Thursday, 21 April 2016

How to backfire swearing: 1 (London)


When I was working on the Channel Four series The Heart of The Dragon in the early 80s, there was suddenly a spate of phone calls with the caller using obscene language (“Do you want to f..k?”).  One call even had a little child, who seemed barely able to speak (probably aged five), asking the obscene question, obviously being prompted by an adult in the background.

My response to the first call was stunned silence, not knowing what to do.  After a couple more, I decided to take action and went out to buy a whistle, intending to blow the whistle really loudly down the phone line.  Unfortunately, the nearest available whistles were from a children’s toy museum (Pollock’s Toy Museum in Scala Street).  Being toys, they all had a low muffled sort of pitch to them, nowhere near shrill enough to deliver a shock to the perpetrator.

I went for Plan B.  The next time the call came and the question was put to me, I said, “Pardon?” innocently.  The caller was tricked into repeating his obscene question, thus making the obscenity lose its impact.  After a few more “Pardon?”, he twigged and rang off in frustration with the parting shot, “Oh, f..k you!”  It felt so good to have the tables turned on him, with him being the flustered one.  The calls never came again.


 (London 1983)

How to backfire swearing: 2 (Singapore)


During a family gathering with my siblings on my recent trip to Singapore, our reminiscing unearthed the story of my father’s swearing, which I’d forgotten about.

In the three southern Chinese dialects that I can (sort of) speak (the Teochew/Cháozhōu 潮州 dialect, the Hokkien/Fújiàn 福建 dialect, and the Cantonese/Guǎngdōng 广东 dialect), one way of swearing at the other party is to say, “F..k your mother!” which is very insulting.

When my father got angry with us (the children) one day, he used this phrase.  We laughed at him, “But our mother is your own wife!”  So, he abandoned that phrase.

The next time he swore, he chose an alternative, which is the Teochew equivalent of the English “son of a bitch”.  The Teochew version is: 狗種仔/狗种仔 “dog breed child/children” (i.e., not human breed).  We laughed at him, “But we are your children, so you’re calling yourself a dog!”

He gave up swearing after that.


(Singapore 1960–70s)

Monday, 18 April 2016

One Chinese way of answering telephone calls


My landlord in Taiwan (1975–1976), a retired soldier who’d gone over to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek upon his retreat from the mainland, used to answer the telephone with, ‘喂,找谁?wèi, zhǎo shéi? / “hello, look for who” ’.  

I used to think that it was a bit unfriendly, especially since he had a loud booming voice, and that it was his own style.  Then, I recalled my second sister telephoning a friend of hers in the 60s in Singapore.  The friend’s name is Lee Diang.  

Unfortunately, in the Teochew (Cháozhōu 潮州) dialect, “who” is pronounced “dee diang”.  Equally unfortunately, both parties kept mishearing each other.

This is how the phone call went.  

Lee Diang’s father (LDF) picked up the phone with:
LDF:  (in Teochew) chway dee diang /  “look for who?”

My sister Eve misheard his “dee diang / who” and thought he said “Lee Diang” which is her friend’s name, so my sister said:

Eve:  Yes.
LDF:  What do you mean “yes”!??  I asked you “look for dee diang?”!
Eve:  Yes, I’m looking for Lee Diang.

Lee Diang’s father misheard my sister’s “Lee Diang” as “dee diang”, so he got quite cross:

LDF:  I asked you who you’re looking for, and you say you’re looking for who!  What a stupid answer!

And he slammed the phone down in frustrated anger.


(Singapore 1960s, and Taiwan 1975–6)