Pop Cantonese: 竹升 – Bamboo Rise

A prominent symbol in Chinese culture, bamboo is widely revered for its strength, tranquility and grace. The world’s fast-growing plant is also seen as being calm, flexible, humble and modest – all of which are ideal character traits to embody as a person.

Bamboo (竹; zuk1) is also used frequently in Chinese idioms to denote its steadiness and resilience, but in the Cantonese language, there is one instance where it is used in a less than positive manner. Meaning “bamboo pole”, zuk1 sing1 (竹升) is a derogatory term used to describe someone who is more Western than Chinese, due to the fact that they were either born, raised or spent a significant amount of time overseas.

The term itself comes from zuk1 gong3 (竹杠), because bamboo itself is hollow inside – referring to the notion that Westernised Chinese people lack traditional Chinese culture and values. Since the word gong3 (杠), which also means a pole, sounds similar to gong3 (降), which means to fall or descend, the particularly superstitious Cantonese changed this character to the complete opposite, sing1 (升), which means to rise instead. 

The earliest recorded instance of the term zuk1 sing1 (竹升) was seen in a Canadian newspaper, The Chinese Times, where a 1918 article described a man’s concubine using a zuk1 sing1 to assault his wife. In another 1985 article, zuk1 sing1 was used to describe Weng Yayun, a young Chinese actress who immigrated to the US as a little girl and was educated mostly in America. Then in 1990, another article referred to zuk1 sing1 as those with “yellow skin and white heart.”

Besides not knowing Chinese culture, history and language, signs of a zuk1 sing1 can include other cultural faux pas such as wearing shoes inside the home, adding salt or soy sauce to dishes before tasting them, and not fighting over the bill with family, friends and loved ones.

A personal note: as a Canadian-born Chinese and so-called zuk1 sing1 myself, I was no stranger to being called various terms growing up such as gwai2 mui6 (鬼妹, “white girl”), tou1 saang1 (土生, “native born”) or more commonly, “banana” in English, but over the years, I’ve become less “hollow” of a zuk1 sing1 from living in Hong Kong and filling up on Chinese culture and heritage.

In fact, reading Zolima CityMag (especially the Pop Cantonese series) can also help you become less “hollow”, so to all my fellow ABCs, CBCs and BBCs (referring respectively to American-born, Canadian-born and British-born Chinese), the next time someone accuses you of lacking Chinese knowledge or culture, tell them you’re actually a zuk1 sing1 and prove them wrong.

Photo by eleonora-albasi via Unsplash 

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