Pop Cantonese: Hea, Chok and Chur

If you’ve been feeling unproductive during the pandemic, you’re not alone, as we can all be a little “hea” sometimes. Meaning to chill, hang around or kill time doing nothing, the word—which is pronounced like “heh”—is an interesting one because it doesn’t have a widely recognised Chinese character equivalent, and is written only in the Latin alphabet. 

For example, you could say ngo5 hai2 dou6 hea3 gan2 (我喺度hea緊, I’m hea-ing”) to mean “I’m chilling,” or “don’t be so heato someone who is especially lazy, slothlike and unproductive. Some believe the term was first used as short-form for “hang around” in English, as Cantonese speakers are well known for turning words into monosyllabic versions for efficiency (such as “con” for contacts or “mon” for monitor, etc.). Another theory is that hea may have evolved from the word hit3 (歇) in Toisan dialect (also known as Taishan dialect), which means to rest or take a break from work.

Hea is not the only Cantonese slang term that doesn’t have a Chinese character: there’s also “chok” and “chur.” Chok means to pull a face that looks especially cocky or pretentious in order to look good; think of the Blue Steel pose from Zoolander. For most people, it’s pretty much impossible to say chok without thinking about the so-called King of Chok himself, Raymond Lam (林峯). The Hong Kong actor and singer basically became known for being chok during his heyday – he even has a song and music video about it.

“To me, chok is a form of expression – an attitude,” says Lam in an interview. “Whether we’re an actor or singer, we will have some form of chok in us.” As for the term’s origins, it may have come from the world of video games where cok3 (剒 or 擢) actually meant “to rattle,” in reference to rattling the joystick to activate cheats. Therefore, by striking a chok face, you would be trying to look more attractive in order to level up.

As for chur, this is used to refer to someone or something that’s overly intense and demanding of your time and attention, which causes you to feel overwhelmed in the process. It’s thought to have originated in local universities around 2010, when students felt especially chur about their overly demanding curriculums – and made plenty of chur sounds to express their annoyance.

Chur can be used as both a verb and adjective, so you could say “he’s being so chur” or “can you not chur me?” in response to anyone who is nagging or putting pressure on you. While it’s not completely confirmed where the term first came about, it’s definitely a useful term for today where most of us are constantly being bombarded by the demands of daily life.

These three words, hea, chok and chur, are just a few examples of how Cantonese is a language that continues to evolve – not unlike English with its pop culture references and constant onslaught of new words. So, now that you know what they mean, the next time someone is being especially chur at you, don’t be afraid to give them your best chok face so you can spend more time hea-ing.

Photo credit: Kevin Quezada via Unsplash

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