Cantonese Language and the Imagination of the Hongkonger Community

Title: 1345 | Cantonese Language and the Imagination of the Hongkonger Community
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: Language
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Clement Tsz Ming Tong, University of British Columbia, Canada (organizer, presenter)
Shin Kataoka, Education University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong (presenter)
Winnie Yee, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong (presenter)
Alena Pavlova, Moscow City University, Russia (presenter)
Fiona Hui, New York University, United States (chair)


The Cantonese language has been instrumental and monumental in the shaping and articulating of the imagined community of Hongkongers. Whether as a genre of writing, an identity marker, a language of translation, or a protest expression, this lingua franca of the people of Hong Kong weaves an invisible thread that binds this multiethnic and multicultural metropolis together, helping to form and project their collective identity to the outside world.

In this panel, Shin Kataoka will examine the uniqueness of the Cantonese-sounding written Chinese in Hong Kong from a linguistic point of view, and how it is closely related to the self-identification of the Hongkongers. Winnie Yee argues that nature writing can be used to renew our understanding of Hong Kong’s postcolonical identity, through a look at the environment, landscape, and Cantonese language that constitute the habitual and “ecotopian” side of Hong Kong. Clement Tong will explore the differences in which the Cantonese language was used as a protest language in the leftist unrests in 1967, and the recent anti-extradition bill protests in 2019, pondering how far the language has evolved to become an integral part of the Hongkonger identity. Finally, Alena Pavlova will survey the concept and imagery of the Hongkonger community through a foreign lens – that of Russian students learning Mandarin and about the Chinese culture. She will also examine how this concept influences the interest of Russian students towards learning the Cantonese language.

Panel Abstracts:
The Cantonese Language in HK Protests - a Comparison Between 1967 and 2019
The creative use of the Cantonese language and romanisation has been a notable development and subject of intrigue during the citywide protests that erupted in the summer months of 2019. The Hong Kong people made frequent use of the unique pronunciation and cultural references associated with their Cantonese language, in order to voice out their anger and frustrations towards the Hong Kong government. This language of the protesting Hongkongers was more than just the self-expression of their imagined identity and community spirit, but a show of mistrust towards the hegemonic Mandarin culture that represented the Mainland Chinese authority, seen as the backing of the unpopular local government. This paper compares the use of the Cantonese language as a protest language in the summer of 2019, to during the months of violent leftist unrests in 1967. The differences in which verbal and written Cantonese were used signify more than just a passing of time and sovereignty, but the way the language has truly become an integral part of the Hongkonger identity and ethos, and the struggle of the community against adversities.

Vitality and Solidarity: The Use of Cantonese-sounding Written Chinese in Hong Kong
It is generally believed that despite the numerous varieties of spoken forms in Chinese, there is only one type of written form that is intelligible no matter where you are from, be it mainland China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. This belief holds true if we talk about the written Chinese that is learned and acquired through schooling, However, the long political separation from the mainland has in fact made written Chinese in Hong Kong gradually develop into a unique language that are sometimes quite different from that of mainland China. The differences are most obvious at the lexical level, as many neologies emerged in the process of modernization after World War Two. Frequent use of English-based and Japanese-based loanwords has also contributed to the uniqueness of Hong Kong written Chinese. Apart from lexical differences, preference to mono-syllabic words in Cantonese, casual use of Cantonese colloquial phrases, and euphemisms that result from the prevention of using taboos words and foul language in Cantonese... all these features have make written Chinese in Hong Kong very special. Since they only make sense if and only if they are read and understood in Cantonese, it is believed that the written Chinese in Hong Kong has (imaginary) Cantonese sounds. In this talk, we will first analyze this Cantonese-sounding written Chinese from the linguist’s point of view and look into its influence on the formation of Hong Kong people’s identity.

Locating Roots, Locating Languages: A Study of Ecotopian and Cultural Imaginaries in Hong Kong Nature Writing
From pre-colonial times, Hong Kong’s literature has played a role in shaping the city’s cultural identity. The often heated debates concerning Hong Kong’s literary representations all take as a premise that Hong Kong has an urban identity: it is defined by its mythic transformation from a fishing village to a metropolis. This identity is closely associated with the city centre’s stunning skylines and its role as a financial hub. Upon the return of the sovereignty to the motherland in 1997, the discourse stresses Hong Kong’s exceptional status, reflecting a general anxiety that Hong Kong could be replaced by another Chinese city or even become just another Chinese city. This anxiety for the future is evident in an ecocritical turn, manifested in both social realm (popular movements and organic communities) and artistic circles (independent cinema and literature). This paper will look at Hong Kong literature to determine how “ecotopian” imaginaries and cultural identities are closely linked to different moments of Hong Kong history. The environment, landscape, and language that constitute the habitual and the everyday in literature show how Hong Kong can be understood differently. The main objectives of the paper are to provide a survey of nature writing in Hong Kong, to examine the nexus between root-searching and the appropriation of Cantonese in writing, and to provide a preliminary report on the way nature writing has opened a new space for Hong Kong’s postcolonial identity.

The Russian Case: How Do the Image and Imagination of the Hongkonger Community Influence the Learning of Cantonese Abroad
In Russia, the number of people studying Chinese language (Mandarin) is increasing every year, and thanks to that, the number of those who begin to learn Cantonese is slowly growing as well. But how do Russians view towards the Hongkonger community? Through what means do they reach their understanding of what Hongkongers are? And how does that affect their interest in learning more about the Hongkonger language? This study will conduct a survey of different social groups in Moscow, who have interaction with the HongKongers in varying degrees, in order to reveal the portrait of the HongKongers from the point of view of the Russians. It will also conduct an experiment among Russian students studying Mandarin, in order to determine how much they are willing to start learning Cantonese, based on what they know about Hong Kong, and how their opinion may change upon learning more about other aspects of the imagined community of the Hongkongers

This panel is on Thursday - Session 03 - Room 6

Go to Room 6