To Recover Cantonese Literature in Hong Kong

I’m not a fan of purportedly Cantonese poetry littered with the particles 了 and 的. That’s Mandarin, not Cantonese. Pronouncing Mandarin as Cantonese no more makes it Cantonese than pronouncing classical Chinese in the Sinoxenic pronunciation of Japan makes it the Japanese language. So something like Dorothy Tse’s 布鳥 (‘Cloth Birds’) doesn’t feel like Cantonese to me: even though every word is read the Cantonese way, it’s not grammatically Cantonese.

The problem is not unknown. As Jennifer Feeley wrote two years ago in her essay ‘Reimagined Cities: Fabulist Tales from Hong Kong’,

There are writers, especially graphic novelists, who have incorporated Cantonese into their work, and perhaps the future will see the rise of a Cantophone literature. At present, however, Chinese-language literature in the territory is primarily composed in standard written Chinese, including the three stories in this feature. Standard written Chinese has a different grammar, and often a different vocabulary, than Cantonese, creating a gap between the written and spoken word. As Andrea Lingenfelter observes, most outsiders, and many in the mainland, regard Cantonese ‘as a dialect, a language that sinks beneath the surface of the written word (standard written Chinese) and is thereby rendered inaudible, unless a Cantonese-speaking author is reading his or her work aloud.’

But the fact is, the problem Feeley describes is virtually artificial. There is actually a rich tradition of literary writing in Cantonese, from the Cantonese operas of Tong Dik-sang 唐滌生 and Nam Hoi 13 Long 南海十三郎 to the Cantopop lyrics of James Wong Jim 黃霑. To speak of Cantonese literature as underdeveloped, or low in status, is belied by the fame and quality of these literary luminaries in Hong Kong.

That these kinds of writing fell by the wayside, and the linguistically Cantonese voice was muted, is due to Hongkongers’ own abandonment of Cantonese literary writing. In the 1980s, Hong Kong had a vital voice in the Sinosphere. The theme song of the television series The Bund 上海灘 (1980), sung by the inimitable Frances Yip, is known all over the Sinosphere. The popularity of Mandarin-speaking singer Teresa Teng in the Sinosphere existed alongside a literary space that Hong Kong writers had carved out for Cantonese in a Mandarin-dominated world, to the extent that Teresa Teng herself recorded songs in Cantonese and spoke Cantonese. Those of us who care about the literary future of Cantonese cannot afford to blame a spectre of Communist erasure of Cantonese and expect such a petty accusation to be vindicated. The plain fact is that almost everyone in Hong Kong speaks Cantonese, but Hong Kong has silenced its own Cantonese literary voice.

What we need is to rebuild whatever was lost in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, and to support the writing and singing of literature that can speak to people’s hearts as Cantonese literature from Hong Kong has done before. This is done neither by mere nostalgia nor by bitterness against Mandarin. A Cantonese muted by its own speakers must find its own voice again.

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