Water is life: Scarcity of this resource is acute across the world, but never has this been reflected more than throughout Chinese history.
Droughts have been linked to some of the largest upheavals in the Middle Kingdom, from the fall of the Ming Dynasty to the Taiping and Boxer rebellions.
While Hong Kong has not experienced drought since the 1960s, water remains a central metaphor of the Cantonese language and in feng shui concepts.
With money being a central part of life in Hong Kong and Guangdong, which historically have largely been engaged in trade, it is no surprise that “water” (水 seoi) means “money” in Cantonese slang.
Get rich and you are said to “stack up water” (叠水 deep seoi), but you probably had to “pounce on the water” (撲水 pok seoi) to get it in the first place.
A favorite activity of many Cantonese people is gossiping and shooting the breeze, and this is known as “blowing water” (吹水 ceoi seoi).
One can also chastise someone who is talking nonsense by saying they are “blowing water”.
If you have a favorite – say, a restaurant – that you would like to recommend to others, you call it “heart water” (心水 sum seoi), while people whose name you cannot remember clearly are called “what water?” (阿乜水? ah mut seoi?). This is the equivalent of saying “What’s his name? I forgot.”
In life, everything often comes back to wealth, especially in Hong Kong. Giving back money or paying compensation is known as “return of water” (回水 wui seoi).
But maybe that’s because you squeezed money or “ripped off water” (掠水 loek seoi) from them. In that case, you would be strapped for cash and you have to work overtime to regain the money.
When your boss pays you for that extra work it is known as “subsidizing water” (補水 bou seoi).
That’s a lot to think about the next time you have a glass of water!
Cantonese is such a rich language and has many far-reaching metaphors, with food taking a central role as well.
Are you interested in learning more Cantonese idioms? Have a look at our Live Like A Local series.
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