The Genesis of Hong Kong Cantonese

The Genesis of Hong Kong Cantonese

The establishment and distinction of a language is a matter of great importance that brings peace and stability to a country, regardless of nationality. Prior to 1997, the development of an official standard for the Chinese language in Hong Kong was influenced by two major events that led the British colonial government to adopt the use of classical or literary Chinese in education and refined Cantonese in speech. This has led to the written and colloquial form of the common Chinese lingua franca used in Hong Kong being set apart from that used on the mainland. The first event is the Canton-Hong Kong strike in the past century, where workers in Hong Kong travelled up north to support their comrades in the city of Canton. The second event is the establishment of communist China, which led to waves of refugees flooding Hong Kong from all parts of China.

However, Hong Kong’s linguistic segregation is neither about isolation nor regression, but rather integration and improvement. The commonly used forms of Chinese in Hong Kong are well-integrated with the classical literary language from the Han and Tang eras. As a result, government edicts and civil documents appear dignified and elegant while remain capable of integrating with the modern world. Before the Exchange of Sovereignty in 1997, cinemas used to make the following announcement: “By government decree, smoking is prohibited inside cinemas. Offenders are liable to a maximum fine of 5,000 Hong Kong dollars”. This carried an air of royal dignity while conveying a message based on modern laws. Signs in individual cinemas would read, “By order of government, smoking is prohibited in all areas”, expressing the beauty of the golden ratio (4:6) in the classical style of poetic prose. In the area of acoustics, radio announcers, actors, and singers all had vocal and musical training. In fact, most of them had background in Cantonese opera as well as experience in theatrical performances and Western music. Therefore, Hong Kong’s common Cantonese pronunciation, while having flattened the Xiguan pitch accent from the city of Canton, reflects the loud and clear way of articulation commonly found in large metropolitan cities. The sentences used are also of an appropriate length. This represents the process underlying the evolution of a language from a provincial language to a metropolitan language, during which Hong Kong Cantonese loses its rusticness and eventually excelled to become the official language of Hong Kong. Mr. Chung Wai-Ming’s presentation of Governor Christopher Patten’s New Year message, using Hong Kong Cantonese, is the best example of this.

Witnessing the Rise of Hong Kong Cantonese from the History of Hong Kong’s Popular Culture and Entertainment

1950-60s: Notable figures such as Kwan Tak-Hing, Sun Ma Sze Tsang and Tang Kee-Chan spoke with a Canton accent (the dialect of Cantonese spoken in the city of Canton). Their Cantonese lacked the intonation and vocabulary typical of a modern metropolis. They tended to speak in shorter phrases, with a rather country feel. One can get an inkling of this in the early works of popular Cantonese singers such as Lisa Wong, Sandra Lang and Cheng Kam Cheong.

1960-70s: Notable figures such as Connie Chan, Lui Kei, Patrick Tse, Bowie Wu and Leung Sing-Bor spoke an urban style of Cantonese that was rid of the high pitch found in the Canton dialect, with a cordial tone and phrases of an appropriate length.

1970-80s: Notable figures such as Wan Fong Ling, Yeung Kwong Pui, Chung Wai-Ming, Roman Tam (Lo Man), Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau and George Lam spoke a metropolitan style of Cantonese. Their tone could be rich or curt. Sentences could be short or long. They also used Westernised onomatopoetic words such as “huh” and “uh-huh” (the latter meaning “Yes I hear you”).

The Canton Dialect in The Story of Wong Fei Hung

How did Kwan Tak-Hing speak in “The Story of Wong Fei Hung” (Part 1, 1949)? The following is a transcript of the dialogue at the beginning of the movie, when Wong Fei Hung (played by Kwan) was lecturing Leung Foon (played by Cho Tat-Wah) upon accepting Leung as his student, which demonstrates the Cantonese vocabulary and phrases typically used in Canton at the time. Even though intonation would be lost in the transcription, the readers should still be able to get a feel for it [1]:

Wong Fei Hung: See here (Nah), from now on, you are to respect your teacher and honour what you have learned, and not for one moment should you ever forget why we learn martial arts. What is the point of learning martial arts? First and foremost, to serve your country; last but not least, you are to keep the peace and champion justice at the very least. You are to be diligent in learning martial arts, and you are to build up your physique. Once you have built up a healthy body, then you can do amazing things in society. I will teach you martial arts, but it should never cross in your mind to go around instigating trouble. Do you understand?

Leung Foon: Yes I understand, Master!

Wong: Get up. See here (Nah), I’m giving you a red packet.

Leung: Thank you, Master.

Wong: Let me tell you again how our martial school came to be. Look (nah)! See here, the martial art that we learn has come from the Shaolin Temple. (Pointing at the portrait of Zen teacher Ji Sin) This is Zen teacher Ji Sin. When he came down south, he bought his Shaolin martial art to Canton. It was passed down to our founding grandmaster Luk Ah Choi. Our founding grandmaster then taught my father Wong Kei-Ying, who then taught me, and now it’s my turn to teach you. Now do you understand? You have to be diligent in your learning. (Pointing to the portrait of Lam Fook Sing) See here (nah), let me introduce him to you. This is Master Lam Fook Sing; he is a famous martial artist after Grand Master “Iron-Bridge Three” from Canton. This Grand Master “Iron-Bridge Three” has invented Iron-Wire Fist. Master Lam Fook Sing is the Grand Master’s top student. I learnt my Iron-Wire Fist from Master Lam. So he’s technically my master and that means he’s your grandmaster. You have to always remember him and never forget him. See now (nah), I will tell your senior brother-in-training to show a few moves from the Iron-Wire Fist – just two moves, and you must watch carefully and remember them.

The “nah” said by Kwan Tak Hing in the 1949 Wong Fei Hung movie was a commonly used onomatopoeic word [2]. By the time of Wong Kar-Wai’s movie “As Tears Go By