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Fame and flame in nickname game

You can take offence with HK's love of ribald puns or take it that you're part of the city and its people

From buildings to new Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam, it seems nothing and no one is spared from Hongkongers' penchant for homophonic puns, numerology and cheeky humour.

Hong Kong

FROM buildings to new Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam, it seems nothing and no one is spared from Hongkongers' penchant for homophonic puns, numerology and cheeky humour.

In fact, being bestowed a nickname is almost a Hong Kong custom, an induction of sorts into the city's free-spirited fold, so much so that I don't understand the fuss some strait-laced folks like to kick up whenever a new one goes viral.

The latest headline-grabbing incident involved the number of Mrs Lam's total votes en route to winning last Sunday's election for Hong Kong's next leader.

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Mrs Lam, widely seen as Beijing's pick for the top job, procured exactly 777 votes in her favour, which mathematically set her up for a landslide victory, but rather than cheers - or boos from the opposing pro-democracy camp - the announcement of her vote tally sparked laughter in the polling station.

Even election officials could not conceal their grins.

If you don't already know, "seven" in Cantonese is a homophonic pun on another word used as an expletive to refer to an impotent male, or plain stupidity.

"Triple seven means she is doing things in a stupid way with three times the negative impact," one political observer told me, before adding that his explanation was a "kind of joke sharing".

Many people I spoke to shared the same amusement at Mrs Lam's misfortune, and the memes and lewd jokes will probably keep coming for the rest of her five-year term.

But some who support her have decried the nickname as being disrespectful.

Yet others are using "777" as a display of dissatisfaction and derision of Beijing's perceived intervention in Hong Kong affairs.

After all, today's Hong Kong is highly polarised, with pro-democracy sentiments and calls for reform of Hong Kong's unique political system - in which only 1,194 electors from largely pro-Beijing backgrounds get to help pick the city's chief - on the rise since the 2014 Occupy Central protests.

In a society that can be near-obsessed with numerology - try finding people who are willing to live on apartment floors that have the digit "4" in them, which in Cantonese shares the same sound as the word "death" - numbers can also hold lasting symbolism to events or people.

Just ask current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who has been known simply by his nickname "689" since winning that number of votes in the 2012 polls.

A mere 689 votes in a city of more than seven million people, critics like to remind him.

Hongkongers have also taken much delight in trying to spot and document instances of the number appearing in public.

And it seems that the Leung administration is not amused.

The staff of the city's train system were reportedly issued a warning after posting a photo of a train carriage bearing the identification code "D689" to unofficial social media feeds ("D" is Cantonese slang for a vulgar word that in English starts with an "F").

Although politicians and public figures tend to get the brunt of the heat, you and I and the building next door are all fair play in the nickname game.

Take the towering IFC Two, the second-tallest building in Hong Kong, which has been dubbed "The Finger" for its resemblance to a human digit and the way it stands out.

Or, when my husband and I introduce ourselves, it is not uncommon to have people giggle as they put our initials together to get "PK", which in Cantonese is slang for "falling face first on the street".

But it doesn't bother me one bit.

In fact, this practice of nicknaming has got me to better appreciate Cantonese - which has nine intonations compared to four in Mandarin, lending itself well to homophonic wordplay - even if I don't necessarily subscribe to all the labels that are doled out.

Mrs Lam herself has chosen not to get caught up with the implied profanity of "777", and has instead brushed off her new nickname as just something "other people come up with".

If she can keep calm and Carrie on (sorry, couldn't resist it), so can the rest of us.