In Kuala Lumpur and the adjoining city of Petaling Jaya, where I recently spent a week, the default Chinese language among Chinese Malaysians seems to be Cantonese.
The explanations given for the prevalent use of Cantonese among Chinese Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur and its conurbation include the high concentration of people of Cantonese descent; the firm following of Cantonese popular culture among ethnic Chinese residents, in the form of Hong Kong films, television programmes and music; and the perception of Cantonese as trendy or even prestigious.
However, the Cantonese spoken in Malaysia is different from that which is spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou and so on. Many Chinese Malaysians articulate Cantonese vowels differently. For example, the tricky rounded vowel “œ” in words like “heung” (“fragrant”), pronouncing it as “hee-ong” instead. This may be because Cantonese is not their first language and their pronunciation has been influenced by another language such as Hokkien or Teochew, which are also widely spoken.
Another difference involves vocabulary. In ethnically and linguistically diverse Malaysia, Cantonese has a veritable smorgasbord of languages to borrow from. Examples of words used by Cantonese speakers in Malaysia (as well as neighbouring Singapore) include “bai’ (“number of times”) borrowed from Hokkien; “lui” (“money”), from the Hokkien “looi”, itself a loan from the Malay “duit”; and “soma” (“all”) from the Malay “semua”. Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong would say “ts’i”, “ts’in” and “sor-yau”, respectively.
Misguided purists, and some Hongkongers, might scoff at how Chinese Malaysians speak Cantonese, but this is how languages evolve in the mutable milieu they are in.
In ancient times, southern China was the land of the Baiyue (“a hundred Yue”), a mosaic of related peoples called the Yue, who were ethnically and linguistically distinct to the Chinese in the Central Plains.
When the first emperor of the Qin dynasty incorporated this region into the Chinese empire in the third century BC, northerners began migrating, bringing with them Yayan, or “standard speech”. Intermarriages between Chinese and Yue resulted in a commingling of their languages to form a nascent form of Cantonese.
For two millennia, there were several waves of migration from the north. Besides government officials and their families, there were exiled intellectuals, economic migrants and refugees from foreign invasions and internecine warfare. The linguistic cross-pollination that was the corollary of these migrations resulted in the Cantonese we recognise today.
More recently, English has also had an impact on Cantonese, and the language continues to evolve, not only in this region but also in other places such as Malaysia. The Chinese community in Malaysia is itself a diverse group, speaking English, Malay, Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese and Hakka, among others.
Such a mixed bag – or in Malaysian parlance “rojak” – of languages positively guarantees that the Cantonese spoken there will be different from anywhere else in the world. So the next time a supercilious Hongkonger sneers at a Chinese Malaysian for using the “wrong” Cantonese word or speaking with a “funny” accent, the latter should simply say: “That’s the way we Malaysians do it.”