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?


What June 4 and July 1 Mean to Hong Kong People

(Image: CNN)

Under British rule, Hong Kong prospered with foreign investments, remaining safely distanced and protected from whatever turmoil occupied the mainland time after time. Witnessing the Communist Revolution and all the disastrous events that followed, Hong Kong people increasingly felt assured by the peace and order they found in British rule; to be told that this wouldn’t last – that Hong Kong belonged to China, and that it would surely return – was devastating. It is safe to say that Hong Kong’s history of British rule has instilled in its people a deep, overwhelming sense of entitlement to democracy – universal suffrage – even as China continues in its communist ways. And it is this legacy of British rule that has compelled some Hong Kong people to take up the burdening responsibility of attempting (in the least) to protect their freedoms, perhaps in ways that even those residing in democratic states currently do not. Most notably, Hong Kong people organize on two specific dates – June 4 and July 1 – yearly in an assertion of their current freedom and a demonstration of their collective desire for real democracy.

Nearly twenty-five years ago, in 1989, a respected politician’s death spurred student-led demonstrations in Beijing and other cities; at first, demonstrators wanted reform, but later on, the protests became more radical with some hunger strikes and some demands for democracy. Wikipedia claims that 1.5 million participated in a pro-democracy march in Hong Kong on May 21, 1989.

On the night of June 3, tanks were brought into Beijing and Tiananmen Square where many were demonstrating (as stated by Wikipedia as I have no recollection of the events). A South China Morning Post opinion article provides some thoughts and information on the protests.

Every year since, Hong Kong people have organized candlelight vigils on June 4 in Victoria Park in remembrance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and those who died in the massacre. Last year’s vigil saw a larger turnout: organizers estimated 180,000 in attendance; the death of political activist Li Wangyang days after additionally sparked political outcry (pictures included here).

(Image: Alanala)

(Image: Alanala)

Alanala, a Hong Kong photography blog, provides pictures and accounts of some of the activities on and surrounding June 4 in 2012.

(Image: Alanala)

(Image: Alanala)

Meanwhile, July 1 marks the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to China; the British and other westerners call it the “handover,” while in Chinese I’ve only heard it been referred to as the “return.” While July 1 is a public holiday that features various festivities, celebrations, and fireworks, thousands take to the streets to voice their concerns or dissatisfaction with the government and the current state of affairs; organizers estimated that ~400,000 took to the streets in 2012. [It seems that a moderately credible place that has compiled much apparently accurate information in a relatively succinct manner about the July 1 marches is Wikipedia.]

What really spurred me to write about these mass demonstrations of Hong Kong people was learning once again about the March on Washington in 1963 for civil rights (perhaps deriving much of its fame from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s deliverance of his “I Have a Dream” speech there) and how much emphasis some Americans put on both the demonstration and the speech; I couldn’t help but find it unfair that it seems that most Americans and many of those who are ethnic Chinese regard Hong Kong as just a part of China, and do not realize how much political activism these Hong Kong people constantly undertake year after year. I in part opened this blog to ask questions like this – why does the world not pay as much attention to Hong Kong? Hong Kong, this small city boasts so many in attendance year after year: Hong Kong’s population is a little over 7 million, and yet even the conservative police estimates of the attendance of 2012’s July 1 protest – 63,000 – means that about more than 1 in 120 Hong Kong citizens protested last year. If we were to use the liberal estimate of 400,000, that would mean that more than 1 in 20 people participated. (I would assume that the actual participation in this protest is between these two figures.) Just thinking about those figures alone is honestly quite astounding. Hong Kong people are so vocal about their desire for democracy, yet it seems very few actually hear them; at times it seems as if only the Chinese government recognizes these grievances (and consequently passive-aggressively tries to assert dominance of Hong Kong and affirm that Hong Kong would die without its “help”).

I will just say that I believe I would be satisfied if the world recognized Hong Kong’s overwhelming desire for democracy, and that Hong Kong people are not satisfied with Hong Kong’s current state of affairs with “one country, two systems”; that even as “one country, two systems” is always described as granting Hong Kong people a liberal amount of autonomy and freedom, it is not enough. An increasing number of Hong Kong people – especially those called ” ’90 後” in Chinese, or the generation of those born after 1990 – are not satisfied with pseudo-democracy that in fact denies them one of the most important aspects of democracy: one person, one vote; universal suffrage to elect members to Hong Kong’s legislative body and to ultimately directly elect Hong Kong’s chief executive.

