Cantonese isn’t dead yet, so stop writing its eulogy

“Add oil, Hong Kong.”
“Add oil, Hong Kong.”
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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When I decided to start studying Mandarin as a teenager, friends and family approved. China was enjoying explosive economic growth, so speaking the country’s lingua franca was sure to open doors. But when I moved to China after college, I ended up in one place where Mandarin doesn’t get you very far: Hong Kong.

The majority of the city’s 7.3 million people speak Cantonese, a Chinese dialect mutually unintelligible from Mandarin. And while I’ve thrown myself into learning Cantonese with just as much passion, I do not get the same reaction that I did with Mandarin. Instead, I’m told Cantonese is on its way out the door.

Hong Kong’s English and Chinese media pin the blame on Mandarin. Local officials began stressing Mandarin-based education following the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and now 70% of Hong Kong primary schools use Mandarin to teach Chinese classes. There are also plenty of Mandarin speakers coming from across the border; since 1997, 150 mainlanders have been able to obtain residency each day.

But the data tell a different story. Cantonese has actually experienced a slight growth in the proportion of speakers since the handover. According to the 2016 Hong Kong by-census, 88.9% of the population claim to speak Cantonese as their usual language, compared with 88.7% in 1996. Over the same 20-year span, the percentage of residents who primarily speak Mandarin rose from 1.1% to 1.9%.

So how can a language appear robust on paper, yet inspire death knells from the general public? It’s the sort of linguistic paradox that could only happen in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was a British colony from 1842 to 1997. While English was the only official government language until 1974, Cantonese was the language of the people. When Hong Kong emigrants left for other lands, they brought Cantonese with them, leaving a lasting imprint on the Chinatowns of Vancouver, New York, and beyond.

In mainland China, where Cantonese is spoken by some 60 million people in the south, the dialect gained a certain prestige due to its association with Hong Kong’s entertainment industry. The city’s film and music production blossomed in the 1980s and 1990s, just as China was opening up to the world. Hong Kong stars likes Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui became household names, and families close to the Hong Kong border could watch dramas broadcast by TVB, the city’s major television network.

When Hong Kong switched back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, it was assured a high degree of autonomy for 50 years under an arrangement called “one country, two systems.” Unlike the rest of China, Hong Kong had a capitalist system, a free press, and a judicial system based on the common law. The UK and China agreed that preserving these institutions would ensure stability in the short to medium term.

But economics and law aren’t all that set Hong Kong apart. The city is culturally distinct from mainland China, and Cantonese contributes to that divide. As 30-year-old graphic designer Camilla To lamented: “Western people will come to Hong Kong and want to take Mandarin classes, learn Mandarin, everything Mandarin. It doesn’t really make sense. Why don’t they just go to Shanghai or Beijing?”

A chill from the north

In recent years, tensions have flared between Hong Kong and mainland China. The clearest manifestation of this was the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, which were immediately sparked by a directive from Beijing on how Hong Kong gets to elect its leader—allowing people to vote only for candidates rubber-stamped by Beijing—but were also an outlet for a host of other social, economic, and political grievances.

Hong Kong people’s pride in their own language played a major role in those protests, and even the Cantonese name for the Umbrella Movement itself was a  subtle act of subversion against Beijing. Particular Cantonese phrases that became ubiquitous during the Umbrella Movement live on, like “Maht mohng cho chung!” (Don’t forget our original intention!) and “Ngo yiu jan pousyun!” (I want real universal suffrage!), the latter immortalized on yellow banners that occasionally unfurl from mountainsides and dorm windows.

But it’s an oversimplification to say that all Hong Kong Cantonese speakers ascribe to the values of that movement. As a rolling poll by the University of Hong Kong reminds the city every six months, there’s a constant shift in how residents prioritize their civic and national identities. The trend has been toward a greater identification as a “Hong Konger,” but about a fifth of the city do label themselves as “Chinese.” Between the two are the “mixed” identities.

This sort of fractured allegiance might seem familiar to residents of Catalonia or Puerto Rico. However, Hong Kong’s status as a “Special Administrative Region” is set to expire in 2047. That can make proclaiming a Hong Konger identity feel like a precarious position, as local identity becomes a moving target.

Similar to the issue of resolving Hong Kong and Chinese identity, it’s hard to parse Cantonese’s relationship to the Chinese language in general. Most foreigners assume “Chinese” refers to a single tongue, usually Mandarin. It’s not that straightforward. Historically, Chinese was a single written language, with people communicating orally through a range of mutually unintelligible dialects, known as fangyan (方言).

In 1955, the Communist government promoted standardized Mandarin, or putonghua, in order to improve interregional communication. While there has been resistance in Cantonese-speaking cities like Guangzhou, now 70% to 80% of mainland Chinese speak Mandarin, and in schools across the globe, studying Chinese equates with studying Mandarin. Many Cantonese speakers now bristle at the idea that Mandarin is treated as a full-fledged “language,” but Cantonese is called a “dialect,” implying that it somehow a subset of Mandarin.

The difference between the two is vast, a fact that’s impressed on me twice a week at my Cantonese night class for Mandarin speakers. My classmates come from all walks of life, and include a doctor, a nun, and an expectant mother. Despite being “native Chinese speakers,” they struggle just as much as I do. Cantonese has six tones compared with Mandarin’s four, different grammar, and a unique peppering of English loan words.

Confusing things further is that while Hong Kong and mainland China now use different scripts—Mao enacted the simplification of hundreds of Chinese characters—they still share a formal written language and canon. Thus, the controversy over what dialect Hong Kong schools use to teach Chinese is not just about language facility, but also which dialect gets the prestige of being associated with a literary tradition that reaches back millennia.

Pragmatism vs. politics

Not all parents see teaching Mandarin Chinese as an assault on Hong Kong identity. Maria Wang, a native Cantonese speaker and mother of three, sent her daughters to Chinese International School, where students may only speak Mandarin or English.

“Mandarin speakers can write better Chinese,” she said, justifying her decision. She added, “There’s a lot of working relations with China now.”

Wang isn’t worried about Cantonese dying out anytime soon, and her pragmatism regarding Mandarin is fairly typical among Hong Kong’s older generations. But her mentality runs countercurrent to localism popular among the city’s youth, highlighting the degree to which politics plays into their fears. They are not interested in business across the border. Instead, they’ve grown up trying to reconcile Hong Kong’s special status with the reality of its role within China. Fears that the city will somehow disappear come 2047 only reinforce worries for Cantonese’s future, leaving young people feeling like they have nothing to hold onto.

Yet Cantonese’s resilience will most likely come down to social and economic pragmatism rather than politics. Some might read that as a dark prognosis, pointing to Mandarin’s virtual monopoly on Chinese education, or the stagnation of Hong Kong’s entertainment industry, once the vanguard of Cantonese soft power. But I’m optimistic. Hong Kong is a dynamic city, and Cantonese is firmly embedded in its culture. As long as the city offers opportunity, there will be people learning its mother tongue. I see it happening twice a week in a little Kowloon community center, when my classmates and I come together to learn the language of the city we call home.

Read Quartz’s complete series on the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover.