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Mr. Q

Cantonese romanization

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Mr. Q

Hi folks

I am an Australian who does not speak any Chinese, either Mandarin or Cantonese, so please forgive my lack of knowledge about your languages.

I have a very simple request.

I am a writer who has written a novel, part of which is set in San Francisco in 1870. From my research, it seems to me that most of the Chinese citizens of San Francisco at that time spoke Cantonese, not Mandarin. Within my novel I have several characters who are Cantonese speakers, and I wish to use certain Cantonese phrases within the text. Rather than print them using actual Chinese characters, I would like to write them using pinyin words... however, a Chinese friend told me that there is no pinyin for Cantonese. Is this correct?

An example of what I mean is this:

One of my characters, a young man who cooks food at a roadside stall, says to my main character "“Nǐ xiǎng yào yīxiē ma?”, which I am told means "Would you like some?"

I don't know if this phrase is Mandarin or Cantonese. I need someone who is willing to read over a short list of words and phrases (about 22 of them) and tell the correct way to write them in Cantonese. If you are a fluent Cantonese speaker, this would not take you more than ten or fifteen minutes. I am unable to offer any payment for this service, other than my thanks and and a "thank you" in the Acknowledgements section of my novel and a free copy of it once it is printed.

Is there anyone out there who is willing to do this? I would greatly appreciate it.

Thank you for reading my message.

--Mr. Q

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40 minutes ago, Mr. Q said:

I would like to write them using pinyin words... however, a Chinese friend told me that there is no pinyin for Cantonese. Is this correct?

In short, yes. Hanyu pinyin is the system used to write Mandarin, and it cannot be used to write Cantonese. There are several different systems to write Cantonese, so you should use one of those. Here is a place to start. (There are so many types of Cantonese romanisation that Wikipedia doesn't have one page for it...)


'Nǐ xiǎng yào yīxiē ma?' is indeed Mandarin written in Hanyu pinyin. So you are correct that you need to change something.


Unfortunately, that is about the furthest I can help you, since I only know beginner's Cantonese at best. Hopefully someone else can help. Do ask elsewhere as well (a group for Cantonese speakers on Facebook perhaps?), because we don't have many Cantonese speakers here, we mostly know Mandarin.

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I grew up with both English and Cantonese so I think I can help with your request Mr.Q :) The tricky thing with Cantonese is that what is spoken colloquially and what is written down is usually different, and I mean, it can be VERY different. 


Say for your example,  "Would you like some?", in a more relaxed setting, people usually say "你想唔想要啲呀?" ("nei5 seung2 m4 seung2 yiu3 di1 a3"), and if it's to be written down, they would just write the same as what you have written in Mandarin but just using Cantonese (nei5 seung2 yiu3 yat1 se1 ma1?),  but it is very odd to be spoken out loud during a conversation. Lu's wiki page regarding written Cantonese is pretty spot on about this, you can also go this page for more info about written Cantonese. 


Lu is also right about the different types of romanization in Cantonese. With the different influences, mainland, hong kong, macao, all have their own system, and I'm not sure if there's a standardized way to do this. But so far from what I've seen on the internet, the Yale system with tone numbers seems to be more common, but I could be wrong. 


I also notice your book setting is in 1870. I am not a linguist so I don't know if the Cantonese expressions back then is different from now. But if you don't mind, I'd be glad to help! :) 


** I used this website for the romanization of the Cantonese, using the Yale system and tone numbers 

** For cross referencing, I also used this database from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 

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Mr. Q

To Lu and phantonym--


Thank you both so much for your replies to my questions. I really appreciate that you took the time to type such informative answers.

It is obvious to me now that I have really stepped in to a difficult area here. As a historical novelist, my priority is to be as accurate as possible in my depictions of the various eras about which I write. This is always a very difficult process, for many reasons and I could not even hope to navigate through the wilderness of unknown areas without the help of people like yourselves.


I'll spend time checking out the links you have shared with me. Once I have done that, I'm sure I'll be back here posting again on this thread with even more questions.


Again, I appreciate your help so much... thank you, and may you be blessed in your way.




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Greetings and welcome, Mr. Q.


Before you get too set on implementing Standard Cantonese, I must inform you of something extremely relevant to your project in regards to your desired level of accuracy and authenticity. To the best of my knowledge, nearly every Chinese immigrant living and working in and around San Francisco (and North America in general) before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (and until that act was ultimately abolished during WWII) spoke Taishanese/Toisanese/Hoisanese/台山話, which is a topolect of the Yue (Cantonese) branch of the Han Chinese language family; it's as different as Peking and Nanking Mandarin, or, if that comparison is lost on you, English and Scots (not Scottish-accented English, mind you).

Below are two good free online dictionaries for this topolect:



The first resource uses a modified form of Broad IPA (not really appropriate to quote in a book as it's a technical script) with each syllable accompanied by an audio sample, whilst the second employs its own proprietary ad-hoc Romanisation. For the scope of a book primarily written in English, an anglocentric Romanisation of Taishanese would be more approachable, and since one of my favourite hobbies is designing such systems, I'd be happy to do so if you'd like.


Mandarin: 你想要一些嗎?

Cantonese: 你想唔想要啲咁多呀?

Taishanese: 你想唔想攞啲多呀?

