Chinese vs Cantonese in Hong Kong

by Translation Guy on July 6, 2012

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.

Ken Wei, the outspoken Cantonese subway rider shown in the video, is a hero in Hong Kong, but was called a “running dog” back in China, at least by controversial Peking University professor Kong Qingdong, who argues that Hong Kong natives are arrogant traitors.

Kong, a direct descendent of Confucius and the self-described “Drunkard of Peking University” appears to be the kind of guy who will say anything to get on TV, and his nationalistic rants enjoy a wide following. He did eventually backtrack a bit from these statements. I will have to rely on more informed commenters as to how widely these views are shared by both sides.

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.


  1. Yau Kwan Kiu says:

    “and Mandarin has only just edged out English as Hong Kong’s favorite second language.”

    I heard the news. That’s a well-known case of misleading with statistics with a hint of typical Chinese equivocation. Mandarin is not most Hong Konger’s second language. It’s English. Mandarin is the third language for most Hong Kongers. From what I remember, that piece of statistics only concluded that Mandarin was the second “favoured language”.

  2. Yau Kwan Kiu says:

    and the so-called “Yue Chinese” – I suppose you got it from Wikipedia?

    – doesn’t exist. Cantonese is Cantonese.

    The term “Yue Chinese” is a fabricated term, with very little support.

    • Ken says:

      Fabricated by a lot of people I guess, since it seems to be everywhere on the Internet.

    • Anonymous says:

      Well, Yue Chinese is just another way of saying Cantonese. Same goes with ‘White language’ , 白话. And Yue Chinese is the more generally accepted way of saying Cantonese, as opposed to ‘Guang Dong Hua’, which is the literal translation of ‘Guang Dong’Language.

      • Ken says:


  3. Having done a fair amount of business in Asia, especially Hong Kong and Mainland China (specifically Beijing and Shanghai), these attitudes are really quite prevelant. I’ve had to become at least proficient in both Mandarin and Cantonese to avoid tension, which is really quite obvious when speaking the wrong language to the wrong people.

    • Ken says:

      Have you observed similar tensions in other regions of China, Michael?

  4. Shirley says:

    Having been to both places, I can certainly see why Hong Kong residents wouldn’t want their culture to become to Mainland. Mainland China is really quite a dirty place, with people having little care for their surroundings in the cities, and also they are really quite rude, which I found surprising.

  5. Being an outsider to both cultures, but having experience with both HK and the Mainland, I can say that generally I have found Mainlanders rude, disrespectful and not the most conscientious of people. Therefore I can see why adding the element of linguistic tension to the situation would make this quite a volatile situation.

  6. I miss the British rule, things were better then.

    • I have never lived in Hong Kong or anything, but, from what I have heard, I agree with you. British rule did seem better. Who knows though.

  7. Pam White says:

    I think the CCP is too focused on cultural homogenization, and not enough on raising the living standards of their citizens.

    • Ken says:

      There’s always been a constituency for cultural consistency. Hydraulic societies do that.

  8. Judy Wagner says:

    My experience is that while nationalistic sentiment is quite popular on the Mainland, and things like the second video are relatively commonplace; the younger generations are less enamored with such viewpoints, and the trend long term will be more liberal and less in line with the hardline old school communist party.

    • Ken says:

      That’s encouraging news. I was unable to find any demographics on Chinese nationalism, even after an intensive search on Google for over 5 minutes, (includes the sneezing Panda video.)

  9. My personal experience with travelling for business, is that Mandarin is rarely spoken in Hong Kong, and given the attitude of Hong Kong towards most culture aspects of the Mainland, I doubt that will change. They tend to see Mainlanders as their dumber, more uncivilized cousins they are ashamed of.

  10. Cheryl says:

    Hker’s should stop trying to be something they aren’t, they are Chinese and should therefore accept Chinese culture and stop trying self hating.

  11. Sarah McCann says:

    I certainly can’t see Cantonese ever becoming secondary to Mandarin, or even on par with it in HK. Firstly its the predominant business language for a city that essentially exists becuase of the financial center, secondly most Hong Kong residents really do hate the Mainland quite fiercely, at least in my experience.

  12. Dione Cozens says:

    Having lived in Hong Kong for years before the handover by the British, I honestly loved it, but I couldn’t stick around very long afterwards. Mainland influence created a downward trend, increased tension and generally made things worse.

  13. Iwona says:

    It’s the Hong Kong people who are in the wrong, they are racist against their own people and attack a supposedly despotic regime while not allowing people to eat on a train.

    • Ken says:

      Here in NYC we are soon to be forbidden 16 oz (475 ml) sodas on and off the subway. Sigh. At least the trains run on time, more or less.

  14. This is truly a great article! Very well written. It looks as though China is moving towards making Mandarin even more widespread than it is now.

    I have studied the basics of both Mandarin and Cantonese, but I have never come close to attaining any degree of fluency in either. Personally though, Cantonese sounds better to me. I realize that Mandarin is spoken much more frequency, especially in mainland China.

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