Blowing Water

You could never replace Cantonese as the language of Hong Kong 

Raw and unashamedly direct, Cantonese is a lively dialect that is as dynamic as the city and is alive, kicking and relevant after more than 2,000 years

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 May, 2018, 3:34pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 5:44pm

Many years ago, I was shopping in a wet market with my British friend and stopped by one of the stalls to buy some food. After discussing a price and picking a selection of items, my friend asked with concern, “What were you arguing about? Were they trying to overcharge you?” It took me a few seconds to realise what caused my friend to ask this, then I explained that it was just a normal conversation and that’s how Cantonese tends to sound.

In all honesty, I do have to agree that Cantonese does not sound particularly gentle or pleasant on the ear. German tends to be viewed in the same light and is described by many as guttural and harsh-sounding. Many of us can agree that both languages are very expressive though, and that one must speak it with gusto to do it justice.

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Don’t get me wrong; despite my seemingly negative description of the dialect, I am a diehard Canto-fanatic. I love this colourful southern Chinese dialect and am thankful that I got to learn it in my early childhood.

Growing up in a Chinese household where Cantonese, Taiwanese Hokkien, Mandarin and sometimes Japanese were spoken at the same time, it was sometimes rather overwhelming to switch to using English at school. Despite growing up amid the cacophony of languages and dialects, it was always Cantonese that was the most appealing to my ears.

It might not sound as smooth and silky as Mandarin in general, or as melodic as Taiwanese Hokkien, or exotic and captivating as Japanese, but it’s one of a kind – raw, native, unpretentious, descriptive, colourful, versatile, adaptable, resilient, and so much more. It is such qualities that have undoubtedly contributed to its longevity. Cantonese is still alive and kicking, and it remains relevant after more than 2,000 years.

Mandarin may be king, but it can’t sideline Cantonese in Hong Kong

But now there is talk about replacing Cantonese with Mandarin as the medium of instruction in Hong Kong public schools, I can’t help but feel anger with a tinge of sorrow.

Hong Kong’s leaders were right to dismiss the controversy – or rather, scaremongering – as a “non-issue” and state that the government had no plan to change its policy on the language of instruction in public schools.

And if one day this ridiculous scenario does play out and the government tries to make Mandarin the lingua franca, I say that we should let them try and see how far they can go.

My foreign friends always ask me why Cantonese people talk loudly. Mandarin has a singsong tone, but Cantonese has to be belted out. It seems to come as a package, because if spoken gently and softly it comes off as pretentious and feigned. 

People who speak Cantonese softly are often mocked as being yum seng sai hei, which roughly translates as “shadowy sound” and has a quality of being unnerving, unnatural and even creepy. Now you see why Cantonese has to be spoken loudly and proudly.

Someone once likened Mandarin to classical music and Cantonese to rap music; and I couldn’t agree more. Cantonese is raw, unashamedly direct and tells it like it is. It’s such a lively dialect, it’s unstoppable, and it’s a language that is befitting of a dynamic city like Hong Kong.

Stop hiding behind your culture as an excuse for bad behaviour

Hong Kong people who have migrated overseas and return on a regular basis always notice two things that never remain the same on their next visit, even just after a year or less: the ever-changing cityscape as new buildings appear from almost out of nowhere, and some newfangled Cantonese slang.

Cantonese is casual and pragmatic and its slang terms are even more so. This vernacular itself is like a word-producing monster. When it sees any word or phrase from another language that’s remotely fun, expressive and useful, it will gobble it up and reinvent it by giving it its own spin.

For example, the unique Canto slang loto at first glance sounds vaguely like a foreign name, but in fact it’s a derogatory term to refer to someone as being dorky. Cantonese are good at borrowing trendy phrases from countries like Japan. Another popular phrase is mei mor nui, which directly translates as beautiful wicked girl to describe an attractive older woman or “cougar” in English.

Why are Hongkongers so afraid to speak English?

Cantonese is mostly spoken and not written, as it does not have a standard written form, which is a contributing factor that allows it to be more versatile.

At the moment, Hong Kong operates under two official written languages – Standard Chinese and English, and three spoken languages – Cantonese, Mandarin and English. Even if Mandarin becomes the official Chinese language in Hong Kong and replaces Cantonese, this cool dialect will continue to be spoken and evolve outside the classroom, on the street, in the marketplace and in everyday life. 

No matter what language the government wants to push in Hong Kong, it must be taught properly because at the moment, it appears that many students are unable to speak English, Mandarin and even Cantonese particularly well. In other words, we end up having local students whose spoken English and Mandarin are limited, as they have little chance to put these languages to use in everyday life. Therefore, the government must improve on the current quality of language education before pushing the boat out. 

Too busy to be kind? We Hongkongers have no excuse

Our beloved Cantonese will remain a breathing, growing and ever-changing form of communication for Hongkongers and millions of Chinese around the world. Whether it is a dialect or language is not the point – it is our mother tongue and an integral part of our identity.

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post