days when I was filming, a company car would come and pick me up.
【5:00】噉，啫係，化到個妝好行咁樣然之後去開工 | 然之後收工返屋企 | 又要行翻嗰條黑猛猛嘅樓梯上去 | 電線又跌嗮落嚟呀| 好多塵冇人抺呀 | 我覺得好似將我由一條五光十色嘅隧道嘅幕前 | 帶返我去現實生活 | 提醒我係由呢一度嚟嘅 | 噉亦都係好踏實咁生活囉 | 嗰陣時肚餓住喺呢度嘅時候，噉我就會落去對面街英記麵家度 | 食碗瘦叉麵啦 | 所有嘢都好地道啦 | 做人要好踏實 | 先至可以感受到其他人嘅感受 | 我覺得社會越複雜就越有多嘅話題可以寫嘅，其實 | 因為創作就係要回應社會嘛 | 多嘢發生 | 就有越多嘅感受想去分享啦 | 希望喺自己創作裏便 | 唔好回避，能夠坦白咁講出大家嘅心聲
我好鍾意西營盤㗎 | 因為我覺得人與人之間係有接觸嘅
● 黑猛猛 hāk1 māng1 māng1 = pitch black, very dark | ● 幕前 mohk6 chìhn4 = lit. “in front of the curtains” | ● 回應 wùih4 ying3 = to respond | ● 回避 wùih4 beih6 = to evade; to dodge; to avoid | ● 心聲 sām1 sēng1 (or sīng1) = heartfelt wishes; aspiration; thinking | ● 接觸 jip3 jūk1 = to come into contact with; to get in touch with
I would get my make-up done and then start work. Then I’d be taken home after work. I have to walk up a pitch-black stairway. All the electric wiring was in a mess. There was so much dust that no one wiped away. To me it felt as if I had been transported from a multi-coloured tunnel out in front of the curtains back to real life, reminding me that this was where I was from. It was also a very down-to-earth way of living. Back in those days, when I was living here and got hungry, I would go downstairs and across to Ying Kee Noodles on the other side of the road for a bowl of lean char siu with noodles. Everything there is very authentic. It’s only when you are very down-to-earth as a person that you can experience what other people are experiencing. In my view, the more complex society becomes, the more themes I have to write about, actually, because creativity [means] responding to society. The more that happens, the more experiences I have that I want to share. I hope that in what I create I don’t avoid [issues], and that I can speak out honestly about what we’re all feeling inside [大家嘅心聲].
I’m really very fond of Sai Ying Pun because I think there is contact between one person and another.
【6:00】有一種，呃，以前我細個嘅時候嘅香港嗰種守望相助嘅氣氛啦 | 成個社區係有交流嘅 | 鍾意佢俾到我嘅力量 | 都會影響到我寫嘅歌裏便 | 係好多時都講 | 關於人、人性同埋感情嘅 | 到而家啦，我都仲係覺得，西營盤係一個創作嘅福地嚟嘅
● 守望相助 sáu2 mohng6 sēung1 joh6 = (of neighbouring villages) keep watch and help defend each other; give mutual help & protection | ● 福地 fūk1 deih6 = a paradise; a lucky place; a good feng-shui place
There is a kind of . . . Back when I was a little girl in Hong Kong, there was that atmosphere of people looking out for one another. There was interchange throughout the community. I like the power it has given me, and the influence it has on what I write in my songs. Much of the time, I talk about people, as well as human nature and emotions. To this day, I continue to think that Sai Ying Pun has been a paradise for my creativity.
One thought on “Learning Cantonese: Charmaine Fong’s Sai Ying Pun”
Great video, thank you for sharing!
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