Chapman Chen: Regina Yip, Pls Apologize for Denigrating Hong Kong Cantonese

In her recent essay, “Hong Kong’s Youth Need Help to See Themselves in China’s Future”, published in SCMP on 25 November, lawmaker Regina Yip asserts that young Hongkongers’ resistance against and alienation from China is due to their hyrbid East-West culture, in particular, Hong Kong Cantonese as a “lingo”. The National Anthem Law and National Security Law won’t be enough to resolve that. The proper solution is for Hong Kong and Beijing authorities to make Hong Kong young people see the Belt and Road Initiative and the Greater Bay Area Development Plan as opportunities.

Regina Yip is apparently speaking from the point of view of China, aiming at obliterating Hongkongness. Hong Kong Cantonese is an elegant composite language that can be dated back to three thousand years ago. It is the lifeblood of Hongkongers and is now endangered by the HK Government’s enticing with monetary subsidies local schools to teach the Chinese subject in Putonghua. Just like Hong Kong Cantonese assimilating Western loan words, Hong Kong culture organically merges Eastern and Western traditions to form a great civilization in itself, in terms of language, memories, common ancestry, blood ties, customs, values, etc. Its hybridity is a blessing rather than a cursing. The Belt and Road Initiative and the Greater Bay Area Development Plan are just projects for draining the reserve of HK and drowning Hongkongness. Hong Kong Cantonese, as the very essence of Hongkongness, should be honoured and promoted rather than deprecated; Regina Yip had better apologize for bad-mouthing it.

“A unique Cantonese-based Hong Kong lingo permeates local life, rendering Hongkongers, especially young people who grew up after the reunification, almost a different people with their own values, predilections and habits of mind,” says Regina Yip.

HK Cantonese as a Time-honoured, Elegant, and Composite Language

In reality, Cantonese is a time-honoured and refined language that can be dated back to the Spring and Autumn Period (771 to 476 BC). Owing to generations of separation by passes, fortresses, and mountains, Canton and Hong Kong have remained relatively unpolluted by Northern barbarians so that the periphery has actually retained classical Han pronunciation (e.g., checked-tone syllables ending in p, t, k, and lip-closing syllables ending in m), classical Han characters and phrases (like hau6-saang1 後生,meaning the young, which was often used by Confucius and other ancient sages), classical Han grammar (e.g., the double-object construction) and writing style (e.g, use of couplet and antithesis and progressive layers of meaning), and, ultimately, orthodox Chinese culture, all of which gradually became lost in the centre and are largely absent in Putonghua. During Britain’s 150-year reign of Hong Kong, Cantonese was conserved rather than ruined, and it developed sturdily, absorbing Western loan words and concepts, and became together with English the de facto official spoken languages of Hong Kong.

The word “lingo”, which is used by Regina Yip to call Hong Kong Cantonese, is a derogative term. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, lingo means “A strange or incomprehensible language or speech: such as… a foreign language”. Regina Yip should apologize for denigrating the mother tongue of most Hongkongers.

Just like Hong Kong Cantonese combines Pak Yuet 百越 language, ancient Han language, and Western loan words, Hong Kong culture merges Southern China (Lingnam) culture, orthodox Han culture, and Western culture to form a great civilization of its own. Whether Hong Kong people constitute a people is controversial. But Hong Kong people at least comprise a distinct ethnic group. According to Susanne Reichl (2001), ethnicity is ” the sense of identification of oneself or of others as belonging to a group of people who share (real or putative) common ancestry, language, blood ties, religion, customs, memories, and/or phenotypal features.” Let us now examine these aspects of Hong Kong one by one.
The mother tongue of most Hongkongers is standard Cantonese, while, due to nearly seventy years’ coercive policy of using Putonghua as the teaching medium in Communist China schools has contaminated even the Cantonese in Canton. English is also one of the official language of Hong Kong, in contrast to China.
Common ancestry
The ancestors of most Hongkongers were refugees fleeing tyranny and political persecution on the Chinese Mainland.
The collective memories of Hongkongers, vastly different from China-people, include 150 years’ British colonial rule of law, three years and eight months of Japanese occupation, influx of refugees from China in the 1950s and 1960s, 1967 Leftist Riots, 1.5 million-strong march in Hong Kong in support of the Tiananmen Square Student Movement in 1989, 1997 transfer of sovereignty, 500,000-strong march against the enactment of the national security law on July 1, 2003, 2014 Umbrella Revolution, 2016 Fish Ball Revolution, etc.
Religion and Customs
Hong Kong has enjoyed religious freedom and tolerance for 170 years. No religion in Hong Kong has to pledge allegiance to the Government or to any ruling regime. Taditional customs like Mid-Autumn Festival, Chung Yeung Festival, are also well preserved in Hong Kong.
Blood Ties and Phenotypal Features
The majority of Hongkongers are ethnic Chinese, but there are also other racial groups, including whites, Indians, Thais, etc. Some Hongkongers are mixed in blood and in physical features, like Bruce Lee, Stanley Ho, Michele Monique Reis.
Hong Kong values include Confucian benevolence, Christian love, and Western ideas of freedom and equality.

