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Hong Kong Mahjong Culture 香港麻將文化

Faat Choy

Ahhh….. Mahjong, the quintessential game that is associated with Chinese people the world over and it really is a fun game to play.  It is deeply rooted in not only Chinese culture as a whole but especially rooted in Hong Kong culture in many ways.

I wont get into the deep history of the game dating back to ancient China, you can do that research on your own.  Here, I’m going to just give some history of the Hong Kong scene as it was and is today.

It’s safe to say that pretty much every person from Hong Kong has some sort of experience with the game of Mahjong.  Mahjong is played at home with family. People rent Mahjong rooms at Mahjong clubs with their friends and play through the night.  Restaurants have specials that you can play Mahjong and have a break to eat a nice meal and then continue to play for a few more hours.  When going to banquets of all types in Hong Kong, if you get there early you can have time to get your Mahjong on.  Housewives play hours and hours of the game and seniors are told that it is a great game to keep dementia and Alzheimer away as it helps to keep the mind working to play regularly.  Chinese New Year is met with multiple days of Mahjong at different places through-out the three day festival.  It truly is the game of the people of Hong Kong as you can also look over shoulders in the MTR and see people playing it on their phones and even live games can be played of your phone.

Folding Mahjong tablePeople who do play usually have a set of tiles in a box somewhere and at least have a Mahjong board to slide on top of their table or have a folding table that can also be used for entertaining more people at their home.  Some people who really like playing have a fancy electric table that with a push of the button ‘washes’ the tiles.  ‘Washing’ of tiles is after a hand is played and all the tiles need to be mixed up ‘washed’ together to set up the walls to start the next game.  The electric tables set all the tiles up and rise out of the table nice and quiet like.  I think the washing by hand on the table adds to the fun of the game and the skill of staking the walls is a necessary skill that players need to have.  Early on in your learning you squeeze the tiles so tight to get them on the second tier and they explode everywhere.  It’s great.Automatic_mahjong_table

How to Play

There are a few different varieties of Mahjong but they’re all played with the same principal of getting 3-4 of a kind or 3 in sequential order of the same suit.  You take turns taking a tile and putting a tile that you don’t want back at which people can take if it gives them 3 of a kind pong (碰) or if the next to you in the direction of play needs it for the sequence of 3 tiles seung(上).  If you’ve ever played the card game Gin Rummy then you know how to play Mahjong.  It’s actually quite easy.

There are 4 of each tile in the whole set of 144 tiles so you have to actively keep a count of how many of a tile have been discarded and if you really get into it, you watch to see who is discarding what to try to guess what they have in their hand.  You don’t want to give them the piece that they need to win or you will lose more than the other players.

Gambling

Gambling is a big part of the game’s popularity as it is widely known that a lot of Asians have a penchant for wagering bets on just about anything.  Mahjong is almost never played without some sort of denomination being won or lost, even if it is in the cents category of money.  In my early days of wanting to get some practice in and trying to find people to play with me so that I could learn to play.  I would ask people if we could play for free and no-one had any interest in playing with me once I asked that question.  Needless to say, I lost a pretty penny cutting my teeth on getting comfortable being on the table with the big boys.

It is this aspect of the game that also creates fanatics about playing and shows the dark side of people once they lose a few dollars.  Many people always mention that back in the day, a father would invite his daughter’s boyfriend over for a game of Mahjong to test his character and see how he reacts when he loses at the table.

Different styles of play determine how much you lose on each hand.  Often playing with people you know you play a style that usually take more time and once the hand is won you count up the points faan (番) and based on the predetermined amount that is stated before play starts and usually written down is what you will pay or collect.  A lot of people don’t have a clear understanding sometimes on how to count the faan and always rely on others.  This also sometimes creates a bit of debate after some hands when interesting combos are held by the winner that equal a greater number of faan.

Just don’t cheut chung (出冲) as this always means that you will pay the winner.  This means that you gave the winning piece to the person that won.  Depending on which style you play, if you don’t cheut chung then you may go a long time without paying out any money at all.

In the Mahjong parlours around Hong Kong, they use a style called ‘Running Horse (跑馬仔)’ Mahjong.  This means that the game is set up to win/lose very quickly as a parlour is basically a casino that only has one type of game to play.  This style has it that no matter what you end up paying money for every hand that you play so that you can’t just sit there and not spend any money.  The parlour will get a cut of every hand as well and that’s how they make their money.

