A unique feature of Hong Kong’s Mid-Autumn Festival is its fire-dragon dances, the most famous of which takes place in Tai Hang. The tradition began in the 1880s when, so the legend goes, the Hakka village suffered a plague that was dispelled only after villagers constructed a dragon from straw and covered it with lit joss sticks.

Hakka academic spreading the word on saving languages

The Hakka, or “guest families”, moved from northern to southern China in a series of migrations beginning in 200BC. They settled in Hong Kong from 1700, engaging in farming and construction, and establishing walled villages in the New Territories.

Already here was another indigenous community, the Tanka, or Sui Seung Yan – “on-water people” – an ethnic minority from coastal southern China. Tanka people have been in Hong Kong since prehistoric times, traditionally managing the commerce of the seas, and living in small colonies of boats in Aberdeen, Tai O and, later, in typhoon shelters; about 200,000 Tanka boats were anchored in Hong Kong in the mid-20th century.

Cantonese dominates, but Hongkongers speak myriad languages - old and new

A 1729 Qing-dynasty edict classified the Tanka as a “mean class” and prohibited them from settling onshore and from intermarriage with other Chinese, which helped preserve their customs and practices. The Tanka lan­g­uage, a sub-dialect of Yue Chinese, encompasses special terms, knowledge and world views. Tanka terms ce hei (邪氣; “evil air”) and zam (針; “needle”) refer to a waterspout and its tail, respectively, and the lyrics of their Sea Water Song, performed on auspi­cious occasions, tell of the ecologies and behaviours of local fish: “Largehead hairtail becomes white in colour after death.”

The uncertain origins of Hong Kong’s Tanka people

The song and the terms – and the traditional ecological knowledge they encompass – are no longer being trans­mitted to the younger generation. Neither are heritage languages being maintained: in 1911, 15.1 per cent of Hong Kong’s population spoke Hakka as a home language; nowadays, it’s hardly heard at all.

The relocation of these communities to post-war new towns and urban centres – coupled with the decline of small-scale rural econ­omies, and language policy and attitudes – contributed to reduced heritage language use.

However, the value of indigenous cultures and languages has been recognised of late and, in 2011, the Tai Hang fire-dragon dance joined the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). Although none of Hong Kong’s 10 ICH entries on the national list comprise languages, in the first ICH Inventory of Hong Kong, in 2014, 21 of 480 items are oral traditions and expressions, including Hakka, fishermen’s dialect and other language varieties. There is hope yet for tangible outcomes.