I recently spent four days in Hong Kong as the final stop of a brief Southeast Asian trip, and as usual I found the language situation there somewhat mystifying. Hong Kong, as we know, has three official languages: Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. Because I don’t speak the former, I was reliant on the latter two to guide me through interactions with locals.

I was well aware that in the past ten years the prevalence of 普通话 has spread in Hong Kong, yet people tell me that the average native still feels more comfortable conversing in English. Feeling lazy, I used English exclusively during the first two days and communicated without undue difficulty.

I found the Hong Kongers to be neither polite nor rude, rather on par with people from any major metropolis. On the third day, however, I found myself in northern Kowloon looking around for a dim sum restaurant. I approached two people standing outside of a shop and asked in English if they could recommend someplace that was authentic and nice but reasonably inexpensive. They stood inert, neither ignoring nor adressing me, and feeling frustrated (and hungry) I repeated my question in Mandarin. Suddenly, their expressions changed and they smiled broadly, not only recommending a place nearby but even escorting me there.

From that point forward, I used Mandarin as my default language in the city. At once, I noticed that people were far more friendly and polite than before, and my opinion of the infamously proud Cantonese changed for the better.  Even at immigration at the airport, a location not known for its effervescent employees, I was praised for my Mandarin and for scrawling my Kunming address in barely legible 简体字.

Now, those of you with extensive travel experience are surely nodding and saying, “Of course. It’s always better to try the local tongue overseas.” This is true, and even irascible Parisian waiters will smile if you order your breakfast in French. Being somewhat ignorant about Hong Kong in general, I wasn’t sure what the linguistic dynamic was there. Perhaps Hong Kongers preferred English both to show off their competency in the tongue (in comparison to their mainland cousins) or as a gentle rebuke against Beijing rule.

Yet as I discovered, knowing a bit of Mandarin actually smoothed things over, and those of you heading there in the future would be wise to wield your language skills even if you don’t necessarily have to.

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About Matt

Matt spent six years in China, mainly based in the beautiful spring city of Kunming. During that time he worked in consulting, journalism as well as English teaching. Matt studied Chinese for 2+ years and loved exploring the mountains of Yunnan by mountain bike). He now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University.

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  1. I usually use Mandarin on the English-speaking hawkers around Kowloon. It just confuses them.

    I’ve had to use more Mandarin in Macau–though I found one place that understood neither English nor Mandarin, but spoke them fine…made for a rather bad lunch.

  2. This certainly wasn’t true 10 years ago. I think there’s also differences between HK Island and North Kowloon (and the NT) – in my limited experience (because I speak Cantonese) people on HK Island are far more competent in English than Kowloon.

  3. I think it’s more to do with you being a Lao Wai being able to speak Mandarin Chinese. As you’ve probably noticed most expats in HK make very little effort to learn the local language (or to even understand the local culture for that matter).

  4. When I was there two years ago few understood Mandarin fluently. I found it much easier to make myself understood in English.

    If I wanted to take the time to help people understand me both in Guangdong and HK I could use Mandarin, but often English was the way to get things done fast.

    I think Cantonese is a much more beautiful language anyway. Wish it was easier to learn.

    • to put it bluntly, cantonese is in fact just like the ebonics of the chinese language.

      ebonics is the dialect or vernacular form of American English spoken by a large proportion of African Americans. it developed from contacts between African langauges and nonstandard varieties of colonial English spoken by white americans in the southern states(the cotton plantation states where the african slaves worked). ebonics is used in the home or for day-to-day communication rather than for formal occasions. It typically diverges most from standard American English when spoken by people with low levels of education.

      cantonese is a dialect of chinese spoken by a large proportion of ppl living in the southern most area(guangdong and guangxi) of china. it is developed from contacts between southern indigenous languages (such as vietnamese, zhuang, tai,etc) and nonstandard colloquial chineses spoken by migrant chinese(such as soldiers and prisoners) from central china 2000yrs ago when the cantonese area was first included in china’s map. its accent and spoken form is more influenced by the indigenous languages as the chinese migrants married the southern indigenous women and their children’s speech is more influenced by their mother’s tongue than father’s (which is why cantonese accent actually sounds more similar to vietnamese and thai than other chinese dialects). they adopt the written form of standard chinese as none of the indigenous languages had developed a written form. as a result the spoken form and the written form have never been compatible. vietnamese used to adopt chinese characters for writing before the french came.