The Parlour

Now this is where Mahjong in Hong Kong stands out as a solid cultural experience that can not be replicated elsewhere.  The parlours have such a great history about themselves that when walking by you’re curious as to what is going on inside.  The doors are closed and you can hear the clatter of the tiles moving around and see people going in and out and always try to get a glimpse inside when the doors swing open.

Movies gave Mahjong parlours a bad rep and while it is true that Triads have a bit of an interest in the Mahjong parlours it isn’t as seedy as it once may have been.  Now you see nice electric tables and big chairs, good ventilation systems cleaning that cigarette smoke out as quickly as it is puffed.  The services that the Mahjong parlours now provide are great from all you can eat and drink to going to the market for that housewife to pick-up the evening meal that will later be cooked for the family.  You often even see the guys that work at the parlours in their vests going to the ATM to get money out for players.  All in an attempt to keep them playing and letting those dollars hit the table.

Lam Kwok-keungThe first licensed parlour opened in 1956 to Lam Kwok-keung and he opened Kai Kee on Temple Street in Yau Ma Tei.  Since then the government has allowed Mahjong gaming to happen under the letter of the law and is routinely busting underground Mahjong spots every year.  You can still find Kai Kee doing business just up the street from where the first place was and it is a nice looking place with brisk business and with a few other locations as well.

Recently, a Mahjong parlour in San Po Kong opened its doors to the public to see what the old school parlours looked like and how they did business.  There was a line down the block when I arrived to see the exhibition.

The place was set up like a museum almost with a video presentation and then a guided tour around the parlour to show the different elements of the business on the inside.  Although many people love the game, very few in comparison have ever stepped foot inside a Mahjong parlour.  It was quite a treat to see inside and get a feel of how the ‘secretive’ (which actually isn’t) world of the Mahjong parlour looks and smells like.

The parlour can be a fun place to visit if you like to play and think that you have the skill to play quickly and want to test your luck against some strangers.  The beauty of the parlour is that you can just walk in and always have someone to play with (because you need four people) and if you just want the experience then you can play one or two hands and get up and leave.  Those one or two hands will only take about 5 or 10 minutes and would give you a great first hand experience of what it’s like to play in a Mahjong parlour.

Finally

Mahjong is a great game that can be played with your friends and family.  The feeling of playing is very fun and enticing as there is lots of chit chatting and fun poking at each other.  There are specialty terms and that gives you a feeling of being apart of something.  There are many people that do not know how to play at all and have no interest at all in playing.  Some people have seen family members play a lot and gamble a lot and that image puts them off from wanting to take up the game but others really like it because it brings people together and is played for hours at a time.

If you’re learning Cantonese, then Mahjong is a great way to socialize and learn some Cantonese at an authentic level with tons of new and old expressions to learn and major points if trying to get on the good side of a mother or father-in-law.  You will quickly be welcomed into the family provided that you’re a quick learner and not a ‘water fish’ (水魚).  A water fish is essentially a sucker in gambling that is quick to lose money.

I hope that everyone can have a chance to learn the game and enjoy as it’s history goes back a few thousand years when the tiles were made of wood, bone or ivory.  There are now even world competitions where players can win millions of dollars and become celebrity players.  So try your luck but remember, don’t cheut chung!

 

KOMK

San po gong1
San Po Kong 新蒲崗
San po gong 7
Newspaper clipping from way back
San po gong 6
Letter from the British government addressing the change in legislation about Mahjong
Old style parlour tables
Old style parlour tables

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table tags are hung above to show gambling amount to players
Table tags are hung above to show gambling amount to players
Rules are posted outside of all Mahjong parlours
Rules are posted outside of all Mahjong parlours
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Cantonese is a must

Back in March I came across this article and meant to comment on it sooner, but as we all know ‘life’ gets in the way of some things.  My small allotted time for writing on this site has been purged back and back that for the past 7 months I haven’t been able to really sit down here and write anything.  Yet, I have been saving some thoughts on this article and better late than never is what they always say, right?

DeWolf makes some really good points and kind of covers all of the bases in terms of expat Cantonese learning in Hong Kong.  He himself being an expat in Hong Kong with few Cantonese skills to ‘speak’ of, makes good mention to the moral responsibility to learn Cantonese.