The hyrbid culture of Hong Kong, epitomized by Hong Kong Cantonese art, is the key to Hong Kong’s creativity and success. For example, according to the essay, “The 2011 New Song ‘Brighten Me with Virtues”, by Dr. C.H. Ng and Dr. Wong Chi-chung, the great HK singer and lyricist, “Sam Hui [1948- ], with his bold infusion of local vernacular into western Rock and Pop music genres in the 1970s, literally created a new language of pop music.” Similarly, the great Hong Kong composer, Joseph Koo (1933- ) combines Western pop style and traditional Chinese folklore style. “My compositions are actually best performed by a western orchestra because of the strong sense of rhythm in Canto-pop, something traditional Chinese music doesn’t have,” said Koo in 2008. The works of the great HK Cantonese opera composers, Dickson Tong 唐滌生 (1917-1959) and Chui Tsz-long徐子郎 (1936-1965), also assimilate Western musical arrangements and concepts into traditional Southern China opera.

On the one hand, Regina Yip blames the hybrid culture of HK for rendering the younger generation “emotionally and linguistically neither part of China nor part of the Western world”. On the other hand, she blames the average Hong Kong youth for “their unwillingness to cross cultural borders” and merge with the China nation. This is self-contradictory for a hybrid culture is by definition culture-crossing. And the conflict in question is not a conflict between two cultures but a confrontation between civilization and barbarism. According to the internationally renowned HK columnist, Chip Tsao (2001), ” The Chinese Communist Party is precisely a uncouth guy who destroys orthodox Chinese language and culture”. The Three-anti Campaign (1951) , Five-anti Campaign (1952), Cultural Revolution (1967-1977), etc. have thoroughly uprooted orthodox Chinese culture on the Chinese Mainland. Contemporary China has lost orthodox Chinese culture and has never truly absorbed Western culture, while Hong Kong has integrated the virtues of both.

By alleging “While the older Chinese in Hong Kong – the immigrants from mainland China and the baby boomers – are far more attached to the mainland and comfortable with their Chinese cultural heritage, the younger generations” are “unable to connect with people from the mainland”, Regina Yip also tries to alienate the pre-1997 HK generation from the post-1997 generation. In reality, the more mature Hongkongers, having witnessed the 1980s-Golden Era of Hong Kong, may be even more immersed in Hong Kong culture than the post-97 youngsters, many of whom have been taught the Chinese subject in Putonghua.

Since the 1997 handover, under pressure and encouragement from the Government, 70 percent of primary schools and 25 percent of secondary schools in HK have replaced Cantonese with Putonghua as the medium of instruction, particularly of Chinese as a subject. Prof. Robert Bauer (2000), an American expert in HK Cantonese, predicts that if this trend continues, the tradition of HK students reading written Chinese in Cantonese will vanish within a couple of decades; the publication of Cantonese works will shrink; educated and/or young Hongkongers will feel ashamed of speaking Cantonese in public. Cantonese will then become a sub-class and sub-culture language. And with the continuous influx of Putonghua-speaking immigrants from Communist China, HK Cantonese may even become extinct.

The Belt and Road Initiative and the Greater Bay Area Development Plan are opportunities for Hongkongers?

Former Hong Kong home secretary Patrick Ho were recently arrested in US over alleged Africa bribery scheme on behalf of a Chinese energy company linked to the Belt and Road Initiative. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau mega bridge project has multiple problems affecting the Hong Kong section, including the drifting of the artificial island, a one-year delay to the Hong Kong Link Road and HK$15 billion in cost overruns, which will push the final price tag for the Hong Kong section to HK$117 billion.

In conclusion, Hong Kong Cantonese, as the quintessence of Hongkongess, should be cherished and promoted rather than denigrated and damaged. In order to preserve and advance the real local culture and language, Hongkongers should initiate a local Han language movement, in which the Hong Kong Government’s policy of enticing with money Hong Kong schools to teach the Chinese subject in Putonghua instead of Cantonese should be done away with. A new subject of Hong Kong Cantonese culture should be added to the curriculum of primary, secondary and tertiary schools here. Emphasis should be laid on the development of an elegant Hong Kong Han language, which organically combines classical Chinese, modern Chinese, and Cantonese, plus loan words from the West (The Elegant Cantonese Dictionary authored by Chapman Chen precisely serves this purpose). Hong Kong Cantonese opera and Cantonese opera film should also be restituted as a kind of fashion. And local film industry should be resuscitated, stressing a cross play of Hong Kong and Western characteristics, so as to re-open Western and Japanese markets.
(Photo credit: RTHK)