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Hong Kong vloggers keeping Cantonese alive with money-spinning YouTube channels

While many fear Cantonese may be in decline, for Hong Kong’s online stars it has opened a gateway to thousands of followers and lucrative careers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 5:57pm

Cantonese remains alive and well among the city’s community of YouTube stars, despite fears the language is in decline due to the increasing influences of the mainland, cultural commentators say.

Known as vloggers, people who keep online video diary blogs, the outspoken young internet users delight their audiences each week with lifestyle tips, funny anecdotes and general opinions on Hong Kong society.

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They adopt an informal, friendly style for short videos often filmed alone in their bedrooms, amassing hundreds of thousands of fans. The online advertising revenue they receive is enough to give some of them a full-time income.

They are mainly followed by Hongkongers, but also appeal to those abroad; there are an estimated 120 million Cantonese speakers across the world. Some vloggers will also occasionally adopt Chinglish – Cantonese-influenced English – in order to amuse their fans, or to help followers understand certain English slang terms.

One such vlogger is Pui Lai-ting, or “Sister Mary”, who has joined digital media company VS Media to concentrate on making videos full-time. The 21-year-old former retail worker has almost 200,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel, and has received more than 27 million video views since she started vlogging in August 2011.

She initially produced videos about what she describes as “frustrating behaviours of young people”, but now discusses everything from dating to video games, fashion and beauty to travelling. Her somewhat understated YouTube biography reads: “The videos on this channel are simple and easy to understand. That’s me.”

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Pui said she once considered trying to broaden her audience to Taiwan and Malaysia by speaking Putonghua, but stopped after a backlash from her core Hong Kong audience.

“I’ve used Putonghua once in a video, but a lot of Hong Kong viewers didn’t like it, so I didn’t use it in my films again,” she said. While she does not feel particularly sentimental about Cantonese, she admitted it had been central to her success.

“Cantonese is a language, and its function is for communication,” she said. “I can’t say whether it is better or worse than other languages. At the beginning, I tried vlogging just for fun. It was not until one year into my career that I knew I could earn a bonus from YouTube for doing this.”

Another popular Cantonese vlogger, Ashly Chan, who has accumulated more than 180,000 subscribers since 2011, said for her Cantonese was the most “user-friendly language”.

“Even in remote places, I’d feel at ease when I hear Cantonese,” she said. Like her contemporary, Pui, she said she started the channel “just for fun” and never expected to make a modest income from vlogging. “I don’t lead an affluent life,” she said. “I can’t afford to buy a home, either. But I can afford to eat and can do things I like to do.”

Language constitutes an obvious boundary and space for shared identities and interests
Michael Chan, Chinese University

There have been growing fears about the increasing erosion of the Cantonese language and identity after it was revealed local schools were choosing to teach students Putonghua over Cantonese.

In 2014, the Education Bureau ruled Cantonese was not an official language in its schools, and said local education institutions would receive greater subsidies if they adopted Putonghua as the medium of instruction.

The announcement sparked heightened action from local campaign groups Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis and Putonghua as Medium of Instruction Student Concern Group, who maintain the future of Cantonese is under threat.

Michael Chan, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Chinese University, said such vloggers were maintaining Cantonese culture by creating a “space for shared identities and interests”.

“It is not so much that Cantonese is ‘useful’, it is more to do with that fact that it is the native language of the vloggers so it makes more sense to use Cantonese,” he said. “Language constitutes an obvious boundary and space for shared identities and interests.”

Chan said YouTube had become a very effective tool for Hong Kong’s young influencers of social media to develop a large fan base, and advertisers in turn were increasingly supporting their more “authentic” brands.

“The human brain is biologically wired to process visual content so YouTube is an ideal medium for delivering engaging and interesting content that captures audiences attention,” he said.

“Young people nowadays are also very savvy and know when advertisers are trying to push their messages for commercial purposes and agendas. Vloggers on the other hand are perceived as more ‘authentic’ who tell it as it is.”

He added YouTube might even be considered more effective in communicating certain messages than other social media tools.

“User attention spans can be somewhat fleeting on Facebook and Twitter because it takes seconds to scan through messages and a collage of photos,” he said. “A single video on the other hand can hold users’ attention for minutes. That’s why vloggers have become quite influential.”

The most successful vloggers, such as the members of video production collective Bomba, can make serious money through YouTube advertising and sponsorship if their channels amass a significant numbers of followers and video views.

Some will also benefit from free gifts offered by companies hoping to publicise their brands, so long as they agree to give them a plug in their videos.

While Hong Kong’s most successful YouTube star is English speaking Irish/Chinese beauty adviser Lindy Tsang, known for her channel Bubzbeauty, there remains a notable community of Cantonese speaking vloggers who are making a living from YouTube.

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Professor Tang Sze-wing, vice-chairman of the department of Chinese language and literature at Chinese University, said the vloggers’ decision to speak in Cantonese was hugely important to their success.

He said they evidently enjoyed using their mother tongue for the more confessional-style videos, and were evidently keen to target locals with their posts.

“They will feel more comfortable speaking it than English, and it makes their posts more eye-catching too,” he said. “If that is the language they are familiar with, they may want to use it to express their feelings and thoughts on YouTube.”

But he said he would not like to overstate how the vloggers may use Cantonese as an expression of their Hong Kong identity.

“I would not like to jump to this conclusion,” he said. “I guess it is just that using their own language makes them feel more comfortable. Considering that potential viewers will be Hong Kong-based, Cantonese speakers, too, then I guess it becomes quite a good tool, rather than standard Chinese or English.

“They are not necessarily using Cantonese because of anxiety about the future, it is more that these videos are not a formal thing, unlike a presentation or writing an academic paper.”