Why you should care
The territory is locking horns with the communist mainland in a bid to save Cantonese.
“Andrew” Chan Lok-hang is worried. The sounds on the Hong Kong street are changing. The territory, a former British colony transferred to Chinese control in July 1997, is seeing its native language, Cantonese, slowly get replaced by the official language of mainland China, Mandarin. But Chan Lok-hang isn’t sitting back. He’s part of a resistance emerging to save Cantonese.
For two decades, Hong Kong’s residents have fought sporadic battles with the Communist Party of China to retain their political and economic autonomy, guaranteed under the transfer of power agreement with the U.K. Now, as Beijing under President Xi Jinping encroaches more and more, and as China’s economic influence grows, fresh battle lines are opening up — over language.
An estimated 80 percent of Hong Kong’s population speak Cantonese as their mother tongue. But under a local government led by Carrie Lam, a chief executive widely viewed as close to Beijing, Mandarin is invading business, tourism and even classrooms. More than 70 percent of Hong Kong’s primary schools now use Mandarin as the medium of instruction. And activists have found videos used by schools in which Cantonese is demonized as a barbaric language, in contrast to virtuous Mandarin.
To combat that creeping takeover by Mandarin, a growing band of individuals and groups in Hong Kong is trying to highlight the threat, protest efforts to cripple the future of Cantonese and proactively work to preserve the territory’s traditional language. Chan Lok-hang is founder of the volunteer-run language activist group Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis (SLH) that, among other things, hosts a Cantonese writing competition which last year drew participants from four countries, including the Chinese mainland. The Cantonese film industry, long on its deathbed, is staging a revival that is attracting Hong Kong’s youth. Director Wong Kar-wai won the prestigious Lumiere award in 2017.
[Language activists] want to do something for Cantonese and build something that has meaning for future generations.
Chaak-ming Lau, Chinese University of Hong Kong
And projects to improve the Cantonese language’s status as a literary and academic language are cropping up across Hong Kong. Words.hk, a crowdsourced, volunteer-created effort to develop the first-ever Cantonese language dictionary, has already drawn more than 800 contributions.
“They [the volunteers] want to do something for Cantonese,” says Chaak-ming Lau, a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, “and build something that has meaning for future generations.”
At the moment, the odds appear stacked against the efforts to save Cantonese from the Mandarin invasion. Both Beijing and the administration in Hong Kong are pushing Mandarin as part of a policy to bind the territory more closely with the mainland. “The Chinese government is trying to promote Mandarin as the national identity, and saying that if you can’t speak fluent Mandarin, you are not even Chinese,” says Chan Lok-hang. But the challenge isn’t only political. For years after it joined communist China, Hong Kong’s autonomy, while a sore point for hardliners in Beijing, was also beneficial for the party. Under its “One Country, Two Systems” slogan, Beijing cited Hong Kong’s British-based law and order systems, courts and Western financial regulations to woo global investors otherwise wary about putting money into mainland China, with its relatively opaque governance. That economic balance has now shifted.
An influx of Mandarin-speaking migrants and tourists to the territory is making that language increasingly a part of day-to-day life in Hong Kong. China’s already massive economy is still growing fast, 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 a modern economy.
The language activists aren’t giving up, though. Far from it. At the moment, Cantonese is mostly a spoken language. The Words.hk dictionary is envisaged as a tool to help turn Cantonese — like English or Mandarin — into a language also used in education and literature. “Cantonese is not like English,” says Lau. “We don’t have big companies, or publishers who are willing to put in resources to build dictionaries. We want to build something comparable to the Oxford Dictionary for English.”
SLH isn’t waiting for the dictionary to come together. Through their Cantonese writing competition, they’re trying to make sure children and students feel empowered to use their mother tongue. “We want to promote Cantonese writing,” says Chan Lok-hang.
Some, like Thomas Hun-tak Lee, the professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, believe the concerns over the future of Cantonese are overblown. Lee points to Cantonese art forms in Hong Kong, from traditional opera to modern drama — apart from films, poetry and music — to argue that “Cantonese will remain a thriving language full of creative vitality.”
To view Mandarin as necessarily a threat too may be counterproductive, suggests Ming Chan, a professor of East Asian Studies at Stanford University and a Cantonese speaker who advocates a middle ground. “One more language is an asset,” says Ming. “I would not oppose the youth in Hong Kong learning another language, but you don’t need to undermine or delegitimize your own mother tongue.”
But Chan Lok-hang points to Guangdong, the province just across the Pearl River estuary that separates Hong Kong from the mainland. Like Hong Kong, Guangdong was Cantonese-speaking. And while Cantonese is still spoken in many regions of the province, massive migration due to the province’s economic boom has meant that Mandarin is, increasingly, the daily language there. Today, Cantonese is not used in Guangdong for announcements on the provincial capital Guangzhou’s metro station or airport. It isn’t a medium of instruction in local schools. Mandarin is king in Guangdong. “We are afraid of Hong Kong becoming like Guangzhou,” says Chan Lok-hang.
The tussle is sharpening. Earlier this year, Chan Lok-hang and another student protested against a decision by their university, Hong Kong Baptist University, forcing students to take a mandatory Mandarin test to graduate. Chan Lok-hang was subsequently suspended, remains unable to receive his degree and has been vilified by Chinese state media. But hundreds of other students joined a protest against the university, giving him hope.
Hong Kong is hardly alien to clashes involving nations and ideologies. Britain and China fought over it, and the territory remains a test of the battle between communism and capitalism. Now, it’s Mandarin vs. Cantonese, with Hong Kong’s future identity at stake.