Hong Kong, beacon of culture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 September, 2010, 12:00am

The demonstrations in defence of the Cantonese dialect that began in Guangzhou and spilled over into Hong Kong have opened a window on internal tensions at a time when an increasing powerful China is, often mistakenly, seen as a political and cultural monolith, protestors and political analysts say.

On the surface, what appeared to be a backlash against the officially sanctioned primacy of Putonghua - the official Beijing dialect - at the expense of the southern tongue actually turns out to be more complicated. At stake for the protesters are broader issues such as the way of life and values of a once-thriving local culture they feel is gradually being marginalised in the nation's rise.

Guangzhou no longer spearheads economic reforms as it did in the 1980s, but the city is still ahead of the rest of China in its aspiration for a civil society that allows transparency, diversity and freedom. These southerners look not to the north, but to their fellow Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong.

'We here in Guangzhou follow closely all the actions in Hong Kong, such as the civil movements against the demolition of Queen's Pier, the building of the high-speed-rail line, the removal of Tsoi Yuen Tsuen [for the railway], the arrest of [Christina] Chan Hau-man, and so on,' said Lang Zi, a Guangzhou poet, editor and blogger who is a staunch believer in the values of a civil society and took part in the rallies to defend Cantonese.

'We've seen it all and got inspired by what Hong Kong people did to save their valuable past,' he said.

On close examination, the peaceful rallies that took place in the heart of Guangzhou on two consecutive Sundays - July 25 and August 1 - revealed a strong Hong Kong influence.

The catalogue of protest songs chanted by the hundreds of demonstrators, for example, ended with the popular hit Boundless Ocean and Vast Sky by Hong Kong rock band Beyond. And slogans on posters held by the protesters were similar to those seen on Hennessy Road. One of them, in fact, cheekily borrowed from the Hong Kong government's 'weigh anchor' slogan calling for political action, converting it to 'weigh anchor, Cantonese'.

Guo Weiqing , a professor in Sun Yat-sen University's school of government, acknowledged that some of his students had visited Hong Kong to 'observe' protests on the July 1 handover anniversary and the traditional vigil gathering on June 4 for victims of the Tiananmen crackdown.

'It is no coincidence that the rallies in defence of Cantonese involved mostly the post-80s generation. I think this is exactly what Guangzhou has left to offer for the rest of the country, that is, a civil society framework that is tolerant and liberal, embracing individual rights against a strong imposing force from above,' Guo, a Guangzhou native, said.

The sharing of a protest culture between Hong Kong and Guangzhou is not coincidental or new. The two Cantonese-speaking metropolises have a long history of affiliation.

The most famous joint action in the modern era was the general strike by the Guangzhou-Hong Kong seamen in 1925 that paralysed the entire region.

This connection was effectively severed after the British crown colony decided to close the border in 1951. But as Hong Kong's Cantonese culture thrived with the economic take-off in the 1970s, across the border the Cultural Revolution was giving way to the reform era, which brought economic prosperity and the loosening of tight social controls.

The surge of Canto-pop culture in songs and movies became instantly attractive for the culturally starved on the mainland who had been fed on nothing but propaganda for a decade. A reconnection ensued.

For the past 30 years, Hong Kong has served as a model and haven for its Cantonese brethren on the mainland, not just in material goods like jeans or consumer electronics but also the value system and the way of life, particularly the rule of law and freedom of expression. The bond became more pronounced after the handover in 1997.

Shared adversity also played its part. Both communities were hit hard by the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s and the deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003.

As cross-border exchanges under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement grew rapidly, the cultural assimilation of the two cities also continued apace.

The best example of this is the Cantonese television programming of the Guangdong Television Group's Pearl River (Zhujiang) Channel. The channel broadcasts in Cantonese 18 hours a day. No channel in any dialect in China enjoys more exposure. This exception apparently has much to do with the official policy of reaching out to the overseas Cantonese-speaking community, which the People's Daily Communist Party mouthpiece estimates at 67 million.

Another practical reason for the exception is to counter the Hong Kong television channels, which are popular with Guangzhou households. 'If our Cantonese programmes switch to Putonghua, no worries, I'll just turn to Hong Kong TV, that's all,' said Wu Wenxing, a Guangzhou taxi driver.

It is probably due to this competition for viewers that the Pearl River Channel offers programmes that are very close to those of Hong Kong style and quality, if a little dated. Cantonese soap operas, for example, feature the kind of sarcasm and wit reminiscent of Hong Kong in the 1980s.

The prime time Focus of Today, a 50-minute news magazine of critical commentaries, is almost a replica of Hong Kong's once trendy news reports and analyses on social and livelihood stories popular in the 1990s.

Star host Zheng Da's stance on social justice is widely known, and some of his comments are no less critical than his Hong Kong counterparts.

'I think I would have flu too if I were the bureau chief,' Zheng said of an official in the city's real-estate bureau who dodged reporters by calling in sick. He also labelled as 'excessive' a policy requiring anyone buying knives or scissors during the Asian Games - due to open in Guangzhou in November - to register with authorities.

The popularity of these programmes was an important underlying factor behind the vehement reaction when a local official in early July proposed substituting prime-time Cantonese programmes with Putonghua equivalents. The proposal in essence deprived the Cantonese of a choice and of being different.

Meanwhile, the Asian Games are bringing more complaints than smiles to the hosts. 'The Games show more of the nation's image than Guangzhou's own diverse and grassroots image,' Guo said.

'Due to historical factors such as the colonial backdrop, Hong Kong has developed a new civil culture and a new generation of Cantonese defenders,' he said. 'It is Guangzhou's kin, and therefore the torch-bearer of the Cantonese cause.'

Hong Kong-born Ching May Bo, of the history department at Sun Yat-sen University, believes Hong Kong is now serving as the last bastion of the Cantonese. 'It's regrettable that the nation has forgotten so quickly what Guangdong and Hong Kong contributed in the first decade of reform and opening up. Let's see how long Hong Kong can hold up.'