      the warm weather in the south and the segregation of the cantonese-speaking area from the rest of china by mountains slow down the evolution of the language (as well as the ppl’s brain – less sophisticated less wise; and look – short dark less refine), making cantonese one of the least evolved regional dialects of the chinese language. less evolved means the language is less well regulated and less well developed and its pronouciation less pleasant to ears, which is why cantonese sounds harsh to many foreign ears. it has always been the least respected dialect in china and its accent is often mocked meanspiritedly. the connotations tagged on cantonese have hardly ever been positive. for example, the cantonese language and its speakers are often viewed as being less civilized by other chinese.

      despite hong kong’s success has little to do with the cantonese language or its culture, the glory might have given a bit twist of fate for cantonese but its destined to be only delusional and short-lived unless the cantonese ppl can upgrade their gene pool to become aesthetically appealing enough to project cultural influences to the other chinese. it has never happened in the last 2000 years though.

      the cultural centres in china has always been along the yellow river(xi’an, luoyang,kaifeng, beijing, ji’nan) and the yangzi(or changjiang) river(hanzhou, nanjing, shanghai). pearl river delta has always been the recieving end of cultural influence from the north through out history. in the last 1000yrs, half of the time china was ruled by horseback nomads from the north(mongol 200yrs, manchu 300yrs), whereas the southern tribes were never considered as any serious threat by central china. many southerners were even driven off their homeland to further south.

      if one wonders why cantonese is widely spoken among overseas chinese communities, some background check on the history of chinese emigration should help. a couple hundred yrs back, chinese were still non-migratory ppl and would not seek fortunes away from homeland unless they were driven desperate. most of the early chinese emigrants to the west represented the lowest level of human resources in china.

      “Waves of Chinese emigration (also known as the “Chinese Diaspora”) have happened throughout its history. The mass emigration known as the “diaspora” that occurred from the 19th century to 1949 was mainly caused by wars and starvation in mainland China, as well as the problems resulting from political corruption. Most immigrants were illiterate, poorly educated peasants and manual labourers, historically called coolies (Chinese: 苦力, translated: Hard Labour), who emigrated for work to countries such as the Americas, Australia, South Africa, Southeast Asia, Malaya and other places.”

      “According to Lynn Pan’s book “Sons of the Yellow Emperor”, the Chinese coolie emigration began after slavery had been abolished throughout the British possessions. Facing a desperate shortage of manpower, European merchants were looking to replace African slaves with indentured labourers from China and India.”

      “In the 19th century, the age of colonialism was at its height and the great Chinese Diaspora began. Many colonies lacked a large pool of laborers. around the same time there was a wide spread of poverty and ruin in the southern china caused by the taiping rebellion(rebellion usually happens when life is hard). and since guangzhou was the only open port under the policy of isolation in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), guangdong became the major port of exit for labourers to southeast asia and west. as a result, many overseas chinese communities have their origins in guangdong.

      an understanding of the chinese emigration history would help one understand the following (quoted):

      ” I think Cantonese is one of the harshest languages around, unlike, say, Mandarin or other East Asian languages. Cantonese is simply very cacophonous and displeasing to the ear.
      As someone who speaks both Cantonese & English fluently (but not Mandarin), I find these two languages are not entirely compatible. I’ve heard of many anecdoctal reports of how people from HK who speak Cantonese who cannot adjust to NOrth American culture because of this linguistic barrier, as opposed to someone who speaks Mandarin who nonethless could acculturate relatively easier in spite of a greater cultural gulf between mainland China and NOrth America.”

