The “See Lai” is quite a phenomenon. I cannot think of a word in English that quite describes a see lai, but I’m pretty sure there are see lais everywhere in the world. Foreigners living in Hong Kong will no doubt hear this word being muttered around in the streets. Therefore, it would be quite useful to anyone who wants to learn more about Hong Kong culture to understand this word.A see lai is basically a term in Cantonese that refers to an unemployed, middle-aged, married woman with children. Well, that is what you call a housewife right? Not quite. This is just the most basic description of a see lai, but in fact there are several other qualities that this type of house wife will have in order to be labeled a see lai. Such qualities include: a recipient of little formal education, someone who lacks individual opinion, someone who always goes with the crowd, someone who is always looking for a bargain, someone who is very nosy, someone who participates in non-stop gossip, someone who never gets the facts straight, someone who always tries to obtain an advantage for family and friends, and someone who enjoys playing mah jong.
These are just a few traits I can think of at the top of my head, but I think you are starting to get the idea of exactly the type of people I am talking about. I think the combination of the densely - populated environment in Hong Kong, the local obsession with making money in order to survive, and the low education rate for women of that era are the key factors that produced the modern day see lai. See lais make up a large proportion of the Hong Kong population and are a fabric of Hong Kong culture. In fact, the term has become so common in the modern day Hong Kong street language that see lai can also refer to any one of the mentioned traits. For example, if you have a young female friend who had just finished researching for the best price of an item and then bargains a bit more to further lower the price, you can tease her by saying “You are so see lai!”
I know many see lais and although the traits that I have mentioned seemed mostly negative, I have to say I have see lai friends and they are actually quite pleasant to be around with. You don’t really have to speak in great detail about anything to them. They specialize in casual small talk. They are not actually very interested in what you say anyway - especially if it is complicated, but they will always welcome your conversation and comment based on what they’ve heard from others, but passing on as their own. The funny thing about see lais is that they are aware that they are see lais and are actually quite proud of being one. I am not sure why, but it may be because they are aware they represent a large segment of the Hong Kong population and this gives them a sense of pride from being part of a group.
All in all, I view see lais as a harmless group of middle aged women just looking to get a bargain. They are a true example of what makes Hong Kong a special place to people who keep Hong Kong dear to their hearts.