Pop Cantonese: Word of the Month – 食皇家飯 Eating Royal Rice

When people in Hong Kong talk about “eating royal rice,” it’s something as far from royalty as you can get. The city is well known for its obsession with all things food and this also applies to its use of language. Local Cantonese terms often have a strong whiff of food imagery baked into them. This particular expression cheekily blends royalty with fried rice, pink spam and crime. For to eat royal rice in Hong Kong — sik6 wong4 gaa1 faan6 (食皇家飯) — is to head off to prison in handcuffs.

riceTo enjoy a plate of royal rice is really quite easy: simply commit enough crimes to get you three square meals in a local prison, paid for by the public’s dime. The term came about when the local constabulary was still under the jurisdiction of the British crown. On April 30, 1841, twelve weeks after the British arrived, orders were given by Captain Charles Elliot to establish a police force in the new colony. It was finally established on May 1, 1844 with 32 men serving its mandate. From then on, meals at prisons, also known as “royal hotels” (wong4 gaa1 faan6 dim3 皇家飯店) were paid for by the colonial government. Hence, to eat royal rice was to be fed at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

riceThe origins of the term spread to many areas involving the colonial government. Anyone working for the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club could be said to be daa1 wong4 gaa1 gung1 (打皇家工), to be doing “royal labour.” When decommissioned police cars or old fire engines were collected, they would also be referred to as “royal garbage” (wong4 gaa1 laap6 sap1 皇家垃圾).

Eating royal rice became so widespread as an expression that a Hong Kong film with the same title was produced in 1986. Called The Law Enforcer in English, it follows the adventures of an off-duty policeman who injures three assailants while saving a woman from being attacked.

While most dishes in this city are easily accessible, royal rice may be one special dish that most of us are not that eager to savour.

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