Cantonese vs Mandarin: More than just language

Hong Kong singer Eason Chan performing at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on 18 September 2010. In 2004, the popular singer had to issue an apology after using Cantonese on Cable TV. -- FILE PHOTO: SPH
Hong Kong singer Eason Chan performing at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on 18 September 2010. In 2004, the popular singer had to issue an apology after using Cantonese on Cable TV. -- FILE PHOTO: SPH

FOR years, a cryptic drama played out on television sets in Hong Kong's living rooms.

Tune in to channels besides that of dominant broadcaster TVB, and many Hong Kong celebrities would be speaking in Mandarin instead of Cantonese, during interviews or when accepting awards.

Those who inadvertently slipped into their mother tongue found themselves in the odd position of having to apologise to some nameless entity.

In 2004, for instance, popular Cantopop singer Eason Chan issued an apology after using Cantonese on Cable TV, saying: "I'm really sorry, my actions were really reckless. "I'll be more careful in future."

Last month, the denouement came. The Communications Authority found TVB guilty of a "no Cantonese policy".

While the rule was not explicitly stated in contracts, artistes and singers understood that they could be blacklisted by the powerful station - such as being denied opportunities to appear on its shows or being given fewer music awards - if they used Cantonese on TV channels apart from TVB.

Wrote the authority in its report: "The likely plausible objective economic purpose of this policy is to impair rivals' ability to compete with TVB.

"The no Cantonese policy has the capability of both reducing the quality of interviews of singers in rival TV stations and making it more difficult for viewers to understand, thus impairing rivals' ability to compete with TVB."

This "anti-competitive" tactic, among others, earned TVB a slap on its wrist: a HK$900,000 (S$144,160) fine. (TVB later denied that it had such a policy, although a spokesperson declined to comment to the South China Morning Post on whether any implicit form of pressure was exerted on celebrities.)

Over the past weeks, a different kind of language brawl broke out at some kindergartens in the New Territories.

Mainland parents trying to snare limited spots for their Hong Kong-born children complained of discrimination, as some kindergartens ruled that admission interviews with the toddlers would be conducted only in Cantonese.

Meanwhile, another spat is brewing at the City University where mainland students in a Chinese literature class - which is taught in Cantonese - asked if Mandarin could also be used.

The professor of the class in question then used both languages, angering Hong Kong students who said that this was a waste of their time.

Setting aside the merits and demerits of each case, the incidents indicate how language in Hong Kong has long veered out of the cultural arena and become a political and commercial tool for different groups, be they cultural purists, anti-mainland "nativists" or mainlanders quick to cry foul.

As temperatures rise and Hong Kong-mainland animosity reaches a fevered pitch, using Cantonese - or not - is no longer just about communicating in the city's beloved lingua franca but also about making a political point.

Anecdotes are that Hong Kongers - who were quick to pick up Mandarin for pragmatic reasons after the 1997 handover - are now less enamoured of China's official language as stipulated by its Communist government.

"Wo de putonghua fei chang putong (my grasp of Mandarin is very mediocre)," is a common jokey refrain among some who make a point of not speaking the language well, playing on the characters "putong" which can mean both "common" and "pedestrian". Putonghua or "common speech" is the term used by the mainland for Mandarin.

A Chinese University of Hong Kong study found that the percentage of those who feel actively "averse" to Mandarin tripled from 1.8 per cent in 2006 to 7.3 per cent in 2010. These are still in the minority, but the jump is not insignificant.

For many Hong Kongers who fear that their city is under siege, the use of Cantonese thus serves as a bulwark against the feared so-called "mainlandisation" of Hong Kong, a way to distinguish between "them" and "us".

Hong Kongers are understandably right to want to preserve their cultural identity and take pride in their native dialect - like some other regions in mainland China itself.

For this city though, the issue - like many others - has also been politicised through the lenses of relations with mainland.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.