      mandarin doesnt attain its status purely out of the government’s effort. its being the official language in mainland china, taiwan and singapore is an evolutionary choice becoz its a more efficient communicative tool. it has actually been the official language in china long before the qing dynasty. its a mistaken perception that it origins from the manchurian language despite it was indeed influenced by the manchu during their 300yr rule over china (~1600-1900~). the manchu adopted chinese language rather than to promote manchurian language which was based on horseback migratory experiences and did not have enough vocabs nor was as well developed as chinese for city dwelling life.

      the primary function of a language is for communication rather than being a mental challenge(difficult to learn is actually a backward sign. the less well developed cantonese is more difficult than mandarin for picking up). the great apes howl to signal food and danger rather than to show off their capability in making noises. as a language evolves, its pronounciation becomes more polished and easier to make and thus sounds smoother and more pleasant to ears. beijing mandarin is often percieved as the most pleasant to ears becoz beijing has been a capital city for ~1000yrs and a capital city is where the elites and socialites congregate and the pressure of social refinement is greater.(btw, cultural centres in china have always mainly on the north side)

      cantonese is more expressive for strong emotions such as frustration and anger (eg cantonese often being percieved as more graphic and vulgar for insult — a backward sign though if we aspire to be more civilized and more polished) but its not as efficient as mandarin for communicating ideas and concepts. it is less well developed and less well regulated (overall = less evolved) as a result of warm weather in the south and segregation from the rest of china by mountains. warm weather and segregation slow down evolution in ppl’s brain(less sophisticated less wise) and look ( shorter, darker and less refine) and this is why the cantonese clan has often been viewed as less civilized and less appealing to other chinese throughout history and the cantonese culture has hardly ever been well regarded.

      hk’s success has little to do with the cantonese language. hk benefited a lot from the political misfortune and ideology failure in the mainland in the last century. its economic take off happened in 1960s after the influx of immigrants from china in the 1940-50s(war and power change). most of the affluent immigrants were NOT of cantonese origin. they brought along with them capital, connections and business and techno know-how. the tension between mainland and taiwan and the mainland’s close-door policy helped business in hk boom like nothing before. business just poured in uninvited. it was easy money. hk hardly needed to compete. a very different picture now. the only advantage left for hk is its international exposure and the rule of law instilled by the british. in terms of human resources, the best brains of chinese are still in the changjiang river delta (the shanghai area) and the yellow river delta (from beijing to shandong area). pearl river delta only started to project influence on the chinese course of civilization after the british took hk and the influence is based on western culture rather than anything of cantonese origin.

      all should have said much about the worth of cantonese pride.

      • What a misleading, biased and inaccurate post. It begs the question, why the anti-Cantonese vitriol? Had a bad time in Hong Kong?

        For the record, Cantonese is not a “sub-standard” dialect of Mandarin. It is the main dialect of a bonafide Chinese language group, Yue, one of at least seven such language groups spoken by the Han Chinese. The others include the Northern Chinese dialects on which Mandarin is based, Wu (centred on the Yangtse River delta region), Min (based in Fujian and Taiwan), Gan (found in Jiangxi), Xiang (centred in Hunan) and Hakka.

        To quote from the excellent Wikipedia entry on Chinese language: “Chinese (汉语 / 漢語; Hànyǔ or 中文; Zhōngwén) is a group of related but in many cases mutually unintelligible language varieties, forming a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family.” Also: “The varieties of Chinese are usually described by native speakers as dialects of a single Chinese language, but linguists note that they are as diverse as a language family. The internal diversity of Chinese has been likened to that of the Romance languages, but may be even more varied. There are between 7 and 13 main regional groups of Chinese (depending on classification scheme), of which the most spoken by far is Mandarin (about 960 million), followed by Wu (80 million), Yue (60 million) and Min (70 million). Most of these groups are mutually unintelligible, although some, like Xiang and the Southwest Mandarin dialects, may share common terms and some degree of intelligibility. All varieties of Chinese are tonal and analytic.”

        For more, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_language

  5. I wonder if it will ever get to the point where the prevalence of Mandarin will cause Guangdongren concern that their language is in danger.

    • We’re very aware of the endangered extinction of Cantonese in both HK and Guangdong, and will work hard to fight back against Mandarin. For the very least, I’ll ignore them if they say “ni hao” or talk to me in Mandarin on the streets.

