Laid out together on a lunchtime siu1 mei6 (燒味 – roast meat) plate, you may think the white-cut chicken (baak6 cai3 gai1 白切雞) and crispy roast duck (siu1 aap3 燒) make a very harmonious pair, but on the farm that is Hong Kong society, chickens and ducks supposedly don’t speak the same dialect, no matter how you cook and season them.
Speaking the same language and referring to similar things usually implies that we will understand each other. But when it comes to Cantonese there is a lot of hidden meaning beneath the surface. In a culture where wordplay and jargon can make no sense to unfamiliar ears, the chances for incomprehensible “chicken-duck talk” is high.
Most cultures have found alternate uses for chickens and ducks to express a point. In French, things will never happen until “chicken have teeth” (quand les poules auront des dents) and in Croatian, “blowing little ducks” (pūst pīlītes) means you are talking nonsense.
In a fowl fight, they say chickens would do the most damage with their sharp beaks, but since Hong Kong ducks are neither lame nor sitting ducks, these fierce and opinionated animals put up a tough fight. When it comes to a conversation between birds, no one would be able to get a word in edge-wise.
When Cantonese speakers see a conversation going round and round in circles, or the participants talking over each other, it is described as “chicken talking to duck” (gai1 tung4 aap3 gong2 雞同鴨講), pretty much like a round of the Clinton-Trump presidential debates.
The idiom was immortalised in an award-winning film, Chicken Duck Talk. The film followed the clash between the owner of an old-fashioned BBQ duck restaurant and a new fast-food chicken joint that opens across the road. The main character Hui Kei plays the proverbial duck; his problems start when a health inspector finds a cockroach in his restaurant’s soup. Then his new neighbour, Danny’s Chicken, becomes the talk of the town. Competition between the two restaurants escalates to ridiculous heights: the opposing sides end up fighting one another in chicken and duck suits. Demonstrating the city’s appreciation for the comedy that arises from melodramatic rivalries, the film became Hong Kong’s highest-grossing movie of the year when it was released in 1988.
When it comes to chickens talking to ducks, just make sure you don’t end up “paying for the duck” (pagar o pato), as the Portuguese would say – as in paying the price for something you did not do.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.