Pop Cantonese: Word of the Month – 差人 Police People

Photographe of Nicolas Petit

“Ah Sir, Ah Sir! Sorry Sorry!”

The delivery man runs toward his double-parked truck before a motorcycle cop grinds to a complete stop beside it. Nearby, two guys from the neighbourhood comment, “Ai, the caai1 lou2 (差佬) have been doing extra checks this week. Someone must have complained.”

This is a scene repeated numerous times throughout the day, because as much as double-parked lorries are a fixture on Hong Kong streets, so are caajan4 (差人)  – Police People. Hong Kong takes its law enforcement seriously: its police-to-citizen ratio is the second highest in the world.

POLICEMENThe official name for the Hong Kong Police in Chinese is hoenggonggingcaat(香港警察) literally meaning Fragrant Harbour Alert Inspector, but nobody really calls them that. This controversial symbol of authority is most often referred to as caajan4 or more colloquially as caa1 lou2 (差佬 – police guy) for a man or 差婆 (caa1 po4 – police granny) for a woman. Why this rebellious use of a different name? As with most Cantonese colloquial terms, there are two sides to the story. The official one and less official one, we’ll let you decide.

The ancient Chinese were very organised in their policing, separating local law enforcement through a bureaucratic ladder of prefectures called yamen or ngaamun4 (衙門 – literally “administrative doors”). Those who worked for this local justice branch were called ngaamun4 caaijik6 (衙門差役  – the yamen “runners”). When the British first took over Hong Kong in 1841, one of their first acts was to set up a police force. Since there was no formal Chinese name, one of the adopted names was the Hong Kong “runners” (caaijik6 差役), named after the historical Chinese system. Overtime, taking the first Chinese character of the word, policemen were given the shortened term of caaijan4. The current official name of gingcaat3 was adopted later and did not actually appear in Chinese language records until the 1880s, apparently a word imported from Japanese.

Caai JanNow for the twist. Urban legend claims that the first Hong Kong police force was composed of high-ranking British officers and largely lower-ranking Indian officers. Since the Chinese could not speak much English at the time, the British had assigned the job to their other colonial subjects. The local Chinese population called the Indians aacaa1 (亞差), possibly mimicking the sound of the common use in Hindi of “accha, accha.” Overtime, this purely onomatopoeic name lent its second character of “cha” to 差人 (caaijan4) as in “cha” person.

Take your pick: historical explanation or urban legend in that prized Canto way?

Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese. 

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