I won’t say that many Hong Kong people are trying to achieve Hong Kong’s independence through these demonstrations, but during these demonstrations, it can seem as if Hongkongers’ views are so different from those of the mainland Chinese government and that the “Hong Kong” government is so unresponsive to their grievances that ideally, Hong Kong could achieve independence and democracy. Taking reality into perspective, this is very much unfeasible since it has been years since the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in 1984.

Of course it’s always nice that Hongkongers can even publicly remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre and continue to protest the government, but if the [mainland] government holds so much jurisdiction that the local [Hong Kong] government does not even bother responding to their needs, is Hong Kong really that much better off? “A high degree of autonomy” still is not democracy and it seems that the vagueness of such a phrase allows the mainland government to interpret it however it may wish, as long as Hong Kong has relatively more freedom and autonomy than the People’s Republic of China.

And so my internal struggle also continues – is hoping that Hong Kong will change for the better and even possibly shaping my life and future based on my desire to help Hong Kong society in some way naive? Am I too young and too small to actually spark or contribute to change in Hong Kong? And even if Hong Kong achieved true autonomy and democracy and freedom, would Hong Kong people be happy and satisfied – would their desire to participate in government so dramatically diminish (much to my disappointment) if they were to achieve it?

(Image: Alanala)

(Image: Alanala)

I feel so morally and socially compelled to help Hong Kong in some way, but I don’t know if such sentiment is just part of a fleeting phase of childish and youthful optimism on my part; but at the same time, even as I enjoy the other subjects I am considering pursuing, I do not feel I could really benefit society by pursuing careers in them. Another question I ask myself is, if I were to make an active and prolonged effort to help Hong Kong, would I find myself in a place of unemployment?

Margaret Thatcher and the Handover of Hong Kong

I was wandering around on the Internet last Thursday (as I often do) when I came across the British record of Margaret Thatcher’s meeting with Deng Xiaoping as they started formal talks about the future of Hong Kong in 1982. As I wasn’t even born in 1982, this was my first time learning about this talk and the roles and stances Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping took on Hong Kong’s future status; I only knew that basically, in the 1980s, Great Britain eventually caved into China’s demands and decided to return Hong Kong to China.

I can’t help but find such documentation of certain historical events like this fascinating; reading of the adamance of both Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping at the time, I found it somewhat miraculous that the sides came to an agreement, albeit a very flawed one that Hong Kong people are currently bearing the repercussions of. After reading the British record of the events, I felt compelled (as I often do with Hong Kong-related news) to search for more to read about the handover. And here is what I read. (Note: The reason for the delay in this post is that I read up on Margaret Thatcher and Hong Kong as I was supposed to pack for a trip the next day…along with finish up some work due the next day. Procrastination at its best?)

I’ve also never read [at-one-time-secret] official government accounts of diplomatic discussions; and despite Thatcher’s failure to secure long-term British administration of Hong Kong, I can’t help but feel her initial “Iron Lady”-type obstinacy commendable:

British Record of Meeting Between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People on Friday 24 September [1982] at 10:30 AM

Additional readings, published(?) by British news agencies the Independent and the Telegraph, respectively:

How Mrs Thatcher Lost Hong Kong: Ten years ago, fired up by her triumph in the Falklands war, Margaret Thatcher flew to Peking for a last-ditch attempt to keep Hong Kong under British rule – only to meet her match in Deng Xiaoping. Two years later she signed the agreement handing the territory to China

As this was written in 1992, I wonder if the [British or Western] public opinion of the 1990s on the upcoming transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong was likewise bleak and pessimistic, and if Britain or the West actually cared about Hong Kong’s future political outlook (as it is quite apparent in present-day that Hong Kong has been driven almost completely off the radar). Written in narrative form, it brings the events to life in full color; I believe this is an excerpt from a book published in 1993, titled The End of Hong Kong: The Secret Diplomacy of Imperial Retreat.

