There’s been a bit of brouhaha lately over the future of the Cantonese language. Things started when China apparently banned certain Cantonese dialects from television shows. Then it picked up another notch when the times reported that more and more schools in the US are getting rid of Cantonese as a foreign language. Worst of all, they’re considering switching from traditional Chinese text (which Cantonese uses) to simplified Chinese (which is widely used in China)
Simplified Chinese was created by the government some decades back to combat the increasing illiteracy rate in China. It’s essentially a dumbed down version of the language–easier to read, easier to write. Of course, now that China is a world power, I believe they should give the benefit of the doubt to its people and bring back traditional Chinese.
But anyway, this entry isn’t about the Chinese in writing. It’s about talking: Cantonese vs Mandarin. I’m well aware that Cantonese is a minority language, and I fully understand that if a Chinese kid in Canton speaks only Cantonese, his opportunities for work are extremely limited.
Mandarin is a must.
But that doesn’t mean we have to get rid of one language for another. Cantonese, to me–with its slangs and colorful wordplay (often insults and disses) and its raw attitude–is the hip hop/black talk to Mandarin’s English. It’s got too much swagger, too much style, too much flow, to be shoved aside. People won’t put up with this. It’s why Stephen Chow insults are still legendary to this day, it’s why Jim Chim just released a book of Hong Kong joke terms mixing English and Chinese, and it’s why that Shawn Yue/Miriam Yeung romcom Love in a Puff was so well recieved this year.
And once you learn the language and hear the insults, there is no going back. Mandarin insults are tame, and downright corny by comparisons (example: calling someone crazy in mandarin translates literally to English as “you suffer from mental disorder” ). Of course, this goes beyond insults, this can also apply to descriptions and praises as well. But you know, yo mama praises just don’t fly as well, eh?
So me, TOHK’s graphic designer, a former intern, and a former Around Town Editor–now living in NYC–and I were talking about this over Facebook. Cantonese must be kept alive. Two of them are ABCs (East coasters) and I’m about as American as a non-ABC can get. But still, we ain’t ever forgotten about our Canto roots.
You can take the kid off Cantonese, but you can’t take Cantonese off the kid.