It is an understatement to say that Hong Kong is a loud city. With over seven million people packed into several small, dense pockets of packed high-rises, it’s nearly impossible to escape the noise. While the incessant traffic, non-stop construction, or constant rumblings of trains may initially elicit shock from newcomers, what makes Hong Kong Hong Kong is the sound of Cantonese, its native language.
Locals describe Hong Kong Cantonese as a harsh, direct language lacking in formality, and often, politeness. You rarely hear the word for thank you—doh je—spoken between Hong Kongers. Hong Kong Cantonese reflects the culture and character of this unique place, the original “East meets West,” founded by the British Colonial Empire and at the center of its trade in Asia. Today, the city is still a hub of trade, commerce and tourism.
Hong Kong influenced the world. Chances are, if you grew up before the turn of the century, Cantonese was the Chinese language you were more exposed to. It is the primary language of the overseas Chinese diaspora, dominant in Chinatowns from San Francisco to London and Kuala Lumpur. It is the language of the famous ‘70s and ‘80s Kung Fu films. The most famous Chinese actors in the West–Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat–starred in Cantonese-language cinema, made in Hong Kong. Around the world there are 50 million Cantonese speakers, making it the 24th most widely spoken first-language in the world, ahead of popular tongues like Thai, Polish and Persian. But unlike those languages, which have their own dictionaries, literature and high culture, Cantonese has always been primarily a spoken language of the streets.
For many, the beginning of the end came on June 30, 1997, when, after 155 years of British rule, Hong Kong was handed back to China. Within years, as more migrants and tourists began to arrive from the mainland, a new language that had barely been heard in previous decades, started to take its place alongside Cantonese on Hong Kong’s streets—China’s national language, Mandarin.
Cantonese has always been primarily a spoken language of the streets.
For many Western ears, telling the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese can be tough. To us, how any Chinese person speaks sounds loud, tonal, and impossible to decipher. But, in reality, the two languages are as different as Spanish is to German. While part of the same family, they are distinct, with their own pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Even the number of tones are different–Mandarin has just four while Cantonese has six.
The debate about language in Hong Kong is complex. Part of the issue is the increasing control of Hong Kong by the Chinese Communist Party and the influx of Mandarin-speaking migrants and tourists to the territory. But part of the reason is economic—China’s economy is growing, and more and more of Hong Kong’s chief sectors—finance, trade, and tourism—are dependent on its giant neighbor, making Mandarin necessary for those seeking jobs in the modern economy. Still, many fear that, if the current trend continues, Mandarin could overtake Cantonese, even in Hong Kong.
There are two efforts to protect and preserve Cantonese as a vibrant language. One takes the confrontational approach, seeking to highlight how China is imposing Mandarin and fighting to limit its use in Hong Kong. Behind this are groups like Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis (SLH), a volunteer-led activist organization which has raised alarm bells over how Mandarin is creeping into Hong Kong.
“[For example] the government is pushing Mandarin education,” said Andrew Chan, one of the founders of SLH. “The education policy is to raise the status of Mandarin and to depress the status of Cantonese.”
SLH found that many primary schools in Hong Kong offer instruction only in Mandarin, and saw signs that this policy is being pushed to other academic levels too. Chan himself was caught up in this when the school he was attending, Hong Kong Baptist University, added a Mandarin language requirement to graduate. Over 1,000 students protested the move, but university officials—likely due to Chinese pressure—refused to change the policy.
“It should be free for the students to choose Cantonese or Mandarin,” said Chan. “A compulsive test is problematic.”
You don’t have to travel far to hear the fears of Chan and others. Cantonese is also the native language of neighboring Guangdong province. But there, the influx of millions of mostly Mandarin speaking migrants from the north and west of the country since China’s reform in the late 1970s, along with a strict Mandarin-only education policy, have dramatically altered the sounds on the street. Mandarin is the dominant language in Shenzhen, the planned city built right across the border from Hong Kong that, a few years ago, overtook its neighbor to become the richest city in the region.
Many fear that, if the current trend continues, Mandarin could overtake Cantonese, even in Hong Kong.
The same process is taking place overseas. Chinese language schools in the U.S. have shifted to teaching the more useful Mandarin rather than the heritage Cantonese. Singapore, a majority ethnic Chinese country, has made Mandarin an official language and mandatory for ethnic Chinese despite the fact that nearly none come from Mandarin-speaking families. Cantonese there is now the language of the elderly in hawker centers (open air food courts where local vendors provide cheap, affordable local delights)—and the youth speak mostly Mandarin and English.
Hong Kong is, quite possibly, the last place in the world where Cantonese is still spoken widely, making it the de-facto center for Cantonese language culture. While language activism is important, also key are efforts to preserve and empower the language’s use today. While there is Cantonese cinema, opera anda news media, there was one thing that the language lacked: a dictionary, due to its primary use as a colloquial language of the streets. Chaak-ming Lau, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, aims to change that through a crowdsourced projects called Words.HK
“When it comes to learning resources, we don’t have these things for Cantonese,” said Lau. “We want to promote the normalization of Cantonese.” A dictionary would be a written record of the language and how it has changed, and continues to change, over time. Lau also hopes it promotes greater use of Cantonese in writing, literature and the growth of online communities, such as a Cantonese-language Wikipedia.
In 1842 when Hong Kong came into the hands of the British after the first Opium War—in which Western powers used military strength to force importation of unlimited opium under the guise of free trade—it was just a wild island with a spattering of residents. It grew into a major metropolis and center of Cantonese culture. Not surprisingly, it’s more than just the sounds on the street that are changing. Hong Kong’s old neighborhoods are slowly disappearing too, as older buildings get torn down to make space for new skyscrapers and ever-denser housing for a rising population of newcomers. A massive land reclamation project on Lantau Island, which could house an astounding 1.1 million people, has met with fierce opposition. Some worry that the development will only allow for more Mandarin-speaking mainlanders to enter Hong Kong, further diluting its identity.
China’s goal is national unification, and opposition to Mandarin is often conflated with being anti-China. Chan fell victim to the label during his internship in mainland China when his language activism led to him being branded as “pro-independence” on social media.
“I received hundreds of threatening messages, so I went back to Hong Kong,” said Chan. He insists his goal is not independence, but supporting Cantonese as the language of Hong Kong.
For China, linguistic identity and separatism are being conflated. Demonizing Cantonese is official policy. It is often called a “dialect” and, last year, SLH found that a video being used in schools depicted Cantonese as a barbaric, devil’s language as opposed to virtuous Mandarin.
Infrastructure also is further integrating Hong Kong with the mainland. A new bridge, the world’s longest, now connects the city with China and neighboring Macau, and new high speed rail links make travel between Hong Kong and provinces like Guangdong and cities like Chongqing and Changsha easier than ever. It also opens the door for more visitors migrants to Hong Kong.
There is now even an effort to rename the entire region as the “Greater Bay Area.” The language of that region? Mandarin. But locals won’t give up without a fight. Because Hong Kong without its unique language just wouldn’t be Hong Kong.
Nithin Coca is a longtime traveler and freelance journalist who covers culture, environment, and sustainability in Asia. His feature and news pieces have appeared in global media outlets including Al Jazeera, Quartz, Engadget, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, Vice, and other regional publications in Asia and the United States.