And something comforting yet at the same time disheartening:

My regrets over Hong Kong by Lady Thatcher

I feel a bit comforted knowing that some important non-Chinese people do indeed think of Hong Kong at times, albeit Thatcher who most certainly should as the British representative who signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration herself. But of course, the disheartening part comes into play as Thatcher, like many (myself included), regrets Hong Kong’s current situation, or at least the fact that it is indeed back in China’s power now.

And so you have it, part one* of my readings about Margaret Thatcher and the handover of Hong Kong.

*assuming I will have time to revisit the 1980s in the future when I might find myself less busy

Chinese: Dialects, Topolects, or Languages?

Growing up, my idea of “Chinese” was Cantonese. As an ethnic Chinese born and raised in the States, I primarily encountered English on a regular basis outside and Cantonese at home; I rarely encountered Mandarin when I was young, or even when I did, I didn’t know it was also “Chinese.” My parents and all of their Chinese friends primarily spoke Cantonese, I attended a Chinese school that held instruction in Cantonese, and frequented a Chinatown in which most people I saw as Chinese spoke Cantonese.

Thus, identifying as “Chinese” at school and in the greater American community, Cantonese and Chinese were the same to me. I was Chinese, I spoke Chinese, I went to Chinese school and learned Chinese; in all situations, Chinese seemed synonymous for Cantonese. But perhaps I first learned of Mandarin in first grade when some classmates were also Chinese, but didn’t quite speak the same. It was much later that I learned about “Chinese” in a more general sense – the plethora of “dialects” and the differences between simplified and traditional Chinese.

In recent times, as I find myself more perceptive of people’s perspectives on “Chinese,” I have observed some young family friends (10 years old and younger) who are also American-born Chinese and their perceptions of “Chinese.” In a sense, they are more tied to their Chinese roots than me: they continued to primarily speak Cantonese with parents and schoolteachers perhaps even up to age 10 (while Cantonese was never really the main language I used) and learned Mandarin in Chinese school, additionally visiting Hong Kong quite much more frequently than me (about every other year). But moving on from their backgrounds, perhaps this is telling of Chinese people’s natural perspectives of “Chinese” – these children refer to Cantonese just as “Chinese.” If speaking about both Cantonese and Mandarin, for example, they might ask, “Does he speak Chinese or Mandarin?” In this way, with their frequent visits to Hong Kong, I feel that they have developed the concept of Hong Kong specifically (in contrast to Guangdong or the whole of China) being their ethnic “Chinese” home – where Chinese people speak Cantonese, what they perceive as “Chinese.”

Speaking from my experience and how I believe these young children perceive “Chinese,” from a non-political standpoint, it seems rather odd to deem your native tongue a mere second-class “dialect” when you feel it is a complex and complete language in itself — one you can fully express yourself in. Additionally, while being told that you are “Chinese” and speak “Chinese,” you can’t help but see little reason to make a distinction and call the “Chinese” you speak – Cantonese – something other than “Chinese.”

But in another sense, I think that our interpretations of “Chinese” reveals some disconnect between the way we think about and speak of dialects or languages in English and Chinese. In Chinese, we call Cantonese and Mandarin “方言,” which is seen as the Chinese equivalent of “dialect.” But as this academic paper, Language or Dialect—or Topolect? A Comparison of the Attitudes of Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese towards the Status of Cantonese, suggests, “topolect” seems like a more accurate translation of “方言” and classification of “Cantonese” and “Mandarin”: regional speech. And although reading such a paper may seem like a daunting and laborious task, I would highly recommend it to those interested in thoroughly learning what we should call Chinese “dialects” and why. (Otherwise, I think the abstract (page 3) would suffice.) As a paper published about five years ago (it was published in February 2008), this paper is relatively recent; I found it in part intriguing because of its relevancy to the current(ly being molded) identity of Cantonese in Hong Kong. (In other words, you should read it.)

