Language Police – Why are you speaking Cantonese?

I’ve been in Macau now for almost 5 months. Just after I arrived I did a 2-week series of guest blogs at Cognitive Edge. Since then, I’ve been very quiet here except for updating the Events page and doing some twitting.

Some of those CE postings were about groups and how they define themselves. Being in Macau makes me think what is a group in this part of south-east China. How are Macau’s groups different from Hong Kong’s groups or are they different at all? There is something going on here in Macau that intrigues me and I’ve been noticing some rather odd ‘language encounters’ since I’ve been in Macau. In Macau people frequently speak Putonghua to me first in shops, taxies, buses, etc. If I answer in Cantonese (trust me when I say it is bad Cantonese) they switch to Cantonese and only seldom to English. In Hong Kong very seldom does someone speak Putonghua to me and when I speak or answer in Cantonese they frequently but not always respond in English. Some of this can be explained as skill-level with English in Hong Kong being higher than Macau. However the assumption of ‘this westerner may speak Putonghua’ in Macau is definitely a different assumption from Hong Kong.

Should we all speak the same language so we can share knowledge and information more easily? This has been the express aim of standardizing language in China for a few hundred years. It really got going in the 19th century with the ‘white language movement’ and since 1949 its been an aim of the central government to get the population to use Putonghua in conjunction with simplified Chinese characters and Romanized Pinyin Chinese. Changing the characters was and remains a master stroke in information control. Mainland Chinese cannot easily read newspapers and books published in the traditional characters used in Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The central government has been largely successful and even in Guangzhou, the home of Cantonese, the vast majority of people speak Putonghua very well. The case in Hong Kong and Macau is very different. Putonghua in Hong Kong and Macau is gaining ground slowly since the handover to China in 1997 and 1999. Putonghua is encouraged in Hong Kong and Macau but it is not a required language. It is very odd that the national language of China is not a requirement in the schools of Macau and Hong Kong.

Over the past several weeks there has been a groundswell of protests first in Guangzhou and then Hong Kong about the suppression of Cantonese in Guangdong province. These protests started when the local authorities proposed stopping Cantonese television broadcasts on the both of the local television stations. The justification was the Asian Games to be held in the autumn required more exposure to Putonghua, the national language of China, among the general population. Somehow, in a few months time with no local Cantonese television, the local population’s fluency would race upwards and everyone would sound just like they were from Beijing. Also, during the games visitors wouldn’t want to / need to watch Cantonese television. That there are several Putonghua television stations broadcasting 24/7 in Guangzhou was ignored by the local authorities. The reaction to this plan was swift and loud and in Cantonese. Protests were held in Guangzhou and these were quickly suppressed by the local authorities. The protestors moved to Hong Kong. The SCMP has been awash in a very old and acrimonious argument over the merits of Cantonese and Putonghua. Here is a nice summary of the history from a Victor Mair on the Language Log site. Lucy Kuo, of the LA Times has a similar view here. Chang Ping, a writer from mainland China, wrote this insightful editorial in the SCMP, here.

The Cantonese issue has not been reported in the Macau Daily Times, one of the English language papers here in Macau. From asking a few local Macanese they have told me it isn’t seen as much of an issue in Macau, ‘we really should speak Putonghua but we need to speak to our parents’ is the sort of response I heard. It does seem that Macau people are less wrapped up in being so identified with the Cantonese language.

I was in Hong Kong last week and when I asked a few long time Hong Kong friends about this controversy they were adamant that they were not going to begin speaking Putonghua anytime soon. Things like, ‘over my dead body this is going to happen’ is the sort of response I heard.

On the mainland there is an expression that can be paraphrased as, ‘nothing is more painful than having to listen to a Hong Kong person speak Putonghua’, it is meant in jest but it is true that listening to a Hong Kong Cantonese speak very high pitched Putonghua is rather painful.

Sharing knowledge normally does require sharing a common language. There are ways around this but they require technology and/or expensive human translators. Hong Kong likes to call itself ‘Asia’s World City’, but as Mark Pixley from Leadership, Inc. of Shenzhen likes to say it would be more accurate to call Hong Kong ‘China’s last Cantonese speaking city’. I wonder how long Hong Kong can stay this way?



  1. Jules Yim said

    I hope to be long gone by the time HK is no longer China’s last Canto-speaking city…in any case, I’d probably expire from grief anyway.

  2. Baoman said

    SCMP Sunday 5 Sept 2010 has a good article on Cantonese culture and language “Say it loud: The people of Guangzhou are standing up for their culture”, by Oliver Chou & Chloe Lai. They quote Guo Weiquing, professor of the school of government at Sun Tat-sen University, who says “I think Cantonese represents tolerance, freedom and diversity, and all that forms the framework of civil society. What it is facing is not just Putonghua but a strong central government and its superimposing ideology. It is in that sense Cantonese needs to be safeguarded.”

    • Jules Yim said

      They’re right. We Cantos have always been a fiercely, proudly, incredibly stubborn people, with an individualistic streak which often led to trouble. Kwong-tung was a hotbed of independence movements during the Qing dynasty and I’ll bet my heritage that any future movements will also have their inception in Kwong-tung. 😉

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