Learning Cantonese: 冠南華 Koon Nam Wah’s Traditional-style Wedding Gowns

The incredible fusion of Chinese and Western culture in Hong Kong leads to some unexpected consequences. “What woman doesn’t want to wear a pure white Western-style wedding dress when she gets married?”, declares Winnie Lam of 冠南華 Koon Nam Wah, a company devoted to the creation of bridal wear. But as Barbara Ward points out in her book on Chinese festivals: “white is the traditional mourning colour in China and no Hong Kong bride would risk wearing anything so unlucky all the time. So at the wedding feast in the evening, when bride and groom circulate among the many round tables to toast and be toasted by their guests, she wears traditional red.”

Partly for this reason, and partly owing to tradition, the Chinese 裙褂 kwàhn4 gwáa3*2 outfit, which is made up of a long skirt and a jacket, continues to be very popular to this day. The intricate embroidery featured on the garment is also richly symbolic and so meant to bring blessings and good fortune to the newlyweds who, by the way, are referred to in this Kongstories video as 新人 sān1 yàhn4 or “new people”.

Since they voice-over is scripted, there is a conspicuous absence of initial and final particles. In addition, some of the vocabulary is quite literary. The main point of grammatical interest is the various uses of the aspect marker 咗 jó2. In Complete Cantonese, Hugh Baker notes that its basic function is “to show that the action has been completed” but, needless to say, the situation is a bit more complex in practice. Although I am still regularly bamboozled by 咗 jó2, it can help if you can also think of it as the realization of a certain action (has it actually taken place?). Something of the meaning is present in the English past perfect tense as opposed to the simple past tense: “Have you seen him?” is primarily asking about realization, I think, rather than completion.

In one example from the voice-over, 咗 jó2 is used in a purely hypothetical context: 只要改動一吋,都會破壞咗裙褂上面嘅圖案 = “to change an inch would ruin the design on the kwan gwa”. Here, the aspect marker suggests that the “ruin” [破壞], once realized, cannot be undone. I also get the impression that certain verbs tend to attract 咗 jó2. One example is 忽略 fāt1 leuhk6 = “to neglect; to overlook”, a verb not readily associated with the idea of completion.

As usual, there’s plenty of wonderful vocabulary. In the names of the two people featured in the video, the 臻 jēun1 in Tommy To’s Chinese name means “to attain to a high level”, while the 卓 cheuk3 in Winnie Lam’s name means “prominent; outstanding”. Oh, for a deeply meaningful Chinese name!

Other vocabulary includes 出嫁 chēut1 gaa3 = (of a woman) to get married (but watch out for 出家 chēut1 gāa1, which means “to become a monk or nun”!); 湮沒 yān1 muht6 = to fall into oblivion; 樞紐 syū1 náu2/láu2= a pivot; a hub; 輝煌 fāi1 wòhng4 = brilliant; splendid; glorious; 老土 lóuh5 tóu2 = old-fashioned; out of date; 睇小 tái2 síu2 = to underestimate; 排擠 pàaih4 jāi1 = to push aside; to ostracize; 任意 yahm6 yi3 = arbitrarily; 尺吋 chek3 chyun3 = measurement; 獨一無二 duhk6 yāt1 mòuh4 yih6 = unique; one of a kind.

Please scroll down for my transcription, English translation and notes. You can view the video here (you are offered subtitles in both English and Standard Written Chinese). Since it is a YouTube video, you can slow down the playback speed if you wish: at 0.75 and 0.5, the sound quality is still good. And remember, if you want the standard jyutping romanization or to check any of the Chinese in the text, please consult the Sheik Cantonese on-line dictionary.


Caption: 冠南華 Koon Nam Wah

陶衍臻:女仔出嫁,最開心係著婚紗 | 講到裙褂,多數都係由長輩決定 | 畢竟,裙褂好似係滿足老一輩舊時代產物 | 六、七十年代因爲文革 | 曾經流行中國一時嘅龍鳳裙褂 | 被封建制度湮沒喺歷史洪流之中 . . .

● 出嫁 chēut1 gaa3 = (of a woman) to get married; to marry | ● 婚紗 fān1 sāa1 = a wedding dress | ● 裙褂 kwàhn4 gwáa3*2 = wedding dress | ● 產物 cháan2 maht6 = an outcome; a result; a product | ● 文革 Màhn4 Gaak3 = the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) | ● 一時 yāt1 sìh4 = a period of time | ● 湮沒 yān1 muht6 = to fall into oblivion; to be neglected | ● 洪流 hùhng4 làuh4 = mighty torrent; powerful current

Tommy To: When a girl gets married, wearing a [Western-style, white] wedding dress is the happiest part of it [最開心]. When it comes to the traditional Chinese kwan gwa wedding gowns, mostly this is a decision taken by the older generation. When all is said and done [畢竟], traditional Chinese kwan gwa wedding gowns seem to be the product of an earlier era there to satisfy elder family members [老一輩]. Due to the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, the Dragon and Phoenix kwan gwa popular in China fell into to oblivion [with?] the feudal system in [that] mighty torrent of history . . .

