Journey to the Isle is an innovative WordPress website dedicated to the Hong Kong island of Cheung Chau as experienced by a cross-section of its inhabitants. All of them have their own deeply personal stories to tell. There are numerous written anecdotes transcribed into Cantonese (a good source of information about written Cantonese, but unfortunately not translated into English) and also quite a large number of short videos in which project members talk about their very individual experiences of this place.
In this 3-minute clip, 李達成 Léih5 Daaht6 Sìhng4, one of Cheung Chau’s postmen, talks about his passion for photography which led to a picture he took of “the Doctor” [「博士」bok3 sih6], an old man who seems to come and go as he pleases, without attachments, and who has an unsuspected interest in books and music. Lee talks about how he gradually came to know the man and what he learned about this unusually self-contained character.
In terms of grammar and usage, there are a few points worth noting. Firstly, you’ll hear a couple of examples of the progressive aspect in 做緊嘢 (“doing things”) and 都係我喺轉緊嘅 (“I was turning things over [in my mind]”). Secondly, the postman says 擺啲時間 = to make the time to do sth. Thirdly, at the end, you’ll hear 啦 lā1 to enumerate the items in a list. Finally, and most interestingly, 李達成 also makes use of 開 hōi1 as an aspect marker in the final paragraph, added to verbs to indicate habitual action. In my own limited experience of the language, I have seldom come across this marker.
In recent weeks, I’ve been wondering a bit about the various uses of 呢 nī1/ne1. Like many common bits of Cantonese, 呢 is put to a range of uses. Pronounced as nī1 or lī1 (and sometimes even reduced to yī1), it generally means “here; this” etc.:
呢一個人 = this person
Pronounced as nē1 or lē1, it is routinely encountered as a question particle used especially for information question (for yes/no questions, 呀 aa3 is preferred):
然後呢 = then what happened?
佢係咪一個好窮嘅人呢？ = Was he a poor man?
More elusively, it also seems to play a role in marking the topic of a sentence, and is often attached to more than one phrase, perhaps to signal to the listener that we have not yet arrived at the comment part of the sentence.
當時，其實，因爲「博士」呢，佢好多時，大家見面呢，佢就會撩吓我呀。 = Well . . . at that time, actually, because the Doctor, on many occasions, would, when we saw one another, say something to tease me
噉其實呢，啲問題呢，都係我喺轉緊嘅。= So I was actually turning these questions over [in my mind].
It is certainly true, too, that 呢 is regularly attached to what might be called “discourse markers”, that is, short phrases that link parts of the sentence and establish logical relations. Some of these (from sources other than this video) include: 噉所以呢; 嗱，其實呢; 你可以話呢; 同埋呢; 因爲呢 . . . I suspect that there are other, additional uses of 呢 (including one for “continuous states), just to make life interesting!
Needless to say, there is also some very worthwhile vocabulary in the piece: 有型 yáuh5 yìhng4 = smart; stylish (see Current Colloquial Cantonese: p.15); 身水身汗 sān1 séui2 sān1 hohn6 = to be dripping with sweat; to be drenched in sweat; sweating profusely; 可造之才 hó2 jouh6 jī1 chòih4 = a person suitable for training; a promising young person; 第一開始 daih6 yāt hōi1 chí2 = at first; from the outset; from the very beginning; 流浪者 làuh4 lohng6 jé2 = a drifter or wanderer; 疏 sō1 = ① sparse; thin; scattered ② distant; not familiar; and 自由自在 jih6 yàuh4 jih6 joih6 = carefree; free; (to enjoy one’s own company?)
You can watch the video here, as well as see a copy of the photograph Michael Lee took. If you’d like to read the Cantonese transcription together with an English translation, please keep scrolling down.
郵差的眼睛 / A Postman’s Gaze
主持人：呢一個人 . . . 一定有嘅。
Questioner: Such a man . . . certainly exists.
