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6 Colorful Hokkien Expressions and Their Hilarious Literal Meanings

Spoken by most Chinoys in the Philippines, Hokkien is a very expressive language – sometimes driven to hilarious and extreme heights. Just when you think Hokkien can’t get any funnier, a relative tops it with something crazier. 

From morbid ways to express anger to completely nonsensical idioms that shouldn’t make sense but do, here are seven funny Hokkien expressions and their hilarious literal meanings! 

 

6. Flower Feet (hue ka)

When a Chinoy says they have hue ka, it means they are itching to travel – not that their feet are made of flowers. Its closest Western equivalent is the word “wanderlust,” but its literal meaning is flower feet. 

Perhaps it means standing around bored for so long that flowers have grown around you? Despite being unable to be traced back to any traditional idiom, the term has endured among Chinoy families.

It’s a bit nonsensical and random which puts this phrase on the list. However, my grandfather did say something about wildflowers being a metaphor for girls who wander and don’t want to settle down. Either way, it’s one of the most colorful ways to say you want to get out of the house!

 

5. Make Pig (tsong ti)

“Mister, I’ll make a pig out of you!”

For some reason, the Hokkien phrase for making fun of people is making a pig out of them or literally “make pig.” So if a Chinoy says “stop making fun of me” in Hokkien, it can be directly translated into “stop making a pig out of me!”

The origins of this phrase may refer to the reputation of pigs in China as being lazy, unmotivated, and overly easy-going.

While it may not have a connection to the Greek myth of Circe turning sailors into pigs (because Greeks didn’t have an influence on the Chinese language) it’s still a funny coincidence to see the parallels between the two. 

 

4. Si Lang (dead person)

Photo credit from Death Wish Coffee

Si Lang means “dead person” but is usually reserved for the living.

Why? Because the receiver of this expression is so intellectually challenged that the user of the phrase is wondering why they are still alive. In other words, they are a “dead man walking.” 

This phrase is uttered by many a Chinoy uncle or auntie when spotting bad drivers who do not deserve their licenses.

 

3. Kind when little, evil spirit when grown up (sue han guai, dua han gui)

Photo credit from YouTube channel Teen Stories

This is something Chinese teachers at my school said a lot because of the notorious boys at the back. They are always plotting something. My laoshi (teacher) in particular shouted this at them when they poured glue on his chair and laughed at him as he sat down on the sticky substance. Children and hormonal teenagers have the surprising capacity to be cruel, which is why this phrase exists. However, it is usable for almost any scenario as teachers also say it when the class is talking too much, or when they refuse to line up in an orderly fashion.

This phrase shows how the Hokkien word for kind (guai) and evil spirit (gui) sound quite similar, with a single letter and tone making the difference in their meanings.

In Elementary, I recall another variant of this phrase, but only in English. “When you are little, your horns are small. When you grow,  your horns grow too.” 

 

2. What kind of spirit are you turning into? (Bi sha mi gui)

“A-am I a ghost?” Photo credit from Spirited Away (2001)

If this phrase is used on you, don’t worry! You’re not actually turning into a paranormal entity. You’re just misbehaving. This is what some people say when they see someone changing for the worse due to bad influences or lifestyle changes. 

Like many insults of this nature, it can also be used sarcastically in a semi-affectionate way when someone is doing something you don’t understand. (Or letting too loose at a party, for example). 

 

1. I’m so angry I could die and vomit blood! (Ki si lang o, to hui si lang o!)

If there’s any other Hokkien phrase that escalates quicker than this one, I’ll be surprised because this phrase takes the number one spot for the most extreme Hokkien expression! I have only ever heard this from my tutor and her Buddhist friends (so much for being calm and zen, huh?) back when I was a kid, as well as my orchestra teacher. 

This phrase is usually said with such intensity that it can silence an entire room of people. Despite being the top one on this list, this is something you don’t want to hear directed at you. 

In order to not end on a negative note, let’s have our honorable mentions! 

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

  • Eats like a kitten (Ka lan niao le jia): eats too little
  • Insanity-inducing beauty (Sui a shiao): very beautiful
  • Le jia zi (eating money): wasteful of money

 

We hope you enjoyed this list and share it with others! It would be a shame to let these colorful and imagery-rich expressions get lost to time!

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