Hong Kong, Literally

View from my living room window.

Three weeks of exams later, I can finally set foot on the glistening stretch of freedom laid out before me. As I recuperate from a 12-hour flight in my home city, my mind (now feeling strangely idle) wanders back to my favourite conversation starter – the nomenclature of Hong Kong places. All locals are familiar with the sometimes comical district and street names, most of which were transliterated (as opposed to translated). Sadly, this means that the English etymologies of countless places have withered away – most severely so for the non-Chinese-speaking demographics and constant streams of tourists. Admittedly, over 90% of our current population are ethnically Chinese. But I still believe that because English is our region’s second official language, and because it is no doubt visitors’ main gateway to appreciating an integral aspect of our diverse heritage, English names should reflect the meanings of their Cantonese counterparts.

Take Kowloon (九龍), which literally translates as Nine Dragons. Choosing to name it according to how it sounds instead of what it means was a terrible missed opportunity. Like all traditional tales, the origin of this majestic name differs slightly depending on who you ask. But the common backbone follows the young Emperor Bing1, who had fled to Hong Kong from the Mongols. When he had arrived, he named the area Eight Dragons (八龍) after eight tall surrounding mountains. (It is an ancient Chinese myth that every mountain houses a sleeping dragon.) However, a courtier had wittily suggested that he name it Nine Dragons instead, since the Emperor was there. (Chinese dragons are symbols of the Emperor, and ‘dragon’ and ‘Emperor’ were sometimes used interchangeably.) Not only would translating the name properly have exponentially increased Kowloon’s ‘coolness’, so to speak, but it would also have made an interesting morsel of Chinese folklore and history that much more prominent.

For other places, it just makes more sense. We have Mong Kok (旺角), home to tourists’ favourite suffocatingly jam-packed open-air markets, aptly called Busy or Prosperous Corner. And of course, Lok Ma Chau (落馬洲), which can be translated as Get-off-your-horse Area. Is it because it is next to China and it is high time you got off and turned back or presented yourself to customs officials? Sure, this version is a mouthful, but English-speaking nations are just as guilty of similarly verbose place names (see Cottonshopeburnfoot, England). We also have Tsing Yi (青衣), which translates as Grue2 Clothing, interesting mainly because ‘grue’ is unique to Chinese culture. Finally, even Hong Kong itself can be translated as Fragrant Harbour, apparently because the historical trade in sandalwood and incense lined the harbour with a pleasant aroma.

But names guard much more than ephemeral flashes of interest or humour. They embody deep-rooted identities, tying us firmly to our histories and cultures. Nine Dragons highlights a centuries-old myth and Emperor Bing’s fleeting reign, while the Cantonese name of Stanley (赤柱) simultaneously underlines the infamous activities of Cheung Po Tsai, a notorious pirate, and an ancient cotton tree, which had been a landmark of the town. The Cantonese name of Aberdeen (香港仔) translates as Little Hong Kong, drawing attention to its historical role as the first point of contact between British sailors and local fishermen. Of course, this does not exclusively apply to places – names are just as pertinent to the identities of people.

Until my middle teenage years, my cultural identity was far from concrete. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I was content with a fabricated identity wholly dishonest with myself. Although I am ethnically Chinese, I have attended British and international schools since I was a kindergartener, and have continually been exposed to Eurocentric perspectives and values. The omnipresence of Western media in Hong Kong and the many advertisements that imply caucasian women are the ideal definition of beauty only added to the strong influence of Western cultures on my self-perception. In fact, I became embarrassed by my traditional Chinese upbringing – why must I speak Cantonese at home? Why are my parents so unfashionable and unsophisticated?

Until my late primary school years, choosing the English name Christy was a major source of pride – it was almost unique in my international schools. But when I started to interact more and more frequently with students from local schools, I found out that it was, in fact, extremely popular among local girls. If I were to walk into a local school and shout “Christy”, I would be perfectly unsurprised to see a dozen girls turn around. But I was less perturbed by the general commonness of my name than by its commonness among the local Chinese because I had equated ‘non-Western’ with the opposites of ‘cool’ and ‘attractive’. In an almost pathetically desperate attempt to correct this, I had told my Year 5 classmates that my name is actually short for Christasia, an ungainly, Frankensteinic lump of sound inspired by Grand Duchess Anastasia, because what can be less Chinese than an European princess enrobed in romanticised mystery?