Taishanese Broad IPA: [ ni˧ ɫjaŋ˥ m˨ ɫjaŋ˥ hɔ˥ nit˥ ʔu˨˩˥ ja˨ ]

Taishanese Anglicised: "nee, thlyang! mm... thlyang! haw! neet! oo..? ya..."

Taishanese Mandarinised: "ni lxiāng mˇ lxiāng hō nīt wǔ ya"

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Mr. Q

In reply to ParkeNYU...


Thank you for your welcome, and also for your very generous offer. As I read through all that has been said here in these few comments, I am realising that I am in even deeper over my head than I thought. None of this is "simple" or easily explained, yet your comment seems to hit the nail on the head for me.


The effect I am going for is that when a non-Chinese-speaker reads this section of the novel, he or she will come across various Chinese phrases that they do not understand... which is exactly the same situation in which my main character finds himself. As he rides into the town of San Francisco in 1870, he wanders into the area known as Chinatown and hears words and phrases all around him that he does not comprehend. I want my readers to feel the same sense of alienation.


Perhaps the most obvious path would have been to print actual Chinese characters within my text, but somehow that seems a bit too disingenuous. After all, my character is hearing these words, not seeing them written down... therefore I wanted something that could be at least partially recognisable to someone who does not speak any Chinese, because there are Romanised letters printed (such as in the last two examples you listed in your comment, the Taishanese Anglicised and the Taishanese Mandarinised). Does that make sense?


ParkeNYU, you wrote that "For the scope of a book primarily written in English, an anglocentric Romanisation of Taishanese would be more approachable", and I agree. If you are still agreeable to lending me your knowledge for a short time, I would be most grateful.

I have a two-page Word document with about 22 words, phrases and names that I have used in my novel. If I email it to you, or upload it right here on this site, would you be so kind as to have a look at it for me, please?


I await your reply, and thank you once again for what you have already contributed.


--Mr. Q 😎

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I'd be happy to! I'm roaming around on business trips but I'll work on it whenever I can; just post them here and I'll formulate my replies with Chinese characters, Broad IPA, and Anglicised Taishanese. My colloquial Cantonese/Taishanese grammar and vocabulary aren't the best, so I hope others will jump in to adjust whenever possible.

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Mr. Q

Hello again, ParkeNYU


Thank you so much for agreeing to cast an eye over my list of words, phrases and names. I really appreciate your willingness to do so.

I'm sure that the list will be a bit of a mess, and may contain a mix-up of Cantonese and Mandarin, either or both of which may be wrong... which is why I need help with it. I sourced these phrases from a couple of translator websites and I have no idea if they're correct or not.


On the list below, I have left a space after each word or phrase so that you can write the correct version and/or make any necessary comments.

There is no hurry in this task; I am not working to a publisher's deadline, only to my own time frame. There is much work to do yet before I submit the manuscript for publication. I also have several phrases in the Cheyenne language that I have included in my novel... I don't suppose you also speak Cheyenne? 😜


Thanks again, and safe travels on your business trips!


--Mr. Q  😎




“Nǐ xiǎng yào yīxiē ma?” – “Would you like some?”


“Guòlái chīfàn” – “Come and eat.”


“Zài chī yīdiăn ma” – “Come on, eat a little more.”


“Zhè shì yīdiăn xiăoyìsi, xīwàng nĭ xĭhuan” – “This is a small gift. I hope you like it.”


“Yílù píngān” – (Literal meaning: Whole Way Peace) – “Have a safe journey” – To wish somebody a safe and pleasant journey, that everything may go well. This phrase can be used in any situation where someone is parting with you.


“péngyou” – “friend”


 “Qĭng zuò” – “Please sit.”


“Xiăo Bái, zuòxia” – “Whitey, sit.”


“Nĭ zuò nà li” – “You sit there.”


“Nĭ kàn!” – “Look!”


“Nĭ chōu ba!” – “Smoke!”


“Xiàng mèng zhōng piāo guò” – “It passes just like a dream.”


“Xiàng mèng yībān de…” – “Like a dream…”


“Āi, ting yīxià! Ting yīxià!” – “Yeah, stop! Stop!”


“gwáilóu” – (lit. “ghostly man”) – Cantonese slang for “white man”.


“séi gwáilóu” – (lit. “damn ghost-man”) – Pejorative Cantonese slang term for a white person. (I did not use this phrase in the text).


“séi lóu” – “bad man” (I did not use this phrase in the text).


“Nǐ xiǎng yào yīxiē ma, gwáilóu?” – “Would you like some, white man?”


“Gum San” – “Golden Mountain” (i.e. America).


“Dai Fao” – California


“Yāpiàn” – opium


“Nĭhăo” – “Hello.”


“xièxie, zàijiàn” – “Thank you, goodbye.” (I did not use this phrase in the text).


“Gam Saan haak” – “Gold Mountain man” (a Chinese man who has lived in America and then returned to China with some wealth).


“Xièxie, péngyou. Yílù píngān. Zàijiàn.” – “Thank you, friend. Have a safe journey. Goodbye.”






Xiang Yawen (female) and Xiang Jing (male) – Sister and brother


Zhao Zhi (male)


Shao Cheng (male)


Sun Hai (female)


Hou Min (female)


Zhu Bao (male)


NOTE: – I was told by a Chinese lady who speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese that Chinese names do not necessarily have the same ‘gender consciousness’ (my term, not hers) as do English names. When I asked her if I had the genders correct for the character names, she said that it didn’t really matter; Chinese names can be either masculine or feminine.


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