Overseas Chinese have long used Mandarin as lingua franca

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 August, 2010, 12:00am

As an overseas Chinese, I treasure the importance of preserving one's identity and one's language in a minority environment. I thus have great empathy for the views Sir David Tang expressed in your paper ['Cantonese is a rich and subtle language that must be preserved', August 23].

Mandarin (not 'Putonghua') was adopted in Southeast Asia. My parents, like the overwhelming majority of their generation, received their Chinese education in Mandarin in the 1960s and still converse with each other in it - never mind that, both being Fujianese, it is not their native language. Many Indonesian Chinese who migrated to Hong Kong in the 1950s and '60s still proudly speak Mandarin among themselves.

This shows how readily Southeast Asian Chinese accepted Mandarin as their common language despite their different native tongues. After the second world war, Southeast Asian Chinese educators and the community had the foresight to make Mandarin the unifying language.

The major resistance to Mandarin is among Cantonese speakers in areas where they form the majority. The often-cited evidence of Cantonese sophistication is that Tang dynasty poetry sounds best when read aloud in Cantonese.

Ironically, there is a very sizeable number of non-Cantonese people in Hong Kong, and their second generations have all converted into Cantonese speakers. Hasn't Cantonese been imposed on these non-native speakers of that language?

It was a deliberate British colonial 'divide and rule' policy to promote Cantonese primacy in schools. It didn't help when chief executive Tung Chee-hwa introduced the disastrous mother tongue policy, taking Cantonese as the mother tongue.

Now even recent arrivals from the mainland are rushing to be 'Cantonised'. When applying for their identity card, they happily swap their name from pinyin to Cantonese spelling. Abandoning pinyin spelling supposedly makes them Hongkongers. Maybe they are not aware that the locals are adopting English names, like David, as their own.

Many locals, with memories of constant turmoil and persecution on the mainland, have their own scepticism about anything to do with the mainland - including Mandarin, which is seen as being imposed from the top down.

Even so, it is either very clannish or very colonial for Sir David to claim that Hong Kong would fare better politically if we continued to use a language that the northerners did not understand. ('Northerner' is segregationist, but I take it as another amusing demonstration of Sir David's wit.)

Our children started to learn Mandarin, half-heartedly, only after the handover; and our shopkeepers, half-competently, only more recently.

We should promote Mandarin as the main medium of instruction while teaching Chinese in school. Hong Kong should wait no longer to make this historic decision.

Cantonese as a vernacular tongue, like Taiwanese, will always be around, alive and kicking.

K.Y.Tan, North Point



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