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?