How can Hong Kong keep its cultural spirit burning bright? Be like the French, start a Cantonese Academy

  • Jesse Friedlander says Hong Kong has the potential to become a cultural hub for Cantonese speakers. It should take a leaf out of France’s book and start an academy to promote and protect the Cantonese language and culture
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2018, 5:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2018, 8:14pm

In 1634, the Académie Française, the pre-eminent French council for all that relates to the French language, was established by Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII. In 1883, the French founded an organisation, which continues today under the name Alliance Française, aimed at promoting the study of the French language and culture around the world. Today, both are symbols of the high value France places on its linguistic and cultural heritage, even in an increasingly globalised and corporatised world. 

Meanwhile, the shrinking linguistic space for the Cantonese language in southern China and here in Hong Kong in recent years has stoked fears about Hong Kong becoming just another mainland city. Despite the fact that Cantonese is spoken by an estimated 55 million people in southern China, Hong Kong and Macau, and another 20 million around the world, many in Hong Kong feel its value is limited.

While Hong Kong has strong connectivity to Cantonese speakers both inside and outside the mainland, few recognise its potential to become a cultural hub for southern Chinese. Instead of drifting from its roots, Hong Kong should look to France as an example of how to promote and safeguard its unique heritage.

Why Cantonese is a real language in Hong Kong

Cantonese has a long history. Because it retains more of the tones and final consonants of Ancient Chinese than other major Chinese languages, it is that much closer to the language spoken in the Tang dynasty, arguably China’s richest period culturally and artistically. Consequently, the rhythmic beauty of classical Chinese poetry – especially Tang poems – is better expressed in Cantonese than Mandarin. Also, thousands of Chinese loan words in the modern Japanese and Korean lexicons sound closer to Cantonese than Mandarin.

Given the prominence of Tang culture, Cantonese people still identify themselves as tong yan or Tang people. Overseas Chinatowns are known in Cantonese as tong yan gai or Tang people’s streets. Following the Xinhai revolution of 1911 and 1912, Cantonese only narrowly lost out in a vote on China’s national language.

When travelling through cities in eastern and central China, visible regional differences, linguistic or otherwise, are so small that a foreigner could be forgiven for assuming China has always been a homogeneous country. On the contrary, throughout its dynastic history, China was committed to the ideal of a unitary multi-ethnic state, with distinct population groups linked by mutual appreciation, affection and a shared allegiance to the central political authorities.

The Chinese Communist Party continued this tradition by embracing regional, religious, linguistic and cultural diversity. On the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the government officially recognised 55 ethnic groups, in addition to the majority Han.

The rights and privileges of these ethnic minorities were codified in the constitution, and autonomous regions, prefectures and counties were established, including Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Guangxi, Ningxia and Tibet. Not only were minority languages to be protected in these regions, but the state also helped create written languages for ethnic groups.

Get young people involved to boost Greater Bay Area integration

In important meetings, such as sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, documents are available in Mongolian, Tibetan, Uygur, Kazakh, Korean, Yi and Zhuang, and simultaneous interpretations in these languages are also provided. Although Cantonese speakers are technically Han and not afforded ethnic minority status, the Basic Law leaves room for Hong Kong to safeguard the Cantonese language and culture.

If Hong Kong were to establish a Cantonese Academy, here are some tasks I would suggest for its to-do list: first, standardise the romanisation of Cantonese so that all students and speakers of the language understand and agree on how the words are rendered in the Latin alphabet; second, create an authoritative Cantonese dictionary with students in mind; third, develop research centres for southern Chinese history and Cantonese studies in Hong Kong universities that can work with counterparts on the mainland and overseas; fourth, promote the Cantonese language and culture in tandem with the “Greater Bay Area” scheme; and, finally, subsidise the creation of quality, modern cultural projects in Hong Kong that can be exported to a wider audience.

Although the influence of popular Cantonese music, film and television has fallen from the heights reached in the 1980s, there remains large swathes of people in and outside China who appreciate the unique perspective of Cantonese culture. South Korea created K-pop from scratch and now people around the world enjoy music videos and concerts in Korean.

Hong Kong not only has the financial and academic resources to promote modern and traditional Cantonese culture, it has a duty to diversify its economy while defending its rich linguistic and cultural heritage.

Jesse Friedlander, CFA, is co-founder and chief investment officer of Des Voeux Partners, a multifamily office that manages intergenerational wealth