Tongue Tired: Hong Kong's Disappearing Dialects
Yannie Chan meets some of the last speakers of Hong Kong’s disappearing dialects. Photos by Emily Chu
Putonghua usage may be increasing in Hong Kong, but the same isn’t true for China’s many other dialects. According to the 2011 census, the number of people in the city who speak another variant of Chinese as their main language is on the decline: from 352,562 in 2001 to 273,745 only 10 years later—that’s just 3.9 percent of the population. With fewer and fewer people speaking these dialects, we meet those keeping the old tongues alive and they give us the universal greeting: sik jor fan mei—have you eaten yet?
Tanka:"Sik jor fan mei?"
The Tanka, or boat people, stay true to the name. They have traditionally resided on boats and junks along the southern coast of Hong Kong, living a simple fishermen’s life. They don’t call themselves Tanka, which some view as offensive, but sui seung yan, “people of the water.” Cheung For-yau is a spokesperson for the Hong Kong’s Fishermen’s Association.
I was born in Tai O into a fishing family. The Tanka I know is already very different to that spoken two or three generations ago. Most people my age, including me, learned Cantonese first, but with a heavy Tanka accent. Even my grandmother did not speak pure Tanka. Hers was a mix of Tanka and Cantonese.
My family have always been fishermen. My grandfather’s grandfather’s generation moored their boats in Tai O and gradually built settlements in the area.
We use Tanka phrases. We refer to fishing as hoi sum, which means “happy” in Cantonese.
I am a water person and was born into a fishing family, but still, I get seasick every single time. If we were going on a one-week fishing trip, I’d be sick the first day and throw up. I only begin to feel better the second day.
The fish maw of the Chinese bahaba was the most sought after. It used to cost $30,000 a catty. That was a lot of money back then. Now I’ve heard it’s worth about $100,000 a catty! But you rarely see the fish in these waters anymore.
I once caught it and the dried fish maw alone weighed more than two catties. We didn’t have to worry about money for a few months.
Fishermen avoid dolphins. We call dark dolphins “black taboo” and Chinese white dolphins “white taboo.” Dolphins follow our fishing nets, tear them and eat the fish. We don’t welcome them. But now fishing by nets is banned, this perception has probably changed.
My kids no longer have the Tanka accent. No one speaks Tanka anymore. A couple of years ago, there were three elderly Tai O residents who spoke only Tanka. They have all passed away.
Before a wedding, the bride-to-be is required to sing folk songs for two nights straight to thank their families. No one follows it now, but my big sister did it. She sang folk songs for two nights, from evening till the next morning. She sang it along with my mother and aunties.
As the Tanka dialect disappears, the culture and practices are going away as well. Hardly any Tanka practices will be passed onto the generation after me.
I don’t really have any strong feelings about it. We can’t force a language to live on.
After I left Tai O to work, people made fun of my accent. They still do! I never really took it to heart. I know my accent comes from the Tanka dialect and is part of our culture.
Weitou: "Hack fau meh?"
A close cousin of Cantonese, “Weitou” means “walled village.” The dialect is spoken, increasingly rarely, within the walled villages in the New Territories and among older generations in Shenzhen. Chung Yung-kwai (right) and Chung Hoi-wai (left) are indigenous villagers of Chung Uk Tsuen in Lam Tsuen, Tai Po. They are the last generation who can speak fluent Weitou. Cliff Chung, also an indigenous villager in Chung Uk Tsuen, has mapped out the genealogy of the entire Chung family in his village.
Chung Yung-kwai: I am 84 years old, the 26th generation of Chung Uk Tsuen villagers. The first language I learned was the Weitou dialect. The next generation spoke Cantonese as their first language.
There used to be ‘blind’ marriages. If a man was out in the city working, his family would find him a girlfriend and then use a chicken to represent him at the wedding. People returned to find that they’d got married! When we speak of these things, and how poor we used to be, people don’t seem to really believe it.
We don’t teach our children the Weitou dialect. It is very similar to Cantonese anyway. There’s no need for them to learn. I don’t feel sad about it.
Chung Hoi-wah: My father went to England to work in the 50s. I followed him later in the 60s. In most families in England, the Weitou dialect seems better preserved. The Weitou you find in our village now has been diluted. More Cantonese phrases slip into our everyday speech, and the dialect has become closer and closer to Cantonese.
Cliff Chung: I built a graph mapping all the people in our village. I realized I am a true Hongkonger: My family has been here for more than 700 years. It makes me feel very proud.
I have no problem understanding the Weitou dialect but I have trouble speaking it. To be honest, I think the younger generation is simply not aware of Weitou. Only several village elders still speak it.
I began a website and posted some Weitou phrases, hoping that would get people to share and learn the dialect online. After one more generation, I’m sure the Weitou dialect will become extinct.
Whenever I hear and speak Weitou, I remember my grandmother.
Visit Chung’s website: www.chunguktsuen.com.
Teochew: "Jak bung meh?"