Language or Dialect—or Topolect? A Comparison of the Attitudes of Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese towards the Status of Cantonese, is just one of many Sino-Platonic Papers at the University of Pennsylvania which present research centered on East Asian studies. While exploring the site, I have also found a paper more on Chinese in general: What Is a Chinese “Dialect/Topolect”? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms. Although I have yet to read this latter paper, perhaps it would be informative and suitable for those more interested in linguistics and Chinese in general (as evident, I tend to focus on information and readings primarily relevant to Cantonese).

(Yay for happy and leisurely academic readings!)

Resolving the China Infant Formula Crisis

Just thinking about the recent happenings in Hong Kong, Australia, the Netherlands, and so many places, it seems that it’s mainly Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese debating what should be done. And I too have spent some time asking myself, Are the newly-imposed restrictions on taking Hong Kong infant formula out the best way to combat such a problem? Are Hong Kong people being over-sensitive? Are mainland Chinese being over-sensitive? Is either side in the wrong, and if so, how much? (and so on.)

But when it all boils down to what’s at the core, I think the real issue about this doesn’t necessarily involve questions like,

Should Hong Kong not restrict trade? Are Hong Kong people “jealous” of mainland Chinese and discriminatory against them? Do mainland Chinese downright lack ethics? Is this evidence that mainland Chinese are coming to dominate Hong Kong little by little? Continue reading

Hong Kong News Written by Hong Kong People

It’s ridiculous how underrepresented and misrepresented Hong Kong people are in Western media. Sure, Hong Kong is no longer a British colony and is politically a “special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China, but just because people come to have a new political identity doesn’t mean that their views will likewise change to that of people in the state.

I don’t know how Germans felt when Germany was reunified, but anyhow, many Hong Kong people fled before 1997, fearing communist repression and many who stayed aren’t feeling the love or oneness that they supposedly should. It’s a bit different when you’re “returning” after about 100 years and when the state that you’re “returning” to evidently represses individual freedoms more than the state you formerly belonged to did. Continue reading

Online Cantonese Input Method

Something that I have found interesting about many older Cantonese speakers who do not speak Mandarin (when I refer to “Cantonese speakers” or “Mandarin speakers” later in this post, I mean those who only know Cantonese OR Mandarin, not both) is that they do not know how to type Chinese on a computer. I know quite a few Cantonese-speaking people who only lived in Hong Kong, not mainland China, before immigrating overseas to non-Cantonese-speaking communities long before computers came into use. As these Cantonese-speaking Chinese lived abroad before computer skills became necessary (or at least helpful) for life, they are unable to type in Chinese on computers; many primarily use English on the computer even as they are much more comfortable with Cantonese conversation-wise.

Some of the reasons for this are:

1. the easiest method of typing Chinese on the computer involves using Mandarin pinyin (while many former Hong Kong citizens only know Cantonese, not Mandarin);

2. alternate methods of typing Chinese involve handwriting Chinese characters on an IME recognition pad, or learning unique codes for parts (not exactly radicals) of characters, that may seem complex or time-consuming; and

3. they do not know that there is exists a method that they can use to type Chinese using Cantonese jyutping.

This third option refers to Cantonese Input, which is very helpful in allowing such Cantonese speakers easily to Chinese characters. This input method is what I would call the Cantonese equivalent of pinyin – the phonetic method that many Mandarin speakers use to type Chinese characters on the computer. For those who can reasonably relate Cantonese pronunciations of Chinese characters to their romanized jyutping equivalents, this method allows them to type on the computer using Cantonese, the language that they primarily speak and think in.

Although many have become fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin recently, for those who primarily speak Cantonese and might be unable to speak Mandarin at all, or just feel more comfortable using Cantonese for daily use (both of which describe me in certain ways), this site is extremely helpful.

But a large disadvantage about this input method could be that the lack of very standardized Cantonese romanization or the complexity of Cantonese pronunciation in general might render one unable to start typing using this method right away; it can be difficult for Cantonese speakers to use this method by sounding-out Chinese words to find their romanization, as they learned Cantonese pronunciations by hearing, not by relating romanized sounds to them as foreign-born/raised Cantonese might have.

But despite this, I think this input method is the easiest and fastest for Cantonese speakers (unless they have already perfected using another method), just as pinyin has become (what I believe is) the most widely used method to type for Mandarin speakers. Additionally, the fact that Cantonese Input is online for all those who might come across it alone makes it so pleasantly free and accessible; if  you are considering what method to use in typing Chinese, try it out!

