It’s official. Hong Kong’s new chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, gave his inaugural speech in Chinese. Not especially surprising, since Chinese is generally what’s spoken in China.
Leung’s acceptance speech was the first time that only Mandarin Chinese has been spoken at such an event in 15 years.
Mandarin Chinese, or Putonghua, is China’s official language, but Cantonese is the language of choice in Hong Kong. Most people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese (89%), and Mandarin has only just edged out English as Hong Kong’s favorite second language.
Putonghua and Cantonese and their two writing systems (simplified vs. traditional) reflect the “One country, two systems” promise made to the citizens of Hong Kong when the UK handed over the colony to the Chinese government. The Hong Kong system included free markets, a free press, and multiparty elections. Beijing would take care of foreign relations and military defense under this Basic Law.
Leung’s appointment coincides with the 15-year anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China. “Maybe he did it because he knows that the event will be broadcast throughout the [Chinese] nation, so his main audience is on the other side of the border,” says City University political scientist Linda Li.
The show certainly didn’t play well in Hong Kong. Tens of thousands marched later in the day to demand the resignation of Leung, who was elected with 689 votes from a 1,200-seat committee of business elites who mostly voted according to Beijing’s wishes. Hong Kong’s 3.4 million registered voters, who can vote for neighborhood councilors and half of all lawmakers, had no say. Many view him as a puppet of the Beijing dictatorship, and his election/appointment is stoking Hong Kong fears that the two systems are starting to look more like just one.
“Language has long been a flashpoint in Hong Kong’s at times stormy relationship with the mainland, with demonstrators earlier this year staging protests against retailers such Giordano’s and agnes b for their use of simplified characters of the kind used in mainland China, rather than the traditional ones commonly used in Hong Kong and Taiwan,” reports Te-Ping Chen in her WSJ blog.
Cantonese is the prestige dialect of Yue Chinese. Even though Cantonese shares much vocabulary with standard Mandarin Chinese used throughout China, pronunciation and grammatical differences make the two languages mutually unintelligible.
Cantonese has become important to local identity, and is used by locals as a marker to distinguish the civility of Hong Kong society from coarse mainland manners. Chinese from beyond the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, known locally as wong chong, (locusts) are filling maternity wards (so their kids can have HK residency status), driving up real estate prices with speculative investment and eating noodles on the train or worse, to the fury of Hong Kong natives. Many Hong Kongers feel as if they are getting the short end of the stick, and tensions are running high on both sides of the language divide.
Check out this clip. This argument began when a Cantonese –speaking straphanger suggested to a mainlander that they shouldn’t be eating noodles on the subway. She and her companion responded by mocking his poor Putonghua. He suggested that since they were in Hong Kong they should be speaking Cantonese. Eventually security arrived, (the heavy-set guy in the two-tone tracksuit) and the dispute continued, especially after the video went viral on YouTube.
More on this story and other animosities at the Dictionary of Politically Incorrect Hong Kong Cantonese. Implications for retailers to be addressed in an upcoming post.