I constantly see the scenes of Hong Kong people showing dislikes of non-Chinese speakers speaking to them in Mandarin (also known as Putonghua) rather than Cantonese. What Hong Kong people would do is to reply those foreigners in Cantonese, but never Mandarin. Because they think that:
1. “Hey, I can speak English, why the hell you talk to me in Mandarin?”
2. “This is Hong Kong, man. Speak what the locals speak!”
2. “Don’t think that I’m a Mainland Chinese, I’m a Hong Kong-ese!”
updated on Aug 15th, 2011:
For “non-Mandarin speakers” and “non-Cantonese speakers” mentioned here, I mainly refer to foreigners who are not native Chinese or Cantonese speakers. Those Chinese living or born overseas who speak Mandarin or Cantonese don’t count.
And the hatred comes from…
A big part of the reason can be attributed to Hong Kong people’s excessive emphasis on self identification as a Hong Kong citizen (who speak Cantonese) rather than a Chinese (who speaks Mandarin), even though Hong Kong has politically been a part of China since its sovereignty being returned to China from the British government in 1997.
In fact, Hong Kong people have always been proud of the higher economic prosperity of their city than in China which was still in the early stage of development back in a few decades ago. Hong Kong people always showed superiority over Mainland Chinese at that time. Hong Kong people were more white, more educated, earned more and they spoke Cantonese. As times go by, Hong Kong people linked their superiority over Chinese with the physical and cultural difference – including the language they speak. That’s why, Hong Kong people feel offensive if foreigners speak to them in Putonghua rather than Cantonese.
Why don’t non-Chinese speakers learn Cantonese then?
1. They simply just don’t need to
Almost all the Hong Kong people can speak or at least understand a bit of English, and Chinese language (the written one) wasn’t a compulsory subject in secondary schools in Hong Kong until in the late 1970s. All university students have to write in English for their works. Even for secondary schools, there are both Chinese-medium and English-medium ones. In the early days, many secondary schools were English-medium and students have to write all their academic essays in English for all subjects except Chinese Language, Chinese Literature and Chinese History. Therefore, it’s an ingrained historical force that has trained Hong Kong people to understand English.
2. They prefer learning Mandarin
Don’t blame them, China’s economy is developing in meteoric speed and everyone is learning Mandarin, not just foreigners who want to be more competitive, but also Hong Kong locals themselves. In fact, the best Mandarin-speakers in Hong Kong are those 9-year-old kids who are forced by their rich parent to have private Putonghua lessons every week. Those 30 to 40-year-olds in Hong Kong speak the worst Mandarin.
3. Cantonese is too hard to learn
Both Cantonese and Mandarin are a language with tones, meaning if you say words with the same pinyin (phonetic spelling) in different tones, they mean differently. Mandarin has 4 tones, Vietnamese has 6 tones and Cantonese has 9 tones! (Some system says that Cantonese has 6 tones but having 9 tones is the most common understanding) So how could the foreigners not be scared away?
Is Cantonese worthwhile to learn?
These are at least 66 million Cantonese-speaking population in the world. A lot of Singaporeans and Malaysians also speak Cantonese. Most of the Chinese citizens in US, Canada and Australia speak Cantonese, too. In fact, Cantonese is the second local language in Australia*. So being able to speak Cantonese means that you can communicate with a big part of the Chinese community in the world.
I mean, any language is worthwhile to learn if you want to actually live in the culture and interact with the locals; same as anything is worthwhile to learn if you want yourself to be a better person because you feel happy about it.
You can lean some interesting Cantonese at Canton168. If you want to see examples of a English speaker learning Cantonese, go to Lost in Mong Kok.