The moral responsibility is something that I find at times to be at the forefront of spending some of your precious time to take some classes and learn Cantonese.  In America, there are a lot of people who bark a big game of foreigners living there ‘must’ learn to speak English or as some have put it unknowingly accurately, they should learn to speak ‘American’.  I think that the same sentiment is there for Cantonese in Hong Kong.  I often question how is it that someone can live here in Hong Kong and not be able to speak to people or to understand what is going on around them?

I am fully aware that English is one of Hong Kong’s official languages and that there is a great base of English in everyone here in Hong Kong but when living in a culture that is so rich and so dependant upon language to access that richness, how could you not learn Cantonese?

DeWolf mentions the difficulty of the language as a barrier to a degree for learning Cantonese.  This point is a very valid one and is important to make when thinking about a lot of people wanting to learn versus those that actually stick with it and learn Cantonese to a certain level of proficiency.   When searching the Internet to see what is the most difficult language to learn in the whole wide world, guess which language pops up as being just about the most difficult to learn?  That’s right Cantonese.

Since Cantonese is so well known for it being difficult to learn, it is understandable as to why so many people give up or don’t even try to learn it.  When the city itself is so accepting of English and money is never lost by a customers’ lack of Cantonese, it is easy to see why so many expats in Hong Kong could really care less about the local language.

A statement made in the article that I 500% do not agree with is the quote from Kevin Chan of Chinese University. He said, “If you look like a foreigner, it’s not easy to practice what you’ve learned”.  From my experience and from what I have written in my previous posts about learning Cantonese.  It is EXTREMELY EASY to practice what you’ve learned from your lessons.  You just have to have thick skin and stick to your guns when on the street.  Stay in character!

The Cedric Sam wisdom in the article is very much true in the opinion of the King of Mongkok.  Life in Hong Kong becomes so much more full once you are able to rap with the people around you.  Once getting to a level of fluency and possessing good proficiency in Cantonese, your entire world opens up.  People that you only knew in English may have a completely different demeanour in Cantonese.  Discounts start to come your way around town because locals give you a bit more respect at times when they see that you have given their culture respect by learning their language.  And everyone wants to help you speak better.  Even if they do laugh at you a bit, it’s okay.

Overall, I think that it is a good article to read through and see where is it that you fall in the equation for the quest of Cantonese tongue flipping.  I sometimes think about how I would be getting by in Hong Kong, had I not spent so much time and energy learning Cantonese. I also think about how people are getting around not speaking Cantonese?

Hong Kong just becomes a beautiful flower opening up to you once you learn Cantonese.  A Bauhinia flower that is.

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How to Learn Cantonese in Hong Kong: Part 2

So, if you read Part 1 and felt any of what I was saying then Part 2 should be helpful as well.
In this post we will talk about those damn TONES, ways and things to practice on and what can you now do with your Cantonese to help you for future learning.

TONES

Tones have to be the most difficult thing to work on in my opinion. Unless you have someone that is really patient to sit with you while you go through the tones in a drill like manner, you really just need to sit and try to make the most correct tone as possible and always. This will be from mimicking what you hear and repeating it over and over.
Why are tones so important?  Keeping in mind that Cantonese is a tonal language. The tones make the words. Even if you say the correct word per se, if your tone is wrong then you’re actually saying a completely different word.  I’ll give you an example. I was sitting with a nice girl a long time ago and she expressed to me that she wanted to improve her English. So I eagerly said that I will ‘teach’ you. Now, the word for ‘teach’ and the word for ‘have sex’ have the same pronunciation yet have very different tones.  I said it in the wrong tone and let’s just say that she never became my student nor did we have sex.  It was a bit awkward.  Nonetheless, as I mentioned in Part 1, you will have situations similar to this and I always remembered the proper tone for both words there after.
Drill books are available but are quite scarce.  It can be difficult to really find a lot of good resources for learning Cantonese.  Especially since Mandarin is so widely popular to learn these days by foreigners.  So when starting your journey down the Pearl River Delta of the Cantonese language try to focus a lot on tones from the beginning in order to have some great tones down the road…..or river.

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Very old school tones drill book.

