There are many ways to tell someone to be quiet, from “shhh” to “shush” to a not-so-polite “STFU” in English. But in Cantonese, you’ve probably used or come across the term sau1 pei4 (收皮) at some point. A combination of the words sau1, which means collect, and pei4, which means skin, sau1 pei4 actually has nothing to do with “collecting skin” and is often used in response to someone who is being especially cocky.
Roughly translating to “get lost,” “stop it” or “shut up, already,” you could even add an eye roll or a laa3 (啦) to the end to really make a point. Whether it’s used playfully amongst friends or angrily amongst enemies, how exactly did “collect skin” become a common Cantonese insult?
The origins of the term actually date back to Hong Kong’s early gambling days. In the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), way before the invention of the lottery, horse racing and mahjong, people used to bet on games of fantan, which is a simple game based purely on chance. To play fantan, the dealer puts two handfuls of small items—be it coins, buttons, beads or dried beans—in the middle of the table and then covers them with a bowl. After all bets are placed (on numbers one through four), the bowl is removed and the dealer uses a bamboo stick to remove the objects from the heap, four at a time, until the final batch is reached.
Each batch of four was referred to as one (pei4 皮), and when the last batch was reached, the term sau1 pei4 was used to signify that the game was over. At that point, if the last batch had four buttons left, the backer of number four wins; if there were three, the backer of number three wins, and so on and so forth. Since many gambling dens were illegal, spotters would also yell out “sau1 pei4!” whenever there were any signs of the police so that the others would know to quickly pack up and scatter.
Today, the term may have lost its connection to the gambling world, but if you do decide to use it on someone, all bets are off on how they’ll react!
Photo: In a Fan-tan gambling house, Macao, – Frederic Courtland Penfield: East of Suez. Ceylon, India, China and Japan. New York: The Century Co. 1907.