李達成：有啦。頭先你講ah「博士」嗰張相呢。好似頭先你講「博士」嗰張相。噉 . . . 當時，其實，因爲「博士」呢，佢好多時，大家見面呢，佢就會撩吓我呀。我做緊嘢身水身汗咁樣，佢都會撩我傾一兩句計架。
● The common word 好似 hóu2 chíh5 is usually translated as “to be like”, but it sometimes seems to introduce a note of uncertainty or reduced certainty: “I seemed to remember you saying” or “I was under the impression (but I may be wrong)”.
● 撩 lìuh4 = to tease; to tantalize; to provoke. By extension, it may perhaps also refer to the act of saying something in order to strike up a conversation.
Michael Lee: Yes, he does. Just now you spoke about that photo of “the Doctor”. I got the impression [好似] that just now you spoke about that photo of “the Doctor”. Well . . . at that time, actually, because the Doctor, on many occasions, would, when we saw one another, say something to tease me [撩吓我]. Even if I were in the middle of something and dripping with sweat, he would say something and start chatting with me.
主持人：例如係 . . . ?
Questioner: What did he say to you [literally = for instance]?
李達成：例如，例如 . . . 好尷尬架喎。佢話，「啊你真係最有型嘅郵差嘅」（laughter）。
Michael Lee: Well, for instance, for instance . . . I feel very embarrassed about it! He would say: “Ah, you really are the most handsome postman”.
● As a final particle 啫 jē is generally used to downplay the significance of what was said. The implication here, I think, is “there’s nothing so very embarrassing about that”. But 啫 jē also occurs in this conversation with the meaning of “that is; I mean”, something that is also said as a filler when you are trying to think of what to say next.
● 好眼光 hóu2 ngáahn5 gwōng1 = literally “good vision”, but figuratively “good taste”.
Questioner: Why be embarrassed by a little thing like that? He has good taste, he has good taste! Then what happened?
李達成：噉我就俾佢「溝」到啦（laughs）。噉呀 . . .
● 溝 kāu1/gāu1 = to pick/chat up; to cruise (for sexual partner); (?) to pursue (a potential partner). This seems to introduce a vein of sexual innuendo into the conversation, triggered by the Doctor’s comments on the postman’s good looks and perhaps touched on again in the use of 可造之才 in the next part, but I may be reading too much into the Cantonese . . . My Cantonese informant explains 溝 as follows: 至於「溝」，通常講男女關係，「溝」係比較粗俗，但唔係粗口，亦好常用，意思係「追」，想追佢做女朋友或男朋友。例如：呢個男同事對呢個女同事作出咁多攻勢，又送花，又送人哋返屋企，又成日讚佢叻，攞明就係想溝佢啦。不過個女同事冇咩大反應，好似唔受溝。
Michael Lee: Well, I let him catch me [溝]! And so . . .
Questioner: Yes, you are very handsome!
李達成：噉呀，跟住開始去去飲茶。噉我經過就同佢嗰陣時去邊度飲茶喇，喺 . . . 而家我唔知叫咩，喺海濱隔離嗰度附近飲早茶嘅。噉我有時經過，噉見到佢同另一個叔叔喺度飲茶。噉我可能坐低搭吓枱呀咁樣，大家傾吓，即係 *jē1，傾吓計咁。同埋我覺得佢 eh 係真係一塊可造之才囉，啫喺影相方面。噉我，我都要擺啲時間嘅，我都要擺啲時間同佢混熟啲呀，嗄。噉亦都出真心嘅，啫唔係話咩 . . .
● 搭枱 daap3 tói4*2 = (?) to share a table with (a party of people already seated). I am often asked whether I would like to 搭枱 when trying to get a meal in a crowded cha chaan teng!
● 混 wahn6 = to muddle/drift along; to get along with; 混熟 wahn6 suhk6 = to muddle along with someone to the point of getting to know them well (熟 suhk6 here is a particle that expresses result).