Ways and things to practice on

How to practice?  From the gate in my own journey to grasp Cantonese, I always put myself in a situation where I had to use the language. Obviously from the name of this site, I’m in Mongkok. I have lived in Mongkok for 12 years now and had made it from day one to always speak to everyone I cross paths with.
When you get up in the morning and go outside to do what ever it is that you do, speak Cantonese. Even if the only sentence you can say is ‘Good morning!’.  It is a start.  If you go to 7-11 to get your can of coffee, ask the clerk how they are today. They will enjoy that short exchange immensely and it will start to build from there.  Don’t get that morning newspaper from 7-11 where you don’t have to ask for it.  Go to the news stand and ask for that newspaper.  Learn the words that you normally use everyday first. Those are the words that are most important to you and those are the words and sentences that you can remember and practice the most.  Soon those words/sentences will become instinctual and you will be moving onto the next group of sentences and vocabulary that you use frequently.

One tip:

What I did for at least the first 3 years of my learning was that I carried a Cantonese dictionary around with me at ALL times.  Everywhere I went I would pull it out to see what the words were for what I was looking at.  Try to find one that also has the Chinese characters for the word as well.  That way you can ask someone who is sitting next to you on the bus (pretty girl/handsome guy, whatever you’re preference is) and get a native tone and possibly make a new friend.

This book is published and produced by Chinese University
This book is published and produced by Chinese University

Also, frequent the same places for your daily necessities.  For example, go to the same restaurant for breakfast or other meals for a while.  Very soon all of the staff will quickly know your name and your life story and will be your teachers of Cantonese.  Knowing more people is very important to learning Cantonese.  You can’t just hang around other foreigners all the time and expect to get some good Cantonese.  They are not learning it most likely and won’t be able to help you with your studies.  I’m not saying don’t hang out with them at all, just open your social circle a bit to take full advantage of being able to learn this amazing language from the large amount of native speakers that are all around you.

Use what you have now and it will help for the future

Using what ever bit of Cantonese that you have now all the time will help you a great deal in the future.  But keep in mind that it is only a building block.  You have to constantly be going after more and more Cantonese.  The language, like many languages, is very deep and complex.  There is no end to learning a language.  I’m a native English speaker but there is so much English that I don’t know.  The same is true for Cantonese.  Being in Hong Kong, there are soooo many colloquial expressions that it would take a lifetime to learn them and then to use them.  The language is perpetual in its growth.  New words and phrases come up all the time, so you have to keep your ear to the street.  The future of your Cantonese is dependant on your work ethics to keep learning it.  Even after a long time learning, even when you feel bored with it, even when you feel that you have enough to get around town and order some dishes at your local cha chan teng.  Keep going forward.

Lastly in consideration of your future learning, think about learning to read and write Chinese.  This will add a whole new dimension to your learning and you will surely move into a higher level of learning in terms of language learning.  Keep in mind though that the Chinese written system is complex and it truly takes a lot of dedication and a serious time commitment to get to a good level.  But it’s great!  More on reading and writing in a separate post.

Keep going and don’t stop moving forward.  Consistency is truly the key.  The more consistent you are, the more you will learn and in turn the more you will be able to talk to anyone about anything and all of Hong Kong will open up to you in a whole new and forever exciting way.

KOMK

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How to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong: Part 1

learn-cantonese

How to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong?

Where to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong?

How long does it take to learn Cantonese as a second language?

 

My Cantonese journey started over 14 years ago and it is by far even close to being finished.  While at times I haven’t been very diligent in my studies, I have devoted countless hours of time to learning this crazy ass language.  I say ‘crazy ass’ as I have become an even crazier ass person from learning Cantonese.  I truly love this language and I am still so excited to learn more and I’m constantly pushing myself to learn even more as well.

Although I have spent so much time learning Cantonese, I do know now that I should have made some adjustments in my learning at the earlier stages of going after this language.  I wish that I had someone like myself to talk to when it came to learning as it would have given me a better perspective going in.

First let me start by saying that if you have no tonal language learning knowledge at all then it will be something to focus on in the earlier part of your journey.  Most people that go after Cantonese are those of English speaking countries and fail to try to get the truest of sound production as possible. Copy what you hear and do various tone drills.  I will talk more about tones in Part 2.

Figure_2_ASEAN_Cantonese_Hexatave

How to learn Cantonese?

What a big question.  I think that you should start with having proper lessons from a proper language teacher.  Someone that is trained or who has experience in teaching.  Being as that you can’t read 中文字 you will need to learn a system of romanisation in order to learn it and put a mental aspect to learning individual words and with appropriate tone stress into your daily life.  When I say daily, I mean daily.  You need to start labelling things around your house and office with the names of everything.  You will quickly learn some beginning sentence structures and you can place post-its on everything around you.  This is really important as you will soon feel yourself learning the language passively while you are just drinking a cup of tea in your flat.

