Hong Kong Language Wars: Collateral Damage for Apple

by Translation Guy on July 9, 2012

International retailers are facing collateral damage in the Hong Kong language wars. Apple iTunes is the latest casualty.

Hong Kong fans were irritated to discover that the Apple store was listing favorite Cantonese artists and song titles in Mandarin pinyin, the transliteration system used to write Chinese in Roman script, and not Cantonese transliteration. The same characters are pronounced differently in Cantonese than in Mandarin. Even though both languages use the same set of characters, Mandarin Chinese is written using simplified characters, while Hong Kong Cantonese uses traditional script. Different in pronunciation and grammar make the two languages mutually unintelligible.

So Cantonese speakers have been blindsided by the song lists. “I thought iTunes wouldn’t have many good Cantonese songs, but they even have [Cantopop singer] Paula Tsui,” wrote one Hong Kong user on Twitter. “Still, they’re all in Mandarin pinyin. Unless you actually listened to them, you wouldn’t know what songs they were,” quotes Te-Ping Chen at WSJ.

But the difference between the two languages is about more than character sets and transliteration rules. Mandarin or Putonghua, is the language of all China, while Cantonese is the language of choice in Hong Kong, and Hong Kongers are becoming choosier about language as tensions rise with the mainland.

Now, Hong Kong identity is at stake in the preservation of Cantonese, as the retailer Giordano found out earlier this year when they began using simplified characters on their labels. Activists collected hundreds of signatures to protest the switch. Another protest fingered the menus of French café chain agnes B, which resulted in a quick return of Cantonese to their Hong Kong menus.

“It’s not just about dignity or whether people respect Hong Kong customers,” protest leader Gary Fan told China Real Time. “It’s also about preserving Hong Kong culture, traditional Chinese culture.

“The reason we complain isn’t about [the companies] using simplified characters,” says Fan. “We have no resentment whatsoever about them using simplified characters. The problem is when they use simplified characters to replace traditional characters as a way to curry favor with mainland tourists.”

Which makes it a tough on retailers since currying favor is good for the bottom line. Mainland tourists come to Hong Kong in droves to shop, shop, shop. The 28 million tourists who arrive annually outnumber the locals four to one, and spend around $1000 per visitor.

But for many Hong Kongers, these locusts (as they are known locally) are too much of a good thing. Many fear that Hong Kong is being swamped by the mainland masses and their unmannerly and undemocratic ways. For more on growing differences between Hong Kong and the rest of China, check out this earlier post.

No easy answers to these growing tensions, which makes localization for Hong Kong especially tricky as linguistic flames are fanned.

So back to the good old days, as least for the duration of this post. Here’s Paula Tsui in full Cantonese glory. She’s been the queen of Cantopop for four decades. This is a duet with the legendary Anita Mui in 1991. That’s Paula in her signature black polka dot dress.


  1. Robert says:

    Quite typical of Apple, but they’ll fix it with the next generation release most likely.

  2. Can’t understand a word she is singing, but its better than most American pop music.

  3. John says:

    For $28000000000 in annual business, I think you can make a few sacrifices.

  4. Its actually quite shocking how nasty they can ge about this stuff, I took a Mandarin course for business in China and found myself getting looked down upon in HK becuase I didn’t speak Cantonese.

  5. Sue says:

    They are both wearing polka dot dresses, which one is which?

  6. Col says:

    The Chinese government will eventually create more Mandarin speakers, as more police officers, teachers and government officials are being trained in Mandarin intensively, so this will be interesting a generation from now to see which side ultimately wins out.

    • Ken says:

      I wonder if you can bet on it in Macao.

  7. Debbie Clay says:

    You would think Apple would have the resources to cater to both groups, but then again despite their massive presence, market and impact, Apple does have a solid history of blunders.

    • Ken says:

      Just ask the Beatles.

  8. Harish Kutty says:

    The Hong Kongers certainly have a right to protect their culture from Mainland influence if they so choose, I doubt it will impact them negatively financially either, as the sheer volume of Mainlanders will ensure the money keeps rolling in.

  9. Melanie says:

    I think the HK people need to accept a certain level of cultural infiltration if they want to accept the financial benfits.

    • Ken says:

      High property prices are driving economic frustrations too.

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