【1:00】. . . 令當時國内嘅人對裙褂變得陌生 | 香港成為咗唯一個樞紐 | 後世知道中國嫁娶文化裏邊曾經有過呢一段輝煌嘅一頁 | 始於廣州,存留於香港

● 樞紐 syū1 náu2/láu2= a pivot; a hub; a centre | ● 後世hauh6 sai3 = ① later ages ② later generations | ● 嫁娶 gaa3 chéui2 = marriage | ● 輝煌 fāi1 wòhng4 = brilliant; splendid; glorious | ● 始於 chí2 yū1 = roughly, “to come into being” | ● 存留 chyùhn4 làuh4 = to persist

. . . making the people of mainland China strangers to kwan gwa wedding gowns. Hong Kong has become the one and only centre enabling [俾] later generations to know that there was once this glorious page in the wedding culture of China. It started off in Guangzhou, and persists [存留] [here] in Hong Kong.

林卓怡:1997年,我結束咗自己嘅個人事業 | 金融風暴之下,我家族嘅裙褂生意都大受影響 | 加上父母年 [歲] 已高,佢哋希望我可以返去幫手 | 我從來諗過,要接手家族生意嘅 | 裙褂?一聽落去就覺得老土 | 女仔出嫁,邊個唔希望著純白色嘅婚紗呢?| 但係屋企需要我 | 我就硬住頭皮行入連自己都覺得過時嘅生意 | 由當初乜都唔識,被夥計睇小、排擠 | 到漸漸被肯定

● 金融風暴 gām1 yùhng4 fūng1 bō1 = financial crisis | ● 大受影響 daaih6 sauh6 yíng2 héung2 = to be greatly influenced by | ● 老土 lóuh5 tóu2 = old-fashioned; out of date; traditional; unsophisticated; rustic; not hip; uncool | ● 當初 dōng1 chō1 = originally; at the outset; at that time | ● 睇小 tái2 síu2 = to underestimate; to look down on | ● 排擠 pàaih4 jāi1 = to push aside; to ostracize

Winnie Lam: In 1997, I wound up my own personal business. During the financial crisis, my family’s kwan gwa wedding gown business was greatly affected. [Because of this, and because] my father and mother were both getting on, that year they expressed the hope [佢哋希望] that I would go back and give them a hand. It had never occurred to me to take over the family business. Kwan gwa? The very word sounded terribly old-fashioned. What woman doesn’t want to wear a pure white Western-style wedding dress when she gets married? But my family needed me, so I steeled myself and went into a line of business that even I thought was well past its use-by date [過時]. At the outset, from knowing nothing and being looked down and excluded by the other employees, I gradually came to win approval [被肯定] .

林卓怡:好多人係睇到婚紗嘅美 | 但係忽略咗裙褂背後嘅祝福寓意 | 佢唔似婚紗可以任意修改尺吋 | 只要改動一吋,都會破壞咗裙褂上面嘅圖案 | 每件成品都係獨一無二嘅,係一對新人最大嘅賀禮 | 做裙褂生意,開心嘅唔止係做成一單生意 | 而係得到一對新人誠心嘅道謝 | 我希望我嘅下一代會繼續傳承

● 忽略 fāt1 leuhk6 = to neglect; to overlook; to lose sight of | ● 祝福 jūk1 fūk1 = blessings; best wishes | ● 寓意 yuh6 yi3 = implied meaning; implication | ● 任意 yahm6 yi3 = arbitrarily; wilfully | ● 尺吋 chek3 chyun3 = measurement; dimension; size | ● 成品 sìhng4 bán2 = end product; finished product | ● 獨一無二 duhk6 yāt1 mòuh4 yih6 = unique; one of a kind | ● 新人 sān1 yàhn4 = newlywed (esp. a new bride) | ● 賀禮 hoh6 láih5 = a gift (as a token of congratulations) | ● 單 dāan1 = classifier for “a case” or “a matter” cf. 宗 jūng1 in Standard Written Chinese | ● 誠心 sìhng4 sām1  = sincere desire; wholeheartedness | ● 道謝 douh6 jeh6 = to express one’s thanks; to thank | ● 傳承 chyùhn4 sìhng4 = to inherit & pass on; to pass down

Many people only see the beauty of Western wedding gowns, overlooking the meaning of blessing behind the traditional Chinese kwan gwa.  They don’t realize that the dimensions cannot be changed at will as with Western-style gowns: to change an inch would ruin the design. Every finished product is unique, and is the greatest gift of congratulations one can give to the bride. What makes [me] happy about the kwan gwa business is not just doing a job [for a customer] [做成一單生意] but also the sincere thanks [I get] from the newlyweds. I hope the generation after me will inherit and pass on [this tradition]. 

我叫林卓怡,我叫陶衍臻:香港土生土長 | 七百萬嘅故仔成就一個香 | 港故仔

My name is Winnie Lam Cheuk-yi, and I am Tommy To Hin-chun. We are both born and bred in Hong Kong. Seven million stories go to make up [成就] one [of the] Hong . . . Kong Stories.