(In case you missed the link: http://cantoneseinput.com/)


I can’t help but feel that the term “Chinese” used in universities and seemingly everywhere is very centered on what the People’s Republic of China’s government has defined as “Chinese,” even as it is supposed to cover the whole political region of China in which over 1 billion people live.

If you just think about it, even if a region that is inhabited by so many people is just one political state, there is bound to be more than just one language within the region – we just conveniently simplify these languages in deeming the language of China solely “Chinese.” So why aren’t these languages called languages, but dialects? Perhaps if one attempted to draw parallels in linguistic differences among Chinese “dialects” and Western European “languages,” he might find that they were equal in distinction. But in today’s context, that doesn’t seem to mean anything: why? Because China is one political state, while western Europe is made up of numerous? I can’t help but feel a bit wronged. Maybe I wouldn’t go so far as to push for Cantonese to be recognized as a distinct language, but I still feel that this distinction must be addressed for anyone who might learn “Chinese,” which most likely refers to Mandarin and simplified Chinese, the language that supposedly over 1 billion people speak as their “native” language. I feel that too many think that the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese are as simple as “Hello” and “Howdy” and one area using the term “hella” or “hecka” in conversation, with another area using the term “wicked.”

Maybe I’m just terribly afraid of the possibility that Cantonese will fade away and die with Hong Kong becoming just another city in the People’s Republic of China. And although I know that no matter how much I might wish for it, Cantonese will likely never come to be considered an actual language, I want people to know about Cantonese. How ~70 million people speak it and how interesting it is that Cantonese would flourish in Hong Kong, even as its use was never promoted by any government. How unique the situation of Cantonese is and how much of a pity it would be to see a language used by so many disappear on a state’s mere political necessity to “unify” its people. It just doesn’t seem fair, killing a language so that another might be exalted and reign supreme, especially if the possible death of such a language might currently be considered so insignificant that it wouldn’t even be found worth recording in the history books.

Research on Cantonese: Cantonese as Written Language by Don Snow

When I first wanted to learn more about Cantonese, I didn’t put much effort into searching for general research done on Cantonese; although I was interested in studying Cantonese, I would only study it if reading material on Cantonese somehow came into my possession.

Perhaps I really started to consider learning about Cantonese and Hong Kong culture when I visited Hong Kong in summer 2010. While at a bookstore, a book’s title caught my attention: Cantonese as Written Language The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular. I had never encountered any book, or even any article or piece of literature, on Cantonese before. Yet while the book interested me, I only saw it in passing and decided against buying it, seeing that it cost around 300 HKD.

But a few months later, in early 2011, it resurfaced to my mind when I was thinking about buying books. And after previewing it, I had a great urge to buy it and read it. And so I did. It was the most expensive thing I had ever purchased online, and one of the only books I had ever bought in my life. And perhaps, I read this book more quickly than every other book I have read because I felt a sense of urgency to read it – I wanted to find out what the fate of Cantonese would be.

Around $50 (USD) and two years later, I don’t regret this decision. Maybe this book opened me up to learning more about Cantonese – not just the language, but its role in Hong Kong society. As, might I say, nerdy, as it sounds, after reading this book, I became more interested in reading nonfiction papers and research papers, which I try to do in my free time now.

Granted, most people probably won’t find this book as intriguing or fascinating as I do, but if you’re interested in Cantonese and its future or current role in Hong Kong society, just preview the first few pages available for free (link above). But also feel free to buy it if you’re ever so inclined as I am.

Cantonese Dictionary

It seems that a straightforward and simple way to start this blog off would be to provide a link to an online Cantonese dictionary. Here you can search using Cantonese Jyutping, Mandarin pinyin, Chinese characters, English and much more. The site additionally provides phrases and sentences for some Chinese characters, and even provides (and indicates) unique Cantonese words or phrases. Unfortunately it does not have every Chinese word you might find in your studies or online, but it is the only online Cantonese dictionary I have found so far and it is my go-to dictionary whenever I see an unfamiliar Chinese phrase online.