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At the Cantonese protest in Guangzhou

Pictures: Ellen Woodall

Two friends and I were the only foreigners present at a protest in Guangzhou on Sunday to defend the city’s native language, Cantonese, from government policies to replace it with Putonghua (Mandarin).

It was the first demonstration I’ve seen in China, and it almost didn’t happen: the organizer was placed under house arrest the night before. The event was officially banned. But news of it spread online and by word of mouth, and by the time we arrived at the Kong Lam Sai metro station just after 5:30pm, hundreds of people had already gathered in the street, chanting “Cantonese, Cantonese!” and holding up banners. Every now and then, someone would shout something to the crowd — “Guangzhou people speak Guangzhou language!” — and everyone would cheer. An Apple Daily journalist with us estimated the crowd at 1,000. Most were young, in their 20s and 30s, and almost everyone was recording the event on cameras or mobile devices.

We were quickly surrounded by hundreds of riot police who then formed a chain to stop more people joining the protest. By this stage the entire intersection was filled with people, all in high spirits. “Do you know what this is?” I was asked dozens of times, as if we just happened to be standing in this southern suburb and the protest had started around us. My own Cantonese is very limited but I was able to say yes, we knew about the event and that’s why we had come. A lot of people were very eager to explain why they were demonstrating.

The background: Guangzhou is hosting the Asian Games in November, hence the traffic jams that plague the city, as old neighbourhoods are ‘improved’ (i.e. demolished) to present a modern face to the world. (The same happened before the Beijing Olympics). Ji Kekuang, a politician, wanted to take this further: he suggested that Guangdong Television stop broadcasting in Cantonese and implement a Putonghua-only policy, to ‘promote harmony’. This enraged local people, who already feel their Cantonese identity is under siege as their province is flooded by Mandarin-speaking migrants from inland parts of China. To add fuel to the fire, a statue of Yuen Sung-wun, a local Ming-dynasty hero, recently had its plaque, featuring his battle cry — well-known Cantonese curse words — removed.

After an hour, the police decided to clear the street and we were all herded away from the metro entrance (very politely — one policeman in full riot gear said “Excuse me, this way please”.) The crowd started to yell “F*** off, Mandarin!” But there was no violence on either side, and the protest eventually ended peacefully.

According to anthropologists, a language dies somewhere every two weeks, and with it a culture and a unique way of looking at the world. Putonghua is a useful lingua franca, linking millions of people across China who speak different mother tongues, but these regional languages and dialects are rich in heritage and don’t need to be extinguished. In the case of Cantonese for instance, it is far older than Mandarin, and closer to the classical Chinese of the Tang dynasty.

On my way back to Hong Kong the next day, I made a detour to Wai Chau, an attractive city of rivers and lakes, and then to Ping Hoi, an old walled town on the coast whose inhabitants have traditionally spoken a mix of Cantonese, Hakka and Chiuchow. “If you have lived in Ping Hoi, you can travel anywhere,” goes a local saying. If three languages can coexist in one small town, then surely there must be room for Cantonese to prosper in Guangdong?

2016-11-24T01:14:32+00:00July 27th, 2010|china, events|23 Comments


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  2. GAC July 29, 2010 at 9:33 am - Reply

    “The background: Guangzhou is hosting the Asian Games in November, hence the traffic jams that plague the city, as old neighbourhoods are ‘improved’ (i.e. demolished) to present a modern face to the world. (The same happened before the Beijing Olympics). Ji Kekuang, a politician, wanted to take this further: he suggested that Guangdong Television stop broadcasting in Cantonese and implement a Putonghua-only policy, to ‘promote harmony’.”

    Why in the world would international visitors care about a Cantonese broadcast? The language geeks would tune in just to hear it, and others would simply find a channel with Mandarin or English. Besides that, they’re there for an event — not to watch local TV.

  3. william July 29, 2010 at 12:16 pm - Reply

    think you a lot. but l have no time go to hongkong or guangzhou.i is so pity,as a cantonese

  4. Phil July 29, 2010 at 6:43 pm - Reply

    well done Pete, given the amount of attention you were getting I hope you remembered to wear your Blacksmith Books T-Shirt.

  5. Pete July 29, 2010 at 7:07 pm - Reply

    Phil > Dang! I left that at home, along with my Blacksmith belt and braces.

    GAC > You are trying to apply reason to the situation, which is probably futile! United front tactics don’t allow any room to be different.

  6. Liza Chu July 29, 2010 at 10:10 pm - Reply

    Thanks for standing up for Cantonese and also for reminding everyone that Cantonese has a longer history than Mandarin. Did you know Tang poems sound better and rhyme in Cantonese but doesn’t sound so good in Mandarin? I’ve got one for you to memorize when you go to the next demonstration 😉

  7. Louis July 30, 2010 at 7:39 pm - Reply

    we should protest cantonese. I was told that the cantonese was lose to mandarin by 1 vote when they decided to choose a national language for China. It was so not fair to Cantonese. Then we should have declared Cantonese as China’s second official language status. Other countries have few national languages like Canada have English and French. Cantonese is one of the oldest languages that still preserve the old way of pronunciation. That is why we find that it is easy to recite or read the ancient poetry fluently in cantonese.
    Please support Cantonese.

  8. mumphLT July 31, 2010 at 7:13 pm - Reply

    It’s funny how ‘promoting harmony’ can be used as the excuse to phuq up any group certain interested parties in China & HK wish to phuq up.

