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Is Cantonese in danger? Hongkongers take steps to protect their heritage

Worried that the future of Cantonese is under threat, some Hongkongers are taking it upon themselves to prevent their heritage from disappearing altogether, writes Ben Sin

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 March, 2014, 10:50am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 6:08pm

When the Education Bureau stated on its website last month that Cantonese was not an official language of Hong Kong, it struck a nerve with citizens. After all, the language is spoken by 97 per cent of the population.

A swift apology from education officials notwithstanding, many Hongkongers saw it as a sign of the government's continued sidelining of Cantonese in favour of Putonghua.

The bureau's actions really have me worried that Cantonese is in danger
Ng Kap-chuen 

A couple of days later, local news site Passion Times shone light on a video produced by HKedCity, which literally demonised Cantonese. Its crude plot revolved around a devil using Cantonese in an evil scheme to rule the world, but is eventually defeated by a group of Putonghua-speaking heroines.

With the video coming from the Education Bureau's e-learning portal, graphic designer and illustrator Ng Kap-chuen saw it as propaganda.

"The bureau's actions really have me worried that Cantonese is in danger," he says.

The 32-year-old was already active on popular online forum Hong Kong Golden under the nom de plume, Ah To. But as he joined others in venting his discontent on the forum, where discussions are seen as an indicator of the local zeitgeist, Ng decided he could do something to help protect his culture.

The result is Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs, a depiction of a day in the life of a small Chinese town that encapsulates within its details 81 idiomatic Cantonese expressions - some clearly coined centuries ago, others more recent inventions.

Ng had just come across Netherlandish Proverbs, a classic work by 16th century Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and figured he could create a Cantonese version. He spent a few weeks working on his illustration and its publication in Passion Times immediately drew kudos from readers. It eventually went viral, even appearing on respected US digital magazine Slate.

A blogger, writecantonese8, further enriched Ng's work by developing a key to provide English-language explanations to the idioms.

The compilation vividly shows why Cantonese is considered to be one of most lively Asian languages, with new expressions being invented constantly.

Among the details from Ng's illustration are a man trying to catch a giant crab on a mountain top and a pig scrambling up a tree.

Anyone familiar with colloquial Cantonese can probably tell which idioms these images depict:

The man who has "gone up a hill to catch crabs" (), is attempting an impossible feat, while the "sow climbing a tree" , that's a Cantonese version of the English "when pigs fly".

"Cantonese is fun because a word can mean one thing literally but imply so many other things," Ng says.

"My favourite expression is (fishmonger washes his body) as a way to say "no positive response has been heard". The second part of the idiom (no fishy smells) is a double entendre - while 'sang hei' literally means fishy smell, it can also mean sound."

" (when a horse dies, get on the ground and walk) is my second favourite bit of slang. It means to rely on yourself. The scenario used for this idiom is very apt for even today's situation - instead of complaining about being stuck in a bus in traffic, get out and walk."

Ng is no stranger to local internet fame. Two years ago, he created a role-playing card game based on the popular Magic: The Gathering game, only instead of wizards and magical dragons, it featured animals in odd (and sometimes vulgar) poses, with names inspired by Cantonese slang. Initially created as a hobby, the cards generated such buzz on Golden forum that a publisher released the set in stores, named "Golden Creature Card".

Ng values Cantonese not only because it is his mother tongue, but because it is integral to the identity of Hong Kong. "Cantonese makes us 'us'," he says.

That sentiment is partly rooted in history. Robert Bauer, an expert on the Cantonese language who has taught Chinese linguistics at Polytechnic University and the University of Hong Kong, says the colonial British government allowed Cantonese to thrive in Hong Kong.

"The difference in languages between Hong Kong and the mainland, where Putonghua is dominant, served as a very useful barrier to reinforce the boundary that separated the two places," says Bauer, a fluent Cantonese speaker who has penned several books on Cantonese phonology.

"Now, the linguistic barrier separating Hong Kong and China is being viewed by some government leaders and academics on both sides of the border in a distinctly negative light, because it is considered as hindering Hong Kong's closeness to the mainland."

Although many Hongkongers are fervent about preserving their mother tongue, the fact is that Cantonese is a minority language - there are an estimated 59 million Cantonese speakers in the world, compared to close to a billion Putonghua speakers.

"Even in Guangzhou, many of the younger generation don't speak Cantonese any more because Putonghua is considered more useful for the future," Ng says. "Some Hong Kong parents feel the same way and they want their kids learning Putonghua."

The shift has already begun in school, says Lau Chaak-ming, a member of Hong Kong Language Learn, an online movement trying to preserve Cantonese. The group estimates that close to 70 per cent of primary schools in Hong Kong are using Putonghua in Chinese-language classes.

"We've verified that data with every school by phone or e-mail," says Lau. "The government has been pushing for schools to adopt PMI [Putonghua as the medium of instruction] ever since 1997."

Although Chapter 1, Article 9 of the Basic Law states that Chinese - long assumed by Hongkongers to refer to Cantonese - is an official language of Hong Kong, its imprecise wording is what enabled situations like the Education Bureau's official language incident.

Bauer says that while the Basic Law is talking strictly about written language, the Education Bureau and other deparments seem to be interpreting it as the spoken language.

That has led officials as well as some legislators, including Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, to dismiss Cantonese as a mere dialect.

But language experts such as Victor Mair reject the notion.

A professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, Mair says that Cantonese and Putonghua are mutually unintelligible, which makes them different languages. Moreover, "written Cantonese is very, very different from written Putonghua".

Hongkongers, however, are realistic about the mainland's clout and the importance of learning Putonghua.

Local singers have long recognised the need to learn Putonghua to make it in entertainment, says lyricist Chan Wing-him, who has worked with Canto-pop singers such as Eason Chan Yik-shun.

Still, Chan feels torn about the rising dominance of Putonghua in the city. "I want the use of Cantonese to continue," he says. "But at the same time, I don't think it's wrong for Putonghua to rise - it's unavoidable; we must accept that we will be more connected to the mainland."

According to scholars, the biggest misconception about Cantonese is that it is a mostly colloquial language, peppered with slang.

In fact, Cantonese is often referred to as a living linguistic fossil - formal Cantonese is much like how ancient Chinese was spoken thousands of years ago, as the structure has largely been preserved since it was introduced to Guangdong from central China during the Qin dynasty.

Fanny Li Yuen-mei, who recently published a book on the history of written Cantonese, says baizi, the formal language of Guangdong province, has been in existence for thousands of years. "I believe Cantonese in its written form can be as artistic as traditional written Chinese," Li says.

But Cantonese as a written form has never been standardised and that presents the biggest problem for its survival, says Bauer. "This city has a tradition of reading even traditional Chinese characters with Cantonese pronunciations, as can be seen on the news and at Legislative Council sessions," Bauer says. "But the tradition is being threatened by the promotion of PMI in Hong Kong schools, and we can see the eventual outcome by looking at what's happening to Guangdong."

Without the ability to read written Chinese characters with Cantonese pronunciation, the language could eventually fade into a mere spoken dialect.

So while government officials may trot out platitudes about not downgrading Cantonese, Hongkongers like Ng believe the threat to the language is like a "one-eyed man looking at his wife" (to use an expression from Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs). That is, the danger is "so obvious that all can see it".

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