  6. wonder if it will ever get to the point where the prevalence of Mandarin will cause Guangdongren concern that their language is in danger.

    NEVER! Well, maybe in Shenzhen. But the presence of Cantonese is really deeply ingrained in Guangdong, parts of Guangxi, parts of Hainan and Hong Kong (not to mention San Francisco, New York, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Sydney, Manchester, London and parts of LA)

    Plus everyone in Hong Kong’s mandarin sucks – I live here in Shanghai and my mandarin is mediocre at best (and some days much worse) and everyone says “you have much better mandarin than other people from Hong Kong”

  7. Hi,

    I really enjoyed living in both Hong Kong and Beijing and I tried to immerse into the local culture as good as possible. I observed the following in case of the Hong Kong people, the further away they are from the Island the happier they are to use Mandarin. When you are in Kowloon or the New Territories, you would find a lot more people descending from Mandarin speakers, or a related dialect, one or two generations ago.

    To my understanding, Hong Kong has a population of about seven million inhabitants. Since 1949, it grew from about half that population to its current size because many migrants came from the Mainland or from Vietnam in the course of the tumultuous state in their homeland. One thing that linguists observed with astonishment was that, on the one hand, immigrants picked up the local Cantonese (which itself evolved out of various Cantonese dialects) very quickly and immersed into the local culture. Maybe because of the prospects that in Hong Kong it was easier to make a fortune than on the Mainland at that time. Therefore, you had to be able to know how to strike deals in the local language, gestures and culture. On the other hand, I heard that the Cantonese in Hong Kong is mainly a spoken language, to find written pieces to teach kids at school about “Hong Kong Cantonese” seems to be very difficult. The language is present in every day culture, like comics, shops etc. that rather uses messages and this impacted also on the way of how newspapers are written and how schooling for kids in primary school is conducted. I guess because the “Hong Kong Cantonese” was influenced by absorbing so many other Chinese dialects and then those migrants learned it from the street, from trading and working. Hence, the roots of many people on the Kowloon side could descend from Mandarin speaking ancestors one or two generations ago.

    On Hong Kong Island, the tone seems to be set by the multinational corporations and their expat employees, at least, they seem to give you the impression that with English on Hong Kong Island you can get further. Of course, many of the local kids who live on Hong Kong Island and if you want to live there you must have money, be British, or be very creative are probably Western educated. There, I often get the feeling that a Mandarin speaker, such as my wife from Northern China (whose English is perfect btw.) is more likely to be looked down upon than if she was away from Hong Kong Island.

    The shops that exist there, however, have embraced the stagnating number of wealthy shoppers from the Mainland. In the service industry your Mandarin nowadays gets you further.

    I love Hong Kong but apart from a nice walk over from Lan Kwai Fong to SoHo to my favourite club Yumla, I enjoy the Kowloon side more. I would love to learn more Cantonese but it is, as said here before quite a difficult language.

  8. In 2003 when I visited from the Mainland into HK, I tried to talk to a metro person for help in English with no luck in the person understanding me; switched to Chinese and got everything I needed.

    Tried the same thing for HK taxis… Did not understand a word of either Mandarin or English. :/

  9. Both myself and my housemate visited HK from the mainland (at different times). We both had the experience of having to use Mandarin when talking to the taxi drivers.

    • Can you just stop using Mandarin to us?
      You know how much we hate mandarin? This is not our language, why do you have to try it and say it to us in Hong Kong?
      Do you ever hear the local people speaking in mandarin to each other?? No!

      Please respect us..
      You can either use English or learn Cantonese to respect us and our culture… I am sad when you keep trying mandarin and tell people how mandarin works well in Hong Kong..
      Do you actually know we don’t speak well in Mandarin? We were just being nice and try to speak as well!

      You said someone treat you better when you spoke mandarin to them, probably those people moved to Hk from the mainland, or they find you cute cos you are foreigners.

