In this series, we explore expressions seen in everyday life and others with more obscure origins.
抽水 chau1 sui2 is one of those expressions that has a much deeper meaning that what the characters say. Literally “taking water,” it means “taking advantage of a situation in a way that solely benefits oneself.”
The most widely understood meaning of chau1 sui1 is when someone gets involved with a particular situation they have no part of, and with ulterior motives. Perhaps they want to make it worse for the parties involved — or they’re simply using the opportunity to make themselves look good.
In a sense, it’s basically what we know in modern English lingo as “taking advantage of”, or nowadays, even something remotely like “throwing shade”. From politicians to media commentators, lots of figures in Hong Kong have been accused of “taking water” in the past.
Like many other Cantonese expressions, no one can quite be sure where chau1 sui1 has come from — though there’s an interesting theory behind its origins. In Cantonese, “water” is commonly used as slang for “money” or “financial gain.” It’s said that, at gambling dens and casinos, the house would often take a portion of players’ winnings as a commission of sorts. This can either come in the form of the casino directly pocketing money from players, or overcharging winners who choose to wine and dine at the casino with their winnings in order to turn a profit. Hence taking “water,” or money — for their own benefit.
There is concern that chau1 sui1 is beginning to lose its meaning thanks to overuse, particularly in local media. Nowadays, you might see it being used to describe everything from Instagram users who use hashtags that are unrelated to the content posted, to celebrities who call up paparazzo to snap “candid” photos of them. It’s also been reported that certain people feel deterred from speaking up about certain causes and issues in society, for fear of being accused of chau1 sui1.
Have you ever “taken water” or been a victim of it? Tell us in the comments below.