In this monthly column, we explore expressions seen in everyday life and others with more obscure origins.
You might have heard of people being described as a 竹升 jook sing, also spelled juk sing or zuk sing.
Literally “bamboo rod,” this is a term that describes those of Chinese descent who identify more strongly with western culture — whether it’s because they were raised overseas, or had received a western education, whether in Hong Kong or at boarding school or university abroad.
This term basically is derived from 竹竿 juk gon, and both mean the same thing — a bamboo rod. Juk gon became known as juk sing, owing to the way that Cantonese speakers avoid anything that could be inauspicious. The word 竿 gon sounds very much like 降 gong, “lower” or “descend” — and so it was changed to 升 sing, which means “higher” or “ascend”.
How did it become associated with what some people might also refer to as a “banana” — “yellow on the outside, white on the inside”? A bamboo rod has an empty middle, and apparently, this illustrates that in their hearts, these western-raised or educated folks don’t have traditional Chinese values.
Another school of thought seems a little bit harsher: bamboo rods are naturally grown with numerous divides within, meaning you can’t have water or other substances flow through their complete length. That’s kind of like what these third-culture kids are: neither here nor there.
While you could classify jook sing as racial slur, its current usage isn’t actually derogatory — much like how the term “gweilo” has evolved over the years. Its origins are uncertain, but the term has been used in discussions on forums, and inspired think pieces about growing up as a jook sing.
Incidentally, jook sing is also the name of a noodle in Cantonese cuisine that’s increasingly hard to come by in this day and age. Watch a restaurateur in Hong Kong discuss the traditional craft of jook sing noodle-making here.