Relationship Between the Cantonese Language and the Triads in Hong Kong

Organized criminal gangs are common phenomena around the world both in ancient and contemporary societies. Mainland China and Hong Kong have their fair share of organized criminal gangs commonly referred to as triad secret societies. With their roots in mainland China, the first triad was formed in the 17th century as a patriotic secret society that sought to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. However, the group later disintegrated into several gangs that operated across China. The surge in the numbers of members of triad societies in Hong Kong came as result of people fleeing civil war and political upheaval in Mainland China. Triads grew and became dominant in Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s. Like any other criminal group, triads developed a specific language, known as triad language, through which members could understand one another and prevent leakage of information to authorities. A characteristic of triad language is the use of triad jargon. Triad language has since grown and become popular among people in Hong Kong and has even been integrated into the Cantonese language. This paper explores the relationship between the Cantonese language and the triads in Hong Kong with focus on who and what triad societies are, the triad language and its connection with the Cantonese language, and examples of triad words adopted or integrated into Cantonese language.

Triad Societies in Hong Kong

Triad society” refers to several secret criminal organizations that encompass teenage gangs and powerful syndicates that commit all forms of crime. In colloquial Hong Kong Cantonese, triad societies are referred to as hak-sehwuih that is loosely translated to “black societies.”[1] Triad societies have a unique culture that encompasses triad poems, initiation rituals, a specific sub-group jargon, and secret hand-signals. These societies are often organized in a hierarchical manner, and every rank is assigned a specific and unique number. A triad society is headed by a “Dragon Head,” referred to as in Cantonese. The head is also known as “First Route Marshall,” referred to as Shan Chu and is assigned number 489.[2] A triad society also has other important ranks that include the administrative manager assigned number 415, the liaison officer or chief messenger assigned number 432, as well as the fighter or enforcer assigned number 426.[3] There are ordinary members of a triad society all of whom are assigned the number 49. Affiliates who are yet to attend a ceremony to be initiated into a triad society are known as “Blue Lantern” members. In Cantonese language, they are referred to as gwa laahm dang luhng.

Triad societies posed a major problem to the British colonial government during its control Hong Kong. Thus, the colonial government enacted legislations to control and regulate activities of such groups. The first known piece of legislation that was aimed at curtailing triad societies in Hong Kong was Ordinance No. 1 of 1845 that was titled “An Ordinance for the Suppression of the Triad and Other Secret Societies Within the Island of Hong Kong and Its Dependencies.” In this legislation, triad societies and other secret societies that were prevalent in China were seen as big threats to law and order. With the ordinance in place, membership of such societies became an offence that was punishable through imprisonment and banishment after branding on the right cheek.[4] The ordinance was applied to persons of Chinese origin. However, drastic reductions in severity were witnessed almost immediately after the ordinance was enforced. Part of the reductions in severity was allowing the presiding judge say or discretion with regard to the punishment to be given to members of triad societies. The reduction in severity also gave leeway for branding under the left arm. The ordinance was later repealed by the “Triad and unlawful societies ordinance” No. 8 of 1887 that declared triad and all other societies illegal.

Triad Language

The language of triad societies in Mainland China and Hong Kong can be explored by relating the language to other languages such as the Cantonese language. Triad language constitutes code-words and jargons that have been developed over the years and used mainly for communication by members of local underworld societies.[5] The origin of the triad language system can be traced to the era of the Manchu Dynasty. Triad societies developed a communication system that was specifically used by members to prevent leak of secret information.[6] Towards the end of the 19th century, triad societies underwent disintegration and gradually became decentralized criminal organizations associated with an array of illegal activities. Triad language vocabulary is thus enriched with secret code-words and jargon that underpin their illegal trades and activities.

Triad language in itself entails language of triad ritual, nicknames and names for various societies, terms or names for office-bearers triad society’s hierarchical organization, as well as criminal terms associated with prison life, drugs, prostitution, and others. For the three most predominant triad societies in Hong Kong including san yih on, the “14K” with its several sub-groups, and the wohsihngwoh, the triad language entails invoking names of societies or protectors in society so as to amass support or claim status, achieve territorial demarcation, challenge other triad groups, or threaten the public thus paving way for extortion.[7] In triad language, challenging someone to identify him or herself can entail posing the question neihhaihbindouh? that is loosely translated to “where are you?” Other commonly posed questions when asking one to identify themselves in triad language include neihhaih bin faahn translated to “which petal are you” and neihhaihmatyehgaaksi translated to “which toilet stall are you from?”

