The Big Fish

Full closure still has not yet been reached on the matter of the HK$23 billion listing of the Link REIT.  The challenge pits the Hong Kong Housing Authority, Goldman Sachs, UBS and JP Morgan Chase against two public estate residents, 67-year-old Lo Siu-lang 77-year-old Ma Ki-chiu.  

The government would like to privatise the 180 shopping malls and 79,000 car parks that it owns and managers through a public offering.  Besides raising money to pay for the whopping deficit incurred by the public housing system, the new commercial entity will supposedly be more efficient in managing those properties.  It is estimated that current rental rates are 30% lower than market value.

The two senior residents petitioned for a court injunction under the premise that a private enterprise will likely raise the commercial rents at the shopping malls, and those increases will presumably be passed along to them, causing stress on their fixed incomes.

Where do these two senior residents get the idea as well as the money to file a lawsuit in court?  The press has pointed to Legislative Council member Albert Cheng as the principal 'black hand' behind the action.  Three co-conspirators named in Sing Tao Daily are Legislative Council members Leung "Long Hair" Kwok-hung and Chan Wai-yip and District Councilor Andrew To.  There is speculation but absolutely no proof that the real 'black hands' behind these 'black hands' are the two supermarket chains (Wellcome and Park 'n Shop) which are the two largest tenants at the shopping malls and therefore motivated to stop rent increases.

The two senior residents had sought legal aid for assistance on court fees.  Such aid is not automatically granted to all applicants.  While the two senior residents certainly met the needs requirement, the case was deemed frivolous and turned down.  It is believed that Albert Cheng will pay for their legal fees, which are estimated to be as much as 1 million Hong Kong dollars.

At this point, the Court of First Instance has turned down the appeal.  However, the two senior residents can still file an appeal.  Albert Cheng has said that he will not sink any more money in.  So this case is in limbo for now.  The underwriters have said that they will pull out if an appeal is filed.

There is actually another group of people who are much more anxious about the outcome than any of the above.  More than 500,000 Hong Kong citizens have filed applications to purchase Link REIT shares.  Those applications include deposits, which some people raised through margin calls or high-interest short-term loans.  Since the subscription total exceeds the available quantity, these people were expecting to receive refunds.  It will be big trouble for many if they don't get their money back on time.

So what is in it for Albert Cheng?  His claim was that this Link REIT was under-valued because he could see ways of being even more efficient than estimated.  So this may be a chance to hit at the corrupt collusion between government and business people.

Now I am not going to get into whether this represents grossly dysfunctional behavior or whether the system encourages or even guarantees these grandstanding public displays.  

My interest is totally linguistic in nature, and this is an exploration on the possibilities that exist in a dynamic language such as Cantonese.  There is no authoritative dictionary or grammar, which means people can do anything that they want.

The background is this: Albert Cheng goes by the nickname taipan (大班), in view of the fact that he has run a number of businesses and this is nickname on his former radio show.

Today, in a Sing Tao Daily column, the headline refers to the Big Rock Cod (大石班).  The jump from one to the other actually has to take five steps, and this is obvious to anyone who speaks Cantonese because this type of code switching happens often enough.

Step 1.  In the beginning, there was the taipan (大班).

Step 2.  This episode has been a major disaster for Albert Cheng.  First, he has out-of-pocket court fees upwards of one million Hong Kong dollars due.  Second, barring anything else, the Link REIT is going ahead anyway unless someone else wants to stand in front of the runaway train.  Third, he has just become an object of hatred and derision.  If I may so paraphrase, "Albert Cheng wants to prevent 500,000 Hong Kong persons getting rich."  All in all, Albert Cheng can be said to be 'bruised' ( pronounced as yu in Cantonese).

Step 3.  In Cantonese, the sound yu is also used for 'fish' ().

Step 4.  There are many kinds of fish.  A very popular kind is the rock cod (石斑, pronounced as shekpan in Cantonese).  The pan () word in taipan and the pan () word in rock cod are different but they have identical sounds. 

Step 5.  The "Big Rock Cod" reference therefore makes it clear that the subject is taipan Albert Cheng, but he is quite bruised at the moment.

How is anyone ever supposed to learn Cantonese?  Well, the first lesson is this: it cannot be taught.  The second lesson?  It must be lived.  So there you have it.  Good luck.

Postscript:  Albert Cheng is getting extremely unpopular on the BBS's and forums.  This has led to a series of new terms of insults based upon linguistic plays on his name Cheng King-hon (鄭經翰):
神經漢 "Sun King-hon", meaning "Crazy man"
"Cheng Taikan" meaning "Cheng the Big Traitor"
"Chin Cheng-hon" meaning "Man with low-grade sperms"
There is a movement to form a separate section of the New Years' Eve march directed specifically at Cheng.