  9. Pete August 2, 2010 at 11:42 am - Reply

    Harmony = Homogeneity

  10. Viktor August 2, 2010 at 10:13 pm - Reply

    Dear Pete,

    thank you for this post. Cantonese is such a beautiful language that it is really a pity it has such little utility value for a foreigner these days.

    My hope is that if the Chinese political system opens up gradually over the coming decades, Cantonese will bounce back, just as Taiwanese is doing in Taiwan. In the meantime, it is great to see some local people in Canton resisting “harmony”. It will limit the damage the central government can do to local identities.

    Thank God for Hong Kong, at least Cantonese has a better chance of surviving than Shanghainese.


    • Pete August 2, 2010 at 10:18 pm - Reply

      I hope so too, Viktor. I find Canto very useful for travelling around Guangdong and Guangxi — a little bit of “bak wah” always raises a smile.

  11. mumphLT August 3, 2010 at 7:05 am - Reply

    – ‘a little bit of “bak wah” always raises a smile.’
    Is that what you call it? What you do to negotiate preferential hotel rates I think should stay private!

    – ‘Harmony = Homogeneity.’
    I wonder if the Old Men in Beijing are actually bothered if part of the country speaks a different dialect? I’m reminded of a programme I saw about the Nazi Party where it was considered that Hitler didn’t always need to direct his upper party members or the people to carry out ever more infernal schemes; in an attempt to gain his praise and favour they’d quite happily go off and do ridiculous and terrible things.
    Is really important that everyone in China speaks only Mandarin? No. Will the use of only Mandarin make China more attractive or bring China global benefit? No.
    So who is directing this feck-witted policy and why? Probably so they can go brown nosing in Beijing ‘Look at me – I’m promoting harmony – aren’t I a good little March Violet’.

  12. Pete August 3, 2010 at 1:59 pm - Reply

    You’re probably right. It was the local GZ government who suggested this broadcast language change. Beijing would never have even noticed if the protests hadn’t started.

  13. Jefferson Foong August 3, 2010 at 11:16 pm - Reply

    It’s quite blur for me. If you are from the north, west or east of China, do it really need to understand Cantonese when come to Gongdong ? You come to Gongdong to watch the prime time TV programme ? Do Guangdong people really can’t speak Mandarin to serve you ? If their are many African businessmen coming to Guangdong to organize a Business trip and Football friendly match, then the so call committee have to change the tv prime time cantonese dialect slot to African dialect slot !!!! What a lame ….. How come a committee member do not count on the sensitivity outcome for a remark…Just remove them from the committee to avoid another sensitive remark..

    A nation with form a third quarter of world population and the availability of human resources is certainly greater than any nation. But you are hiring or getting a useless committee member in a one billion population. How is the selection ? United amongst the Chinese citizen is the most greatest victory but you are having or hiring a bunch of useless committee member to un-unite the Chinese citizen. Please held Ji Kekuang for the responsibility for the his self promote and self interest agenda.

  14. […] Guangzhou last Sunday occurred in one of China’s richest provinces and was attended by mostly young people who learned of the protest on the Internet. If the government presses too hard, we may see a sharpening of regional rivalries within China […]

  15. James Chen August 4, 2010 at 9:46 pm - Reply

    Thanks very much for this informative on-the-ground description of the protest! I hope you don’t mind me using your photo on a blog post on this topic — I’ve linked back to here and given you full credit. But if that is still a problem, please let me know and I can take it down. Thank you!

  16. Cecilie August 16, 2010 at 11:26 am - Reply

    Hi geezer

    I was right there with you but didn’t see a single “helmeted riot police.” There was a lot of policemen there to be sure, but only plain clothes and normal uniformed ones.

    Still, it was a wonderful experience and the world hasn’t heard the last from the Canto movement !

    You can see other photos on http://www.chinadroll.com, title, Chanting for Canto.

  17. MakMak September 5, 2010 at 3:13 am - Reply

    @Jefferson Foong,

    Are you Cantonese? If you are, I would be sad. If you are a Native Mandarin speaker then you probably think “End Cantonese, It’s useless, give it up, Learn Mandarin” right? I hope not. See, we don’t have the privilege like of having our language recognized as a official language ANYWHERE! Macau and Hong Kong who “officially use it” only have less than 50 years left. How do you expect us to keep our heritage? Throw it away? Why do we have to throw it away but not you guys? We didn’t even have a choice or know that it was coming, it just hit us. Language unity is important, but so is language identity.

    If anyone is still interested in this, this is a link to my own opinions of the protests:

  18. John September 13, 2010 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    Nice one Pete, excellent stuff. Not just to be there in the centre of the storm but to have actually taken part. The youth of China will drag the country kicking and screaming towards the rest of the modern world.

  19. william May 3, 2011 at 9:10 pm - Reply

    As a cantonese,thank you your acting.But more and more cantonese do not speeak cantonese as they are in class in Putonghua.I can not speak some word in cantonese,too

  20. B. Tanksley December 12, 2011 at 4:08 am - Reply

    Please contact me. I’d love to share some Cantonese with you.

  21. Frankie Fook-lun Leung July 19, 2012 at 7:39 am - Reply

    what about CY Leung giving his swearing-in speech in Putonghua and not Cantonese. Any objection?

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