Teochew, or Chiu Chow, originates in Eastern Guangdong province. The dialect preserves much of the pronunciation and vocabulary of Old Chinese, which dates back to the beginning of written records. Notable Teochew Hongkongers include Li Ka-shing and Emperor group chairman Albert Yeung. Hui Pak-kin teaches a Teochew dialect course at Polytechnic University.
I was born in Chenghai, Shantou. I came to Hong Kong when I was 11 years old. My father taught me three sentences in Cantonese before my first day of school: “I don’t understand Cantonese,” “I can’t speak Cantonese,” and “I don’t know.”
Many from my father’s generation see Hong Kong as only a temporary home. They came to Hong Kong not to find a better home, but to make money. They believe that they will return home in the end. When many Teochew elderly say they want to go home, they mean Teochew, not their Hong Kong homes.
My name is pronounced “Hui Bak-geen” in Cantonese but my father told me it was pronounced “Hoy Bak-geen,” because of his accent. So that’s how I said it in school. People would laugh at me and I didn’t know why. It wasn’t until a year later, when someone with the same surname came into our class that I found out it was pronounced Hui!
It used to worry me that I speak Cantonese with an accent. I had this fear that the minute I spoke people would notice and laugh at me. I only truly stopped caring much later in life.
There is actually no single Teochew dialect because Teochew consists of many different regions. Each area speaks its own version of the Teochew dialect.
There’s a saying: “You’d rather argue with Teochew people than chat with Chaoyang people.” Teochew refers to the capital within Teochew city, and Chaoyang was another region under the bigger Teochew umbrella. People from the capital spoke very gently because they were upper class, and Chaoyang people were known for being loud and rude.
In Teochew, lo li refers to a truck. It came from the English word “lorry.” Many Teochew people went to southern Asia to work and adopted the word.
My favorite part of Teochew culture is kung fu tea. It is not about the quality of tea leaves, but the social ties. Teochew people never drink kung fu tea alone—whenever people visit, they make kung fu tea. So kung fu tea really stands for relationships among people.
Many of my students want to reconnect with their past. They grew up listening to Teochew, but cannot speak it well. When they were younger, some avoided and looked down on their dialect.
The mother of one of my students speaks only Teochew. Before his wedding day, he asked me to teach him to read a speech in Teochew. During the wedding, he dedicated the speech to his mother. It was very moving.
The Teochew dialect is disappearing. There’s no stopping the trend. A language is spoken to communicate with others. When it gets to a point where everyone can reach the US in two hours, languages will become increasingly similar.
Hakka: "Seek or fan ng chian o?"
“Hakka” literally means “guest families,” thanks to a long history of migration: From north China to the south, and then overseas. Hakka people have long been prominent in public affairs. Well-known Hakka Hongkongers include politicians Martin Lee and Lau Wong-fat, and actors Chow Yun-fat and Leslie Cheung. Lau Chun-fat founded the Association for Conservation of Hong Kong Indigenous Languages, and studies the Hakka dialect.
I was born in Tsuen Wan. We later moved to Leung Uk Tsuen in Pat Heung, Tuen Mun, and became villagers here. In the past, from Pat Heung to Tsuen Wan, everyone spoke Hakka.
At school, we were not allowed to speak Hakka, just like how schools nowadays make students only speak English in school.
All our parents wanted us to speak perfect Cantonese. It would be easier to find a good school, get a decent job and climb up the social ladder. It was bad if people could hear from your accent that you spoke Hakka at home.
I found out later that people sacrificed Hakka to speak Cantonese. It’s one of the reasons Hakka is diminishing in the New Territories.
I don’t think of Hakka as an inferior language, but when I discussed this with my wife and relatives, I found that they do. They didn’t like Hakka because it signified you were “from the village.” Some relatives even urged me to not speak Hakka to my son, calling Hakka “an ugly language.” But if I speak English or German to my son, they say he’s a genius.
When I was a child, there were no Cantonese songs. All songs were in Putonghua. I had no idea it was a different language. I thought singing meant you had to say words in a funny way.
I’ve always been interested in linguistics. Speaking many languages—Hakka, Weitou, some Teochew, Cantonese, English—prompted me to consider some philosophical questions.
In Hakka, “I” sounds like ai. In Cantonese, it’s ngor. But in English, “I” comes closer to the Hakka version. I always wondered if all languages share a common ancestry.
In 1982, I was collecting water samples from wells in the New Territories for a project when I came across a 10-year-old boy. I asked him in Hakka where the closest well was. He did not understand me! I was shocked.
My own kids, who were born in Germany, speak perfect Hakka. I wanted my children to know it—but when they came back, no one spoke it anymore. I was sad and wondered if my children would give up on Hakka because no one their age speaks it. Even adults were unwilling to speak it to my children.
In 2000, I became a doctoral student and studied the Hakka dialect. A friend told me that Weitou is suffering a worse fate. We decided to set up an organization to actively conserve indigenous languages.
Cantonese used to have the “sh” consonant. So the names of MTR stations were not a result of bad transliteration—it was really how they were pronounced! So Sha Tin, Tsim Sha Tsui and Sheung Wan were pronounced with the sh sound in Cantonese. The sh sound began to disappear in 1900, because there were more people learning Cantonese and the language was gradually simplified.
