Living heritage of Hong Kong

Speaking up for Cantonese, a tongue in peril

The fact the language of everyday life needs to be included in a list of 'intangible cultural heritage' is cause for concern to its advocates

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 October, 2014, 2:33am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 October, 2014, 4:01pm

Mother-of-two Sharon Ho faces a parenting dilemma. She is striving to create a bilingual environment for her children to maintain both her cultural heritage as a Chinese Hongkonger and the culture and language of her British husband. But she says Hong Kong's schools aren't helping.

Ho's children attend local schools. While her 10-year-old daughter learns Chinese in Cantonese, her six-year-old son, who just started Primary One this month, is taught Chinese in Putonghua. She feels her son's command of Cantonese may deteriorate as he doesn't get to use it at school.

"I feel that in 10 or 20 years' time, Cantonese will be gone," says Ho, 34. "With PMI [Putonghua as medium of instruction], a lot of mothers think that schools are the culprits in eradicating our Cantonese culture and Hong Kong identity. This is so wrong."

Watch: Falling in love with...Cantonese

About 70 per cent of the city's 569 local primary schools and 40 per cent of its 514 secondary schools use Putonghua for Chinese-language lessons, concern groups say. The Education Bureau does not keep such statistics, but stepped into controversy earlier this year when it was forced to withdraw an article on its website saying that Cantonese was "a Chinese dialect that is not an official language".

Concerns like Ho's help explain why Cantonese was included as one of 480 entries in the city's first official list of items of intangible cultural heritage.

While Cantonese is still very much alive - it is the city's de facto official language, notes Robert Bauer, honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong's linguistics department - its prospects are not bright, and efforts to safeguard it will soon be needed.

"It is the daily language spoken by 90 per cent of the population in the home and the workplace, according to the 2011 Census," Bauer says. "It is the dominant language of the broadcast media; legislative councillors and the chief executive make speeches in Cantonese.

"However, I do believe the language is ultimately doomed further down the road for various reasons: for instance, switching from Cantonese to Putonghua as the medium of instruction means children will not learn to read Chinese characters with Cantonese pronunciation."

Bauer is doing his part: he teaches a master's course on the history and structure of Cantonese at HKU. But he sees a greater force pushing against the language. "Cantonese distinguishes Hong Kong from the mainland. It is one highly visible symbol of all the things that make Hong Kong special and unique in relation to the mainland - and there are many people who hate that and intend to do something about it."

Also doing his part is graphic designer Ng Kap-chuen, or Ah To, who has created a guide to Cantonese proverbs and cartoons on the language. Ng has said he values the language because "Cantonese makes us 'us'".

Cantonese is one of the oldest forms of Chinese. The nine tones - as opposed to four in Putonghua - and many of the expressions are derived from ancient Chinese language dating from the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) and Tang dynasty (618-907). Classical Chinese poems written in the Tang and Song dynasties rhyme when recited in Cantonese as its sounds closely resemble those of ancient Chinese.

"Much of the 5,000 years of Chinese civilisation and culture are preserved in Cantonese," cultural critic Jimmy Pang Chi-ming says. He said wars and political turmoil in central provinces had forced people to flee to southern China, bringing with them their cultures. And the southern Chinese language serves as a living reminder of their culture.

Pang said many northern Chinese intellectuals fled to Hong Kong in the first half of the 20th century. They criticised Cantonese as vulgar. "That's not correct," Pang says. "Many of the words used in vernacular Cantonese are in fact ancient Chinese characters. They were just ignorant and didn't know how to write these characters. Cantonese is elegant, inheriting the roots of classical Chinese."

For example, Æ or ä, pronounced as "hea", is an ancient character that can be traced back to the Warring States Period (475-221BC) and literally means walking outside a straight path. In the last few years, it has been revived in Hong Kong as a trendy slang expression referring to being idle, but people are unaware of the original writing of the character and use "hea" instead.

"Many of these ancient characters are kept only in Cantonese. But Putonghua is a language derived from foreign tribes north of the Han territory," Pang said.

He said the roots of Putonghua - or Mandarin - were brought to the country in the Mongol invasion that created the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). It evolved into one of the Chinese languages and became the lingua franca of the subsequent Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing dynasty (1644-1911). It continued to be China's official language in the 20th century, with a standardised form based on the Beijing dialect.

Pang agrees with Bauer that the heritage of Cantonese in Hong Kong - and its cultural identity - are under threat, as the government pushes Putonghua as the medium of instruction.

For So Real Real, who wrote Picture Cards of Trendy Expressions in Hong Kong Cantonese to help people learn the language, the very idea that Cantonese need be considered as intangible cultural heritage is scary.

"This means it is dying," said So, a secondary school Chinese-language teacher.

Many parents believe that learning Chinese in Putonghua will improve their children's language skills and lead to a brighter future. So disagrees. He says in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is widely spoken, it is much more relevant to learn Cantonese.

"It is best to learn a language that is closest to our daily lives. Why do we use a language that is irrelevant to our daily lives to learn Chinese?" said So.

"The pronunciation, vocabulary and sentence structure in Cantonese Chinese is very different from Putonghua, which has a much more limited vocabulary."

He said many children today did not know the Cantonese pronunciation of some Chinese characters after learning Chinese in Putonghua. Eventually, he said, Cantonese will be marginalised, and Hong Kong's cultural identity will be crushed.

"In future, Putonghua will become the cultural identification for these children," So said.

As for Ho, she sticks to speaking Cantonese with her children at home. "I want my children to speak Cantonese so they can maintain this cultural link with Hong Kong," she said.