22 May 2019
The growth of Chinatowns in North America, like this one in Canada, has pushed Cantonese to the sidelines. Photo: Xinhua
The growth of Chinatowns in North America, like this one in Canada, has pushed Cantonese to the sidelines. Photo: Xinhua

Why Hong Kong people should not be stuck with one dialect

A Hong Kong student at the University of Toronto was either boasting or complaining when he said more than 70 percent of his first-year calculus class were Chinese.

I would say the lecturer probably taught in Cantonese.

But I could be wrong. With more Chinese students (not Hong Kong students) studying economics and engineering, the class is probably being taught in Mandarin.

And now, the University of British Columbia is offering a Cantonese degree program which the Economist described as a “bookish act of resistance” in North America’s largest Chinese-language department.

The top Vancouver university is said to have rejected four offers from the Confucius Institute to expand Mandarin.

Instead, it accepted a C$2 million (US$1.53 million) endowment from two Hong Kong philanthropists to offer Cantonese courses.

No wonder Ross King, head of the Asian studies program of UBS, thinks it’s a subtle pushback against an overbearing culture.

Is it bad?

Cantonese was widely taught overseas in the 1970s and 1980s when Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong and southern China went abroad, especially after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

At the time, Cantonese was spoken from Vancouver to New York, but the influx of immigrants from mainland China pushed Cantonese to the sidelines.

Mandarin or Putonghua became the lingua franca in Chinese restaurants in Toronto, where many Chinese immigrants worked as waiters, according to Apple Daily.

And with the growth of Chinatowns in North America, Cantonese has been marginalized.

It’s down but not out.

Canto-pop could lead a Cantonese resurgence by engaging young Chinese to speak the dialect.

Also, a growing number of Hong Kong singers have been playing to a bigger market.

But these are not enough.

Hong Kong, where 90 percent of people speak Cantonese, is having difficulty defending its mother tongue from the onslaught of Putonghua.

A recent protest at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology demanded changes to its compulsory courses where reading and writing are conducted in Mandarin.

Students complained that they were losing their hometown advantage to mainlanders and Taiwanese.

They said the use of Mandarin to teach Chinese is out of fashion and demanded more language choices.

After all, Cantonese is spoken by more than 120 million people and boasts a rich history.

Meanwhile, Canto-pop and local movies continue to drive Cantonese, albeit with some colorful touches.

For instance, in Beijing and Shanghai, Cantonese is interspersed with foul language.

Cantonese is not going to die anytime soon, but Hong Kong people would be wise to pick up Mandarin to be competitive, just as the British learned a sprinkling of German, French and Italian.

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EJ Insight writer

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