What “Xiqu Centre” Really Means

When I searched “Xiqu Centre” on the Internet, I came across an article where the comments largely voiced the opinion that the Chinese opera center to be erected in West Kowloon is rightfully named “Xiqu” because “Xiqu” is Chinese opera in its native language.

But I felt that those comments were missing the point. Because what first came to my mind was that “Xiqu” may be used to denote “Chinese opera,” but “Xiqu” is not the native term of Hong Kong, the place where the center is to be built. The matter of calling the center “Xiqu” is not about whether or not it is appropriate to give a building an English name based on its native pronunciation; in certain instances, this is okay. However, this issue is about whether it is okay to call something in English/romanized characters according to its pronunciation in a language that is neither English nor native to the area.

The proposed center is to highlight Cantonese opera – a musical genre of the Cantonese-speaking regions that is comparable to western opera. This center will be in Hong Kong – a predominantly Cantonese-speaking community. Cantonese opera, in its native language, is pronounced jyut6 kek6 (粵劇), or if using the general term “Chinese opera,” the Cantonese pronunciation is hei3 kuk1. “Xiqu” is not only a name foreign to potential non-ethnic Chinese tourists to Hong Kong, but also to the people who invented the very musical genre itself, and were the first to accept and enjoy it. [My grandma has long enjoyed Cantonese opera, and she surely would not understand the term “Xiqu” even if it were pronounced in perfect Mandarin.] I think that undermining the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin, along with those between Hong Kong and the Mainland, does a great deal of harm to the culture of Cantonese HongKongers. Mandarin is by no means the native language, yet is asserted by mainland Chinese and westerners alike as if it is. Hong Kong is considered subject to the People’s Republic of China or the Chinese Communist Party even as it does not seem rightfully so.

Such instances of imposition of Mandarin or Mainland culture on Hong Kong people perhaps are not too big of a deal if they remain small and isolated, but they are very capable of igniting more anti-PRC/CCP sentiment within Hong Kong and leading HongKongers to believe that they can only protect themselves by waving the Hong Kong colonial flag or by declaring their desires for Hong Kong independence. And Beijing’s (at times, over-exaggerated) responses only further fuel anti-“Chinese” sentiment within Hong Kong, as HongKongers identify such governmental actions as infringements on the Basic Law and on Hong Kong’s autonomy and on civil rights. While obviously not quite extreme, such events remind me of the American Revolution and the British government’s mishandling of the situation as in trying to quell very preliminary signs of revolution, the government turned to aggression that only exacerbated the anti-mainland sentiment.

In the U.S., we talk about embracing diversity and learning “foreign” languages spoken by some of our peers – Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, etc. On the other hand, in China, you are taught to speak Mandarin first (understandably, to communicate with others) at the expense of your native “dialect” (which is actually a topolect): Confine the context in which you speak your native language to your close family and few friends; refrain from speaking it outside; it is improper because it is not attached to a recognized independent state. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the reason why Cantonese and other “dialects” cannot be recognized as “languages” is primarily due to politics. Because Europe is made up of many independent states while China is just one independent state made up of dependent provinces. Politics, in terms of language, means that yours is irrelevant if it is not unique to or recognized by an independent state as a national language.

In situations like this, I cannot help but muse that Hong Kong’s autonomy either needs to be enforced (perhaps by foreign countries, as much as this seems impossible), or Hong Kong needs independence.*

But really, I can’t help but fear: what’s next? Will Hong Kong really become “Xianggang”?

*Again, impossible, but I can dream, right?