Hakka folk songs are really impressive. It’s like Chinese rap—the singer improvises the lyrics. Hakka people mostly sing them to woo the opposite sex. After a work day, they would sing these songs across mountains. The content can be quite explicit. Very explicit sometimes!
Learn more about the Association for Conservation of Hong Kong Indigenous Languages at www.hkilang.org.
Hokkien: "Jak bung weh?"
Hokkien people, also known as Hoklo, hail from eastern Guangdong and southern Fujian provinces. This area was a trading and migration center, and so the Hokkien dialect is commonly encountered overseas, particularly in Taiwan and the Philippines. So Chi-keung is the chairman of Tai Wong Yeh Temple Management Office at Yuen Chau Tsai, Tai Po.
My family was from Hong Kong island at first. We fished along the shores, and gradually found and settled in Tai Po in the 1940s.
Hokkien is my first language. I didn’t start learning Cantonese until the 1950s, when it became popular. You had to learn Cantonese to do business and buy daily essentials.
Hoklo people have a bad reputation for being ferocious. In the past, Teochew people occupied the piers. If Hoklo people weren’t aggressive enough, we couldn’t do business.
We were also bullied because we came from the sea. People who had already settled in an area saw us as intruders. Everywhere we went, people on the land would try to get us to leave. We had to be aggressive.
People would say mean things to us. I’ve been told that because I was a fisherman I had no future and no prospects.
I had never been proud of being Hoklo. There was nothing to be proud of. Now, it’s better. People are accepting and are interested in our culture.
In the 70s, the government wanted to develop Tai Po into a new town, and moved us from fishing villages to public housing. There was nothing we could do. The city has to develop and we should accommodate the changes. Most Hokkien stopped being fishermen. Many went into the construction industry.
Hoklo culture is very much different to what it was when I was a child. They’re very fond memories to me, but I don’t really miss it. What’s the point?
A lot of people still speak Hokkien. My siblings’ grandchildren speak it very well. In newer families, however, its use is decreasing because Hoklo people rarely marry other Hoklo anymore.
Dragon boats are a big part of our weddings. When we still lived on fishing boats, we used them to carry the bride to the husband’s boat. We would tie several fishing boats together to hold a wedding banquet.
When my son got married, all the boats came together for the wedding banquet. The feast lasted for three days. It’s a real achievement to welcome a daughter-in-law.
Hoklo culture and its dialect will probably die out eventually. But I can’t be sad about it. I mean, in the past, women couldn’t eat until the men finished eating. Now? If they don’t feel like it they won’t cook for us. Things change and most of the time it’s for the better.
Teochew: Shantou Ting Hoi Lo Sze Restaurant
Known as the “King of Marinated Goose,” this venerable restaurant serves some of the most authentic Teochew dishes in town. “I’m not sure if ho lok is on the menu, but you can ask for it,” says Teochew dialect instructor Hui Bak-kin. “It’s fluffy scrambled eggs with oyster. It’s the best I’ve had in Hong Kong.” Also try the Teochew foie gras, white pepper and pork belly soup, and fried yam sticks with a hard sugar coating.
37-39 Lung Kong Rd., Kowloon City, 2382-6899.
Weitou: Tai Wing Wah Village Cuisine
Tai Wing Wah Village Cuisine opened in Yuen Long in 1950 helmed by well-known Chef Hugo “To To” Leung. Walled village cuisine is all about seasonal ingredients and fatty meat, so consider yourself warned. Popular dishes include suckling pig, made with high quality soy sauce, homemade poon choi pork, steamed fish head and Chinese lard rice.
Various locations including G-1/F, 1 Stewart Rd., Wan Chai, 2511-1663.
Tanka: Ping Fat
A specialty dried goods shop in busy Tai O market, Ping Fat sells salted fish, dried fish belly, fried oysters, dried squid and more. It’s one of the few remaining shops to dry its own fish maw.
12 Tai O Market St., Tai O, 9471-2517.
Hakka: Hak Ka Hut
This chain was specifically created with the intention of keeping classic Hakka dishes alive and is a reliable option for the newbie.
3/F, 26 Nathan Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, 8300-8103.
Hokkien: Zhen Zhen Food Stall
Chun Yeung Street Wet Market in North Point is also known as “Little Hokkien,” as it houses several stores specializing in Hokkien food and snacks. Among them, Zhen Zhen Food Stall—said to be a favorite of legendary food critic Chua Lam—serves hard-to-find Hokkien dishes. Savory rice, a signature Hokkien dish, is a mix of white rice, glutinous rice, mushrooms and peanuts, seasoned with soy sauce.
Shop B, 70-74 Chun Yeung St., North Point.
Check out even more regional Chinese cuisines right here!
Speak The Dialects
Teochew: Hello, luh hoh
Hokkien: Good morning, ja sin
Hakka: hao sit
Teochew: o jak
Cantonese: ng goi
Hakka: ng goi
Teochew: lui luh
Hokkien: gum sia
I love Hong Kong
Cantonese: ngor oi heung gong
Hakka: ai oi heung gong
Teochew: wa ai hiang gang
Hokkien: wo ai hiang gang