To approach and better understand the triad language and its relationship with other languages such as Cantonese, it should be seen as a form of anti-language. Contrary to a common assumption that anti-languages are secret codes used to pursue conspiracies, anti-languages are primarily vehicles that help in the accomplishment of resocialization or social transformation. Triad language, for instance, helps in the transformation of a person from being a member of society to a member of an anti-society group.[8] This transformation has demands on language as the transformed or re-socialized individual must establish a strongly affective identification with significant others. The conversion of an individual into being a member of a new social group relies heavily on foregrounding interpersonal meanings. It is also highly likely that the interpersonal meanings or elements accompanying the re-socialization will be highly ritualized.

Connection Between Triad Language and Cantonese Language

A major connection between the two languages is that triad language is considered a type of Cantonese slang. Despite the fact that triad language involves the use of triad jargon that in some circumstances is considered a serious criminal offence, the language is to a large extent a source of innovation for Hong Kong Cantonese language. The influence of triad language on the Cantonese language is as a result of the use of the former by popular media platforms thar are viewed by the public in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, Cantonese youths aged between 7 and 15 years and are not considered genuine triad members, often borrow triad jargons and gestures and use them in their day-to-day communication.[9] The integration of triad language into Cantonese language in Hong Kong has raised concerns, particularly among social workers. Social workers argue that the adoption and use of triad language, which is considered bad and banned language, by Cantonese youths means that they no longer regard the language as disreputable. There is also widespread perception that the adoption of triad language by the Cantonese language reflects the media’s bad influence on youths in Hong Kong.[10] The media is thus chastised for glorifying bad heroes belonging to triad societies and the use of the bad and banned triad language. In the words of some critics of triad societies and language in Hong, there is a growth and widespread use of triad and other languages that are largely distasteful. The gradual adoption of the distasteful triad language by the Cantonese language in Hong Kong marks a significant fall in standards. However, in its defense against the charges of fall in moral standards, the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (TELA) argues that it only allows the use of triad language words or phrases accepted for everyday usage.

The Cantonese language is widely used by the Hong Kong people. Contrary to the triad language, the Cantonese language is decent, has good taste, and does not require censorship when used in popular media platforms. This is the language that the public in Hong Kong expect media directed at viewers, both young and adults, to use. However, the opposite has been witnessed in recent years as seen in the gratuitous use of triad society-influenced chou-hau referring to foul or vulgar language.[11] That triad language has infiltrated the Cantonese language that is widely used in popular media platforms has often shocked and surprised a section of viewers of the media platforms in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, there has been reprieve for viewers outraged and angered by the use of triad-influenced Cantonese language on various media thanks to efforts aimed at limiting audience and censorship of specific words and material borrowed from triad language which have been absorbed into the day-to-day Cantonese language used across Hong Kong. The correlation between triad language and the Cantonese language is further underpinned by the numerous examples of hitherto unacceptable expressions and phrases belonging to the triad language that have been absorbed into the Cantonese language. Several triad expressions and words are considered downright offensive. The fact that these have been adopted into Cantonese language underlines one language’s influence over another.[12] Examples of words borrowed from triad language and adopted into Cantonese language can be explored in categories. The first category, as seen in Table 1 below, comprises of expressions or words that have been absorbed into the Cantonese language and most are now regarded as Cantonese slang rather than triad language.

Table 1: Triad Expressions Already Absorbed into Cantonese Language

No. Yale Transcription Literal Meaning (Where Applicable) Gloss
1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

chyun

giu gai

kau neui

leuihhei

mahlatlou

pekpaau

tiuhneui

wohnghei

Inch (measurement)

To call a chicken

 

Thunder air

 

To throw down the pistol

Classifier (thin, elongated) girl

Royal air

Arrogant, proud

To hire a prostitute

To pick up girls

Loyalty

Bloke, guy, dirty old man

To quit (a job, a task)

A chick, girlfriend

Hong Kong police

Source: Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton. “Bad and banned language: Triad secret societies, the censorship of the Cantonese vernacular, and colonial language policy in Hong Kong.” Language in Society 24, no. 2 (1995): 159–86.

From Table 1, words such as chyun, giu gai, and mahlatlou come from triad language, and have gradually been absorbed into Cantonese language. For most people in Hong Kong, these words and phrases are vulgar and racy. However, among the young people in Hong Kong, they are accepted as part of the day-to-day Cantonese slang and Cantonese culture. Phrases including kau neui,leuihhei, pekpaau, tiuhneui, and wohnghei are part of triad language, and are acceptable  for communication especially in television dramas and films.[13] However, these phrases are gradually being absorbed into the Cantonese language as witnessed in how they continue to be used in films and television dramas and are acceptable for day-to-day use and communication despite the existence of a ban of the triad language on various media platforms.