      For me, I accept when mainlanders speak mandarin to us cos that’s there language. so if i could understand, it will be okay to help them.
      However, if foreigners who speak English but chose to use mandarin to talk to us, which mean you think mandarin is our language and you use it to respect us…….. Then you are stupid…..!!!!!! We don’t even know mandarin well!!! Gosh

      Once again ..
      1. Mandarin is not our language, if you want to show your respect, you should learn a few word in Cantonese instead!
      2, if you can’t speak English and Cantonese, but Mandarin, then mandarin might be a method for communication. But if you do speak English, please don’t try mandarin on us. Our mandarin sucks.
      3. you found people are more friendly when you speak mandarin? You know why? Cos they just find foreigners cute! Think abit… Do you think if a mainlander speaks mandarin or Cantonese in Hong Kong get treated better? Have you ever heard from the mainlanders about how Hong Kong people look down mandarin speakers? You are just lucky, cos people won’t be mad at your mistake as you are foreigner.(you thought yourself shown your respect to us? In fact, we don’t see mandarin as our language! It is just like another foreigner language to us.

      Good luck, be respectful! And you will get my respect

  10. Matt,

    I lived in France as a kid and my French became so good that substitute teachers did not know I was a foreigner. I majored in French and studied there while in college. France (Paris, in particular) is the only country of which I am aware that does NOT appreciate foreigners speaking their language. Whenever I go to a foreign country, I try to learn a few words to wow the natives and it always works wonders. This is not true of France. Trust me.

  11. T., is it wishful thinking or you are trying to convince yourself? Cantonese speakers feel endangered by the growth of Mandarin in the world In Australia, they also said, Cantonese will always be on top. Now Mandarin has beaten Cantonese in the number of speakers in Australia, besides, Mandarin speakers are the young and the active part of the population. Simplified characters are becoming more common by the Chinese community, government and media.

    A similar trend is happening in Canada and the US but it may take longer.

  12. I hate Cantonese. I think people who speak Cantonese should be locked up in Mandarin-only concentration camps. If they can’t kick their Cantonese habit after a year they should be gassed. What a horrible, god-awful, ugly language!

    • Agree!!! Cantonese speakers are often rude as well and will act like you are an idiot if you don’t speak cantonese

  13. Ok, let’s tie up all the cantonese speakers and force them to learn mandarin. But while we’re at it, let’s give up the abomination that is simplified chinese characters. Fair trade.

  14. Cantonese is a very beautiful language and more active to speak. You listen to it and it sounds cool. And its older by far.
    Simple characers are simply meaningless. No-one knows what they mean.

  15. Yes, I agree with the contents of the blog….

    Not only this. Now every people are becoming crazy to study Mandarin.

    According to me China is the best place for this.

  16. Jerome cole you are very arrogant. Everyone has the right to speak what ever they want and you writtinf what you wrote shows just what a savage you are. You think what you said is funny? you’re disgusting and full of hate.

  17. Matt, I’ve just discovered this site today and I’ve read through a lot of your articles. You seem to be modest about how much you understand about China. I’m more used to seeing over exaggerations about how much someone believes they understand China. I’m not saying I’m one of these people who feels they understand China, but I’ve found the exact same thing in Hong Kong. To my surprise people are very excited and friendly when I speak Mandarin with them in Hong Kong. Especially in the New Territories. I never would have imagined this phenomena existed.

    I really enjoy reading your articles, I’ll be bookmarking this page.

  18. I’m leaning towards the consensus here. As a gweilo, Mandarin works pretty well north of HK Island, especially with the “working class” folks (shopkeepers, waiters, taxi drivers, etc.).

    Hong Kong has a long history of gweilo who can’t speak a word of the local language, so many people now seem pleasantly surprised when a white person can deliver a few lines of Mandarin. I’ve had a lot of older folks express admiration for my moderately passable grasp of “Guoyu” (they never say “Putonghua”, which says something).

    English is preferable when speaking to white collar workers congregated on HK Island and TST. Also, the younger HKers seem to prefer to converse in English and will be more likely to thumb their nose at Mandarin, which is likely a result of negative experiences with Mainland tourists.

    My experience speaking Mandarin with ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, even if their main dialect is Teochew or Cantonese and their English is fluent, has been pretty much universally positive.

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