[EXCLUSIVE] “Stories about Cantonese: My Mother Tongue” by Dongli Liang

29 August 2020

Chatting with a friend from Guangzhou who lives in Singapore, I said “好懷念你嘅西關腔啊” (Your Sai Kwan intonation is nostalgic and I really miss it). My good friend has been very persistent in keeping her Guangzhou Sai Kwan intonation, especially during the seven years she lived in Hong Kong, cautious not to be assimilated by some lazy and flat pronunciation. I really respect that.

I have been providing online language lessons since March. The courses include business and conversational English, business and conversational Mandarin, and conversational Cantonese. Though Cantonese is my mother tongue, knowing that market demand for it is not as high as English and Mandarin, I expected the Cantonese classes to draw the fewest students. I offer courses at the same rate for each language for the same course type. Out of the 28 adult students I have taught, ranging from college students, established business owners, civil servants, immigration officers, technology engineers, university professors and marketing professionals, only one specifically chose Cantonese. He is an American living in New York.

When we first spoke, I asked about his motivation for learning, and he told me about his experience in Chinatown in New York. Being fluent in Mandarin, he flaunted it by speaking Mandarin to restaurant staff and people in Chinatown, yet met with confusion and indifference—“I speak Cantonese. Why do you speak Mandarin to me?” they would say. Aha, proud Cantonese in New York City. After that, he became more curious about Cantonese culture, and was determined to learn this unique language by starting with the basics.

I recalled that every time I returned to my hometown, Guangzhou, I couldn’t recognise the city where I was born and grew up. It was not just the city’s landscape and the public transport system, but, more importantly, it was the way people communicated that seemed “strange”. In my memory, people used to speak Cantonese in daily life and, of course, outside the classroom, even though Mandarin was the medium of instruction at school. Ten years later, I heard my cousin, a teenager, speaking only Mandarin with her mum. This is common for many families, where the parents didn’t even take pride in the language and neglected to pass down their “heritage”.

When I was a university student in Hong Kong, my best friend, who had lived in both Beijing and Shanghai always spoke Mandarin to me and I spoke in Cantonese. This communication might have seemed odd to other people, but, for us, it was natural and comfortable. At one point, I asked “why don’t you learn and speak Cantonese when you can, since you are living in Hong Kong”. “Cantonese sounds rude to me,” she replied. I wonder how Cantonese is stigmatised as vulgar and barbarian for some Chinese people, mocked by my American friend as “goofy” and “interesting”, yet highly respected by those who read Tang poetry in Cantonese. It shows the rhymes and melodic beauty in the original work, which is absent when you learn this “national treasure” in Mandarin. The funny thing is, my friend who used to bear this prejudice towards Cantonese, married a Hongkonger ten years later, and I finally heard her speaking Cantonese in public. Is that the power of romance and love? Perhaps I never tried to educate and communicate well to defend and protect my mother tongue.

In the past six years, when I travelled for business in mainland China, I used Mandarin mainly when I didn’t know the origin of the people I was speaking to. Once I found out they spoke or understood Cantonese, I would switch to my mother tongue. Cantonese became a dinner topic, when the person shared their memories of a “Cantonese-speaking roommate and friends” while studying abroad. They seemed affectionate towards Cantonese because of the good relationship they had with those friends, the dignity with which they had spoken, not to mention the glory days of the Hong Kong film and music industries.

The erosion of a culture starts with an endangered language. It would be a terrible thing if Hong Kong were to become like Guangzhou in a decade’s time. If we don’t insist on protecting and developing our languages and cultures, who else will share this responsibility? Upon reflection, I may need to reconsider my approach in communicating the “aesthetics” of Cantonese as a Chinese language. Beyond the energetic resistance and playfulness that have been associated with Cantonese, how to raise its image depends on how we tap into and develop its own beauty.

Author’s note: This personal essay was read at Cha: An Asian Literary Journal‘s online event “Read for Hong Kong” (Wednesday 9 September 2020), co-organised by the Berlin International Literary Festival.

How to cite: Liang, Dongli. “Stories about Cantonese: My Mother Tongue.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 22 Sept. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/09/22/cantonese/.


Dongli Liang, a trilingual poet and painter, was born in Guangzhou and has been living in Hong Kong for over a decade. Her works include visual poems, installation and mineral pigment paintings. A column contributor to Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, her “Kana Poems of Colours” are published in series this year. Dongli is a graduate of the Education University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong with a BEd in English Language and an MA in Comparative Literature. She has worked in arts, cultural and higher education industries, and was an organiser of International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong (香港國際詩歌之夜) in 2019.

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