Understanding comes through language

Beijing loyalists have been forever telling Hong Kong people the importance of learning Putonghua. Now, one of them is brave enough to tell their masters that perhaps they should make an effort to speak Cantonese

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 August, 2016, 12:45am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 August, 2016, 12:45am

Here’s an idea worth pondering. Mainland officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs don’t really know what’s going on because they don’t speak Cantonese.

That is what I take Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai to mean when she says mainland envoys in Hong Kong lack proficiency in the local language or if you like, dialect. (I know, I know. But I do think Cantonese is a full-fledged language, albeit one without an army but which does have a lot of money.)

“It depends on how much the leaders of the central government understand Hong Kong,” said Fan, who is a deputy on the standing committee of the National People’s Congress.

“You have to live in Hong Kong to know about Hong Kong, not only staying at home alone, but going out to feel the social sentiment… You need to feel and understand what makes them happy and what makes them unhappy. But first of all, you need to speak Cantonese, otherwise it will be very difficult.”

I am not sure that’s true. I have British friends who between them can’t speak more than 100 words of Cantonese, yet have an admirably deep understanding of the city.

Language gap: lack of Cantonese may be holding back Hong Kong-based Beijing officials in understanding local sentiment

I have met top government officials whose first language is Cantonese, yet seem completely oblivious or careless about the effects of their policies on ordinary people.

But I take Fan’s point. Beijing loyalists have been forever telling Hong Kong people the importance of learning Putonghua. Now, one of them is brave enough to tell their masters that perhaps they should make an effort to speak Cantonese. Understanding and dialogue go both ways, and should be conducted in both languages.

It would be a breath of fresh air if two decades after the handover, the Liaison Office – or “Western” as it is known in Cantonese slang – is headed by officers who can speak Cantonese and know how to mingle with regular people on the streets.

Cantonese-speaking people in the south have always been loud and independent-minded. As they say, the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.

The key to being able to pursue independent courses of action is to do so quietly and discreetly, while proclaiming loudly your loyalty and patriotism – just say it in Putonghua. Too bad our young secessionists have been too busy protesting rather than hitting the Chinese history books.