In film sets in Hong Kong, one often hears the phrase zong1 gaa2 gau2 (裝假狗) – literally “installing a fake dog.” It isn’t too implausible to associate the first two characters with installing props or faking an act for filming purposes, but surely not every movie is about dogs, and what does it even mean to install a fake one?
Dogs have long had a pejorative connotation in Chinese culture, as University of Pennsylvania sinologist Victor Mair notes in his paper “Of Dogs and Old Sinitic Reconstructions.” There are many derogatory expressions associated with dogs, such as zau2 gau2 (走狗, “go dog,” a traitor), keoi5 hou2 gau2 (佢好狗, “the person very dog,” the person is such an asshole), gau2 naam4 neoi5 (狗男女, “dog men and women,” awful men and women) and gau2 ngaan5 hon3 jan4 dai1 (狗眼看人低, “dogs’ eyes look people down,” powerless people looking down on others). In all these cases, dogs are frequently referred to a person’s vulgarity, unworthiness or lack of integrity.
One explanation for this dates back to Emperor Jing (188-141 BC) in the Han Dynasty, when dogs were bred and butchered for their meat like other farm animals. Dogs were also considered work animals because they guarded homes. Those functions gave them an inferior status in Chinese society, leading people to regard them with contempt.
In Cantonese, the pronunciation of the word gau2 (狗) is similar to one of the five main vulgar words gau1 (㞗), which refers to male genitals. To avoid profanity, the original swear word has been replaced by its derogatory—but not vulgar—homonym. Frequently in the film industry, when directors wish to suggest nudity without showing the private parts of actors and actresses on screen, they ask the cast to “install a fake dog,” meaning that the actors’ and actresses’ private parts will be covered with models or costumes imitating what should not be shown.
But there are other suggestions of the expression’s origin that go beyond the film industry. Local publisher Leung Chun-fai explains that in Hong Kong, there are a lot of property owners who put up a “beware of dog” sign at the entrance in order to ward off intruders. Yet in most cases, there aren’t actually any guard dogs. The phenomenon is so common that the phrase zong1 gaa2 gau2 is now used to describe it. Another theory suggests that the phrase is rooted in the slang and codewords of triad gangs, with dogs referring to guns, in order to confuse the police or outsiders about whether the gangsters are using real or fake guns.
Regardless of which explanation is correct, the expression now applies to a number of scenarios in which something real is replaced by an imitation, or when someone tries to conceal their weakness through pretence. For instance, in the historical legend “Borrowing Arrows with Hay Fleets,” Zhuge Liang—a military strategist in the Three Kingdoms period (220-280)—ordered 20 fleets covered with hay to sail into the waters of Eastern Han warlord Cao Cao.
Cao’s army, who originally outranked Liang’s army in number and strength, could not see clearly in the mist that the fleet was actually full of hay instead of soldiers. The warlord was tricked into believing that a mighty attack was coming his way and he ordered his soldiers to shoot arrows at the ships. The next morning, Liang’s fleet retreated, collecting more than 100,000 arrows he was able to use in battle. This is a classic example of how Liang concealed his army’s lack of military power and replaced his actual fleets with empty ships to acquire the munitions he needed.
The phrase can also be used light-heartedly, such as when referring to counterfeit goods and knockoffs, or mocking how someone use padding to exaggerate his or her body shape. And the phrase may one day transform into something else. Given the rising concern for animal rights in Hong Kong, not to mention the growing number of dog lovers, this Cantonese expression may one day transform from installing a fake dog to installing something else.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.
Photo credit: Jason Pearce via flickr