Thankfully, two years in England later, I am ever more aware that the one-dimensional caricature of British culture that I had sketched has no bearing on my actual identity. ‘British’ will continue to be my nationality, but it is a grossly inaccurate representation of my cultural affiliations. I am glad that this awareness has also restored my English name to a source of pride, and the fact that it is so recognisably ‘Hong Kong’, as my foreign friends in England have repeatedly pointed out, is yet another tie to the city that I proudly call mine.

1Emperor Bing (1271-1279) was the last emperor of the Song Dynasty.

2青 (often transliterated as ‘qing’) is a colour unique to Chinese culture, and can be roughly conceptualised as a mixture of blue and green. In most cases, it is more green than blue, especially when describing mountains (青山), grass (青草) and vegetables (青菜). It can even be used figuratively; 青春 (literally, ‘green spring’) means youth, comparable to the English usage of ‘green’ to describe a young, inexperienced newcomer. In other cases, it leans towards blue and aqua, such as when describing the sky (青天) and the Azure Dragon (青龍).


In just three weeks, I will be setting off for England for maybe the last time in a long while. And in two additional weeks, I will be sitting my final IB examinations, the occasion for which my entire secondary school life has been leading up to. Considering the breakneck pace at which everything seems to be flying by, I often envision a wave gathering height and momentum, only to break against rugged rocks on an unfamiliar shore. I know I sound terribly hyperbolic, but the murky depths of my uncertain future still cling to me, not least because the admissions decisions of two of my universities will not be made until our results are released.

The closer the examinations are getting, the more I simply withdraw to old pastimes (reading, writing) that had gathered dust since last summer, when internal assessments and the notorious Extended Essay began. The very fact that I am spending a considerable amount of time composing my thoughts for this post is proof of my latest bout of procrastination. I keep catching myself admonishing, is this really the time? What if these wasted hours cause me to lose an offer? But another voice reinforces the well-worn excuse that, like any self-respecting spring, I ought to relax now so that I will be able to effectively stretch myself when it will matter the most. As a dear friend once said to me, she told a professional marathon running sitting next to her on a flight back to Spain, “I’m running a marathon too! But it’s called the IB.”

I came across the Swedish word gökotta a week ago, when I was reflecting on my aspirations for the next stages of my life. It is impossible to translate, but roughly means to wake up early in the morning to hear the first birdsong. Immediately, the lush image of rolling out of a queen-sized bed in an airy lodge, gazing out of wooden windows at the vast expanse of the Tanzanian plains popped into my mind. The crown of the sun is just beginning to lick the horizon, and the clouds are still brushed with the colours of fine-spun candyfloss. This scene was what I had hoped to be experiencing in my early twenties, having settled into a stable, enjoyable career and acquired enough money to regularly travel on my own.

Other deliciously specific words that inspire similarly vivid daydreams flitted through my mind. Petrichor suggests exploring dense rainforests and stunning displays of unbridled vitality. Hygge conjures comfortable evenings in front of a crackling fire, winding down in a swanky high-rise apartment overlooking a sprawling, sleepless metropolis. Less glamorously, however, a word more applicable to my current predicament is probably kummerspeck – excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally translated from German, it means ‘grief bacon’, which actually sounds strangely appealing, like the melancholy lozenges in Because of Winn-Dixie.

I had always imagined my 25-year-old self to be financially independent, hopping from continent to continent and living in a penthouse in some cosmopolitan city or other. Looking back, these grandiose goals fuelled largely by enviable Instagram accounts seem infinitesimally unlikely. Of course, having the freedom and means to choose between universities spread over three continents, and having been in a position where those aspirations seemed to have the slightest possibility of coming true, are privileges that I should never take for granted. I probably sounded entitled, and for that I apologise.

Maybe our fairy-tale scenarios will never come to pass. But just like any other vague ambitions of a young teenager, you soon realise that there are much grander and more meaningful things that you will want to achieve and can definitely work towards – things that will give you much greater rewards a few decades down the line. Besides, who knows what the next step will bring anyway? We can only keep brewing more vorfreude as we look forwards at the road ahead.