The cross-dressing banjo-playing Cantonese era is over
Cecilie Gamst Berg has packed away her wok, hung up her fake breasts and booked a flight for her dogs.
After 27 years, the greatest Norwegian cross-dressing banjo-playing Cantonese teacher of our time is saying her goodbyes.
With her departure, Hong Kong culture loses an unlikely champion and Lantau an outsized local personality.
Cecilie has lived on Lantau since landing here in late 1989 after some months in China and Korea.
She has since made her outsized mark as local cultural guide and teacher, Sichuanese cook and banjo-playing star of manic cross-dressing videos.
“In those days, anybody could come to Hong Kong and get a job. No questions asked, cash in hand,” she says of her early days.
There were plenty of gweilo jobs in English teaching, bars and on filmsets, she says, adding a few pointed remarks about ‘begpackers’.
Cecilie spent several weeks in a cramped unit with seven others in Chungking Mansions before fleeing to Mui Wo.
“I had to take all my possessions into the shower. I was tired of them being wet all the time,” she said.
Her first home was in Pak Ngan Heung, which she shared with two others. She later lived in Tai Tei Tong for ten years before moving to Pui O 15 years ago.
For many years she was an English teacher on Hong Kong Island, schlepping the 75-minute daily ferry commute via Peng Chau.
Her biggest group of students was Japanese housewives. “When the bubble burst in Japan most of them left.”
In the meantime Cecilie, who already spoke and read Mandarin, had taught herself the local language.
She never studied it formally, but picked it up “just talking to people” – people like her Chinese poker partners on the long ferry commute.
Friends began pestering her to teach Cantonese, and that is what she has been doing, in her own unique style, for the last two decades.
Under the indelibly-named Happy Jellyfish People’s Democratic Language Bureau (slogan: ‘Learn Cantonese the natural way – from a Norwegian’) she went way beyond the classroom.
She took students to bars and wet markets and on Shenzhen shopping trips, forcing them to apply their Cantonese in realistic situations.
She also created a body of memorable YouTube videos, featuring her moustachioed alter ego, strap-on breasts and banjo, and an RTHK show and podcast called Naked Cantonese.
It has made her a defender of Cantonese language and culture at a time when they are under constant attack.
“I really like Cantonese – it is so funny. Mandarin is now a communist language for me, but Cantonese is a funny language, a beer and joke language,” she said in an interview last year with Apple Daily.
People often approach her in public or write to her or to express support – although one of her vexations is that few of them do so in Chinese. “They know I can speak and write it but there’s just NO way I can understand and read it!”
A bigger vexation, and the chief factor in her departure, is the “uglification” of the city under its Beijing landlords.
“The uglification of Hong Kong and destruction of Lantau is the main reason. I can’t live among skyscrapers, concrete and fencing anymore.”
One of her biggest piques is the saturation of the city with metal fences.
“It’s such a metaphor,” she says. “People have to be corralled. I am sure the metreage has doubled in the last five years. That’s my observation as I walk everywhere.”
She points to the 300m-long fence at the side of South Lantau Road down to the Mui Wo roundabout.
“I think we have more accidents here because people get trapped on the road.”
She reflects on how Lantau has changed over the years.
“If you think it is out of the way today, it was way off the track then,” she said.
In those pre-airport, pre-MTR days, “there was no fast ferry, no Tsingma Bridge” – just the plodding ferry.
Mui Wo had three bars – the China Bear was called Fixed Crossing- and “it was much more crazy than now. There were lots of singles in 20s and 30s. Now it’s middle-aged and families.”
Cecilie says Lantau appealed because it was an island – as is her new home, Majorca, where she will be working as a writer and cartoonist for a Norwegian firm.
“It’s my dream job.”
When Cecilie flies out she takes with her not just irreverent Cantonese schtick, and not just a bridge between east and west, but yet another slice of the city’s spirit.
Nooooo! Lantau will lack another natural…. Wishing Cecile all the best in her new adventure!
Cecile, you will be missed. Ngo oi lei!
mo lei yau. Ngoh seung sun lei ho fai choi wooi faan lai. Mo joh gong dung wah, lei dim gwoh yat ji ah? joi gin
Very sad to know you are leaving Hong Kong!
Perhaps, come to Vancouver, Canada!
Miss your lessons at Hawaii (茶餐厅) Cecile !