Michael Lee: And so after that we began to go and have a cup of tea [together]. If I happened to be passing by [經過], I would go and have a cup of tea with him at . . . I don’t know what the place was called now, there was [a place] right next to the praya [海濱隔離嗰度附近] where we would drink our tea of a morning. Sometimes I would pass by, and I would see him there having his tea with some other old fellow [另一個叔叔]. And so I might sit down [with them] and we would have a chat, have a bit of a chat. I also felt that he, eh, really was a promising subject [可造之才], I mean [啫] in terms of a photograph. And so I, I would make the time [to see him], I would even make the time to get to know him [混熟] a little better. But I was motivated by a sincere wish, you couldn’t say that there was . . .
Questioner: But was it that that in the first instance you felt that you wanted to take a photograph [of him] and so later became interested in him?
李達成：Eh 都唔係。其實，佢個人我其實已經係對佢都好有興趣。佢究竟係咪，真係一個，啊 . . . 流浪者呢？佢唔似係神經 . . . 啫，唔似係精神病嘅，佢唔似嘅。但係佢係咪真係一個流浪者呢？佢係咪一個好窮嘅人呢？噉其實 er 有冇人可以幫到佢嘅呢？噉其實呢，啲問題呢，都係我喺轉緊嘅。
● 轉 jyun3 = ① to revolve; to rotate, to spin; ② a round trip. In this context, it does seem to mean more or less what English expresses with the idiom “to turn over in one’s mind”.
Michael Lee: No, it wasn’t like that. Actually, I was actually very interested in him as a person. Was he, was he really . . . ah, a homeless wanderer [流浪者]? He didn’t look like he was mad . . . I mean, he didn’t look like a person with a mental problem, not like that. But was he really actually a wanderer without a home? Was he a poor man? Could anyone actually give him any help? So I was actually turning these questions over [in my mind] [轉].
Questioner: Do you have any answers?
李達成：Eh 有嘅。噉其實佢有物業啦、親人就好疏啦、就 . . . 有錢用嘅 . . . 有錢用嘅。噉呀同埋佢好鐘意佢自己一個人，自由自在嘅。啫，後來慢慢識佢傾開計，咁就知道佢多啲嘅嘢喇。同埋佢好鐘意聽音樂啦、音、睇書啦，嗄。 啫，啲文學嗰啲呢，即係名都唔識讀嘅嗰本書嗰啲嚟㗎，嗄。佢《聖經》話，都讀咗成本嘅，佢《聖經》都讀過。
● In a couple of places here, 啦 lā is used to designate the items in a list.
● In Intermediate Cantonese, Matthews and Yip explain 開 hōi1 as having a habitual meaning (see Unit 12 on aspect markers), so 傾開計 suggests, I think, “to get into the habit of talking” or “talking on a regular basis”.
● The use of 音 before 睇書 is just a casual error made by the speaker.
● Two different aspect markers are used in 佢《聖經》話，都讀咗成本嘅，佢《聖經》都讀讀 with the same verb 讀 duhk6 = to read, adding nuances to what is being said, although in English “had read” would be used in both cases. The first marker 咗 jó2 emphasizes realization: the Doctor has already achieved the feat of reading the whole Bible. The second marker 讀 gwo3 stresses past experience: Had he had any experience of reading the Bible? Yes, he had.
Michael Lee: Eh, yes, I do. Actually, he owned property, he didn’t have much in the way of family [好疏], and then [就] . . . he had money at his disposal . . . he had money at his disposal. And another thing [同埋], he really liked to be on his own, and live a free and easy life. So, [when] slowly I got to know him and we’d got into the habit of talking, I then knew more things about him. As well, he very much liked to listen to music, and to read. I mean, those literary [works], that is, those books the title of which [I] do not know have to read. The Bible, he said, he had read from cover to cover [成本]. He had read the Bible.