Missing the old HK? Try Penang

March 31, 2016 16:57
Penang has the largest Chinese population among all Malaysian states. And many of those people speak Cantonese. Photo: Internet

Preservation of traditional Chinese characters and the Cantonese dialect has become a key element in the nativism campaign in Hong Kong in recent years. Many see the city as one of the last few remaining strongholds of the Cantonese dialect.

However, if we look beyond our tiny little territory, one can easily find that there are still tens of millions of Cantonese speaking Chinese scattered across the globe.

That includes the ethnic Chinese living in the Malaysian state of Penang.

In fact Penang has the largest Chinese population among all Malaysian states. According to the 2014 census there were around 700,000 ethnic Chinese living in Penang, accounting for almost half of the total population of the state.

Penang is highly pluralistic and diversified in terms of language. Most better educated ethnic Chinese can generally speak English, Malay, Mandarin and one of the dialects such as Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese.

Despite the fact that most ethnic Chinese living in Penang are descendants of immigrants from the coastal province of Fujian (or Hokkien), Cantonese is still much spoken there, thanks to the widespread popularity of Cantopop and Hong Kong movies in the community since the 80s.

Hongkongers visiting Penang will find little difficulty in communicating with the local people because most of them can speak Cantonese, although not necessarily very fluent.

Today you can still often hear shops and stores along the main street in downtown Penang play Canto oldies, and most of the roadside billboards are written in traditional Chinese characters.

Penang actually used to be a popular overseas filming location for movie producers looking to film stories about the old Hong Kong.

Any Hongkonger who is over the age of 30 might easily get a bit nostalgic when he visits Penang, because the Malaysian state seems to have preserved a lot of our traditional features which are on the verge of extinction in our own city.

The list includes Da Pai Dong (sidewalk food booths) and old-style Chinese teahouses.

The irony is very striking as the old Hong Kong we all learnt to cherish is fading away quickly in these times of "decolonization".

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 25.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal