Cantonese.jpg: A boisterous, cartoon dictionary of idioms, proverbs and slang

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Two covers for the Cantonese.jpg books, featuring a cartoon chicken reading and eating Cantonese text respectively over a bright yellow and blue background

This article was originally published in 88 Bar.

Hong Kong cartoonist Ah To has three claims to fame: as an internet culture expert, political cartoonist, and linguist of the Cantonese language. First, he rose to prominence after creating the Golden Creature Card game that celebrates the city’s internet culture. Then he built a career as a political cartoonist, with provocative comics that frequently go viral within Hong Kong’s social media networks. Throughout all this, he’s also been collecting and illustrating modern Cantonese expressions. He caught the eye of many a few years ago with his posters and digital murals, and now he’s back with a two-volume catalogue of some seriously colorful Cantonese idioms, proverbs and slang.

Cantonese.jpg and Cantonese2.jpg are a set of “language learning picture book[s].” They are organized like dictionaries, and each entry is accompanied by a illustration:

A spread from Cantonese.jpg featuring 6 illustrated and annotated entries from the cat chapter including one for "three-legged cat kung fu"

The drawings are every bit as eccentric and boisterous as the expressions they depict, and dazzle in both their quantity and quality. Ah To manages to make each of them unique, despite there being 300+ pages of entries and, for instance, fifteen entries involving a dragon. These illustrations are accompanied by a crisp and spacious graphic design style that makes the books a much breezier read than a regular dictionary. Furthermore, the author’s choice to categorize the entries into clustered groups – collages of animals, human organs, kitchen objects, etc. – adds a whimsical note that enhances their mnemonic power.

A sample entry for "shrimp bully" with one larger pink shrimp punching out another smaller one

A sample entry for "catch a cold (have a fever) for money" where a man with money signs for eyes is shivering and deliriously happy as a stack of bills floats next to him

Author Ah To and translator Chukhak’s commitment to creating a bilingual resource is commendable, given the dearth of Cantonese language learning books. Every entry is meticulously bilingual – featuring the original term in Chinese, its literal English translation, a jyutping pronunciation guide, and explanations in both Chinese and English. Their hard work, however, seems to have fallen flat for some as they have received zero English language press (the first book came out in 2017) and are notably absent from the city’s numerous English language bookstores.

Luckily, the book series has otherwise done well for itself, especially given that it was published independently. At the time of writing, Cantonese.jpg and Cantonese2.jpg are in their 7th and 2nd editions respectively and can be found in many large Chinese bookstore chains around the city. But these successes may be a bittersweet victory for Ah To, who’s previous book, Diu La Sing! Suck It Up!, was deemed too politically critical for most bookstores and remains an underrated and hard-to-find gem in the Hong Kong comics world


Title: Cantonese.jpg 圖解廣東話, Cantonese2.jpg 圖解廣東話2
Release date: 2017, 2018
Languages: Traditional Chinese + English
Publishers: Whitepaper Publishing 白油出版
Author: Ah To 阿塗 (translated by Chukhak 七刻)


Orion Martin contributed editing to this article.

About the author

Jason Li is an independent designer, artist and researcher. He is a co-author of the forthcoming Hanmoji Handbook, an editor at Paradise System, and a member of Zine Coop.

Visit his personal website or email him.

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