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In Hong Kong, use a little Cantonese, the language of the locals

If you go to Hong Kong, you might think that English will be widely spoken and you would be correct. You might also think that knowing a little Chinese might be helpful. But what form of Chinese? Cantonese is the dominant form of Chinese in Hong Kong. In fact, when Hong Kong was returned to China from the UK in 1997, only a quarter of Hong Kong residents spoke Mandarin, the official language of mainland China.

Cantonese, which is central to Hong Kong’s identity, originated around AD 220, while Mandarin dates from the 13th century. Mandarin spread widely in China after the Communist takeover in 1949 and is now the dominant form of Chinese on the mainland.

Therefore, knowing a few words and phrases in Cantonese might come in handy as you stroll through Hong Kong’s bustling city center, marvel at its skyscrapers, visit the Temple Street night market, and have a unique costume made by one of the world renowned tailors from Hong Kong.

Cantonese: not for the faint of heart

Cantonese is one of the most difficult languages to learn in the world. The Cantonese tones make it a tongue twister and a tall mountain to climb, even if all you want to do is familiarize yourself with a few simple phrases and words. Learning the Cantonese language is made more difficult by its nine different tones; This means that a word can have up to nine meanings, depending on the tone and context. The good news is that most Hong Kong residents can speak at least a little basic English, and you’re unlikely to find that a complete lack of Cantonese will impede you at any time.

However, if you want to impress the locals, here are some basic phrases you might like to try.

The following examples are written in the Roman alphabet, and due to tonal differences, their pronunciation can make it difficult to understand. Listening to pronunciation techniques on common words and phrases can help you learn even basic Cantonese.


Knowing the name of major countries and nearby areas can be helpful during your visit to Hong Kong.

  • Hong Kong: Herng Gong
  • America: May Gwok
  • China: Chung Gwok
  • Great Britain: Ying Gwok


Even knowing basic Cantonese numbers can make shopping and dining out easier.

  • 1: yat
  • 2: yee
  • 3: saam
  • 4: say
  • 5: mm
  • 6: lok
  • 7: chat
  • 8: bat
  • 9: wow
  • 10: sap


Saying these universal greetings to locals in their own language is courteous and goes a long way toward encouraging good feelings and a good impression of yourself and the United States in Hong Kong.

  • How are you? Lay hoe ma
  • Good morning : sunshine
  • Goodbye: Joy geen
  • Excuse me or thank you: M goy
  • My name is: Ngor Guw
  • I don’t understand: N Gorm Ming Bat

Restaurants and shopping

As a visitor to Hong Kong, you will spend a lot of time in restaurants and shops. Here are some helpful phrases while dining and shopping.

  • How much does it cost: Ching mun, gay daw cheen
  • Please check: M goy, mai dan
  • Too expensive: Tai gwei le
  • Where is the bathroom: Chee saw has been doe ah
  • Do you have any: Lay yow mo
  • Do you serve beer: Leedo yow mo bair tsow yum ah
  • Yes we do: Ah, ah
  • No, we don’t: Mo ah

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