The next and most vital thing that you MUST do is………..use the language.  Make yourself use the language all the time.  You cannot get upset if people laugh at you, because they will.  You cannot get frustrated when people don’t understand what you’re saying, because they won’t.  You can’t give up because you think that it’s just too damn difficult to learn, because you will want to.  I choose my words carefully most of the time and vital means vital.  You have to use the language always.  Unless you find yourself in a life threatening situation and you feel that you can’t convey your message in Cantonese then you deviate and use English.  Otherwise, on the street you stay in character.  Emulate every sound you hear.  Order that number 3 combo meal in Cantonese and when people start speaking to you so fast that you don’t know what the hell is going on…….just smile and nod your head in agreeance.  You’ll be okay in the long run.

So, Hong Kong.  What a great place to learn Cantonese and if done properly and most importantly, CONSISTENTLY, then you will be able to get around and do things in the city that few other foreigners are able to do. Consistency is the key.  That old adage that the slow and steady turtle wins the race, well it’s true.  I’ve met countless people who have said that they tried to learn Canto but quit because it was……blah, blah blah.  I feel that if you really want to learn something as difficult as a language that you need to at least spend about 7-10 years of solid study before you can stop learning it.  I say this because it is very difficult.  Even those that have a very good mind for learning languages can’t learn Cantonese at a proficient level in only a few years.  Time and energy and embarrassment (if you believe in it) is what is needed in order to succeed.

Where to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong?

Okay, Okay — Where — That’s what so many people want to know.  Where is the best place to go to learn Cantonese?  Okay.  In my opinion the best place is Chinese University’s Yale in China Language Centre.  The language centre has been teaching Cantonese and Mandarin for a long long time.  They are very passionate about teaching Chinese language and have a lot to offer.  There are a few different classes to choose from and you can get accreditation from your learning if that is what you’re after.  Another place that I have taken lessons at is the Hong Kong Language Learning Centre.  They were good for the time that I had spent with them in the summer of 2001 and have been open for quite awhile.  Although, after having been to Chinese University to take lessons there, I realised that the textbooks used at the HKLLC are almost identical in nature to the ones used at CU.  One good point for the HKLLC is that you could arrange for private lessons and that may be helpful.  There are many other places around Hong Kong.  Your budget and schedule will help you decide which place may be best for learning.  As you get really into the language you will soon realise where to go.  But do get some lessons.

One point to mention when getting into Cantonese learning is that a lot of the vocabulary that you learn from most of the textbooks and dictionaries is a bit outdated.  One set of books to get would be books that are written by Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip.  They are a husband and wife tandem of professors of linguistics at Hong Kong University and Chinese University, respectively.  They have done tons of research in the field of Cantonese learning and language acquisition.  They have written several really good textbooks that you should pick up. 41YgRWzJE2L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_ 41HD89wUQnL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_ 41Bj-+ZLb9L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_

How long does it take to learn Cantonese?

This is entirely up to you and how diligent you are to study.  How you are able to let things roll off your back as people may laugh a bit or you find yourself in a situation where no-one knows what you’re trying to say.  The beauty of those situations is that you learn very quickly as to what to say and what not to say.

You can not be shy in any kind of a way in order to learn Cantonese.  It is a language that you really have to get out on the streets and use at all times.  Sit at the back of the minibus and yell at the driver as to where to drop you off.  When people speak to you in English, STAY IN CHARACTER!

If you are always trying to use the language and spending time with the books to get more sentence structures down and taking some lessons, you will be surprised as to how quickly you can get the language into your daily life.  It will help you tremendously in Hong Kong.

Lastly, Hong Kong people are EXTREMELY nice people.  They are very willing to help you learn and are very respectful.  They may snicker a bit at your pronunciation only because as a tonal language, if you say something with the wrong tone, it is a completely different word that has no reference to the dim sum that you’re trying to order.  Some of those mispronunciations can be quite funny to a native speaker and they can’t help but to laugh a bit.  Don’t let it discourage you.  Laugh with them and learn from your mistake.

Well, that covers the gist of Part 1.  Part 2 will be for those that are already learning some Cantonese and need some advice for areas as to tones, reading and writing and other fun things that you can do with your new found language skills.

I hope this is helpful and your comments are also helpful to me, so don’t be shy.

 

KOMK