Young people in Hong Kong do not believe that the word chyun has triad connotations. The primary meaning of chyun is someone who is proud or arrogant although it can sometimes be used to mean “inch.” In Cantonese slang, the word “inch” is at times used in place of chyun. Chyun to mean “proud” is borrowed from triad language. In the triad context, chyun may be used as a verb that means “to challenge.” Calling someone chyun in the triad context can imply a serious confrontation that may ultimately lead to violence.[14] In Hong Kong, specialists in organized crime in the police force regard the word chyun as one belonging to the triad language and that means 10 in triad societies’ secret number system.

The second category of triad expressions or words constitutes those in the process of being absorbed into the Cantonese language. Some of the words or expressions in this category may be regarded offensive and their use in the media should be done with discretion and moderation. Most of the words in this category, as seen in Table 2 below, are familiar to members of the public in Hong Kong, and their use in both Hong Kong films and television is permitted. Most Cantonese native speakers know the words below but are yet to officially accept them as part of Cantonese vocabulary.

Table 2: Expressions in The Process of Being Absorbed into Cantonese Language

No. Yale Transcription Literal Meaning (Where Applicable) Gloss
1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

daa dan

gam sau ji

gu yeh jai

kai daih

lam yauh

ngaauh fan

tin mahntoih

yingh jai

 

Gold finger

Young brother-in-law

Younger foster brother

To knock out someone

To bite powder

The Royal observatory

Two five boy

To hand around

Informer

A ponce

Male homosexual, male prostitute

To kill someone

To take heroin

A lookout

Traitor, turncoat

Source: Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton. “Bad and banned language: Triad secret societies, the censorship of the Cantonese vernacular, and colonial language policy in Hong Kong.” Language in Society 24, no. 2 (1995): 159–86.

The third category of triad words or expressions in Table 3 below constitutes those that are specifically triad jargons or crudes with sexual connotations that should be banned and not absorbed into Cantonese language despite some members of public in Hong Kong being familiar with them. For the average Cantonese native, the words or expressions below are objectionable and might be considered sexual taboo words.

 

Table 3: Objectionable Triad Language Not to Be Absorbed into Cantonese Language

No. Yale Transcription Literal Meaning (Where Applicable) Gloss
1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

baahkjf sin

chouhaiai

deihpaaih

tin paaih

gung si

louhchiuh

tiuh sei

jyu

gat

saamhoh

White paper fan

Grass scandal

Earth license

Sky license

Company

Old Chiu

Classifier (thin, elongated) four

Red

Lucky

Three rivers

Triad society advisor (triad rank)

Triad society intermediary (triad rank)

Mother

Father

Triad society (generic term)

Chiu Chao (ethnonym) gang

14K triad society

One (number)

Seven

water

Source: Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton. “Bad and banned language: Triad secret societies, the censorship of the Cantonese vernacular, and colonial language policy in Hong Kong.” Language in Society 24, no. 2 (1995): 159–86.

Triad societies are common and widespread in Mainland China and Hong Kong. These are organized criminal gangs responsible for the development of triad language that is gradually being adopted into Cantonese language pointing to the relationship between the two languages. There are three categories of triad words or expressions underlining the relationship between the Cantonese language and the triads in Hong Kong and their language. These categories include: category one comprising of triad expressions already absorbed into Cantonese language; category two constituting expressions in the process of being absorbed into Cantonese language; and category three entailing objectionable triad language that should not be absorbed into Cantonese language but which many Cantonese, especially the young, are familiar with.

 

Bibliography

Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton. “Bad and banned language: Triad secret societies, the censorship of the Cantonese vernacular, and colonial language policy in Hong Kong.” Language in Society 24, no. 2 (1995): 159–86. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0047404500018571

Bolton, Kingsley, Christopher Hutton, and Peter Ip Pau-Fuk. “The speech-act offence: Claiming and professing membership of a triad society in Hong Kong.” Language & Communication 16, no. 3 (1996): 263–90. https://doi.org/10.1016/0271-5309(96)00014-6

 

[1]Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton. “Bad and banned language: Triad secret societies, the censorship of the Cantonese vernacular, and colonial language policy in Hong Kong.” Language in Society 24, no. 2 (1995): 159–86.

[2]Bolton, Kingsley, Christopher Hutton, and Peter Ip Pau-Fuk. “The speech-act offence: Claiming and professing membership of a triad society in Hong Kong.” Language & Communication 16, no. 3 (1996): 263–90.

[3]Bolton, Kingsley, Christopher Hutton, and Peter Ip Pau-Fuk 263.

[4]Bolton, Kingsley, Christopher Hutton, and Peter Ip Pau-Fuk 264.

[5]Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton 160.

[6]Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton 160.

[7]Bolton, Kingsley, Christopher Hutton, and Peter Ip Pau-Fuk 263.

[8]Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton 160.

[9]Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton 169.

[10]Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton 169.

[11]Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton 169.

[12]Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton 169.

[13]Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton 171.

[14]Bolton, Kingsley, and Christopher Hutton 172.