It’s the season when couples stop beneath mistletoes for a kiss. But make sure not to “husk peanuts” like an “electric light bulb.” This Cantonese expression has nothing to do with feasting or Christmas lights – instead, it’s about ruining a romantic moment.
In English, there’s “the third wheel,” when someone awkwardly intrudes on a romantic moment between two other people. In Hong Kong, the equivalent expression is din6 dang1 daam2 (電燈膽), which translates as “electric light bulb.” The associated action is mok1 faa1 saang1 (剝花生), literally husking peanuts which suggests how the electric light bulb watches the lovers as if enjoying a movie over popcorn. It all goes back to the 1960s, when Hong Kong was still a conservative society. If a girl was asked on a date, it was very common for parents to send her younger sibling to accompany her. The parents might preface this with some kind of excuse—perhaps they were busy and the older daughter had to look after the younger one—but it wasn’t hard to guess what the actual reason was. Nobody would risk displaying affection in public in the midst of a spy for one’s parents.
It was this younger sibling who was woefully referred to as the electric light bulb. According to Austin Coates, author of A Mountain of Light: The Story of the Hongkong Electric Company, the Hongkong Electric Company began manufacturing light bulbs with help from entrepreneur Paul Chater in December 1890; some of those bulbs ended up in the newly-installed electric street lamps in Des Voeux Road Central. It was the first step in the transition from gas lamps to electric light in the city, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that electricity—and the use of light bulbs—became more widely available in various districts.
It was then that people became more familiar with the design of light bulbs. The filament is housed in a sealed, vacuum chamber. Similarly, the younger sibling tagging along “had no ventilation” (ng4 tung1 hei3 唔通氣). The younger sibling’s presence was suffocating the lovers, for he or she was in their way and had no real understanding of what was going on.
There was a solution to this problem: bribery through snacks. As they proceeded on their date, the couple would usually buy some snacks for the younger sibling. Peanuts were one of the most common and affordable types of snacks at the time. As the younger sibling happily munched away, the couple continued on their date, safe in the knowledge that their young chaperone would deliver a favourable report to their parents afterwards.
Over time, Hongkongers have grown more liberal when it comes to love and relationships. It certainly isn’t common for a couple to bring their siblings along on dates – and peanuts no longer suffice as a snack when there are so many other options. “Electric light bulb” is no longer in common use, but “eating peanuts” remains a popular Cantonese expressions, but its meaning has shifted somewhat: it is now commonly used online and in daily life to refer to people who entertain themselves by looking at the misfortune or drama of others as if they are watching a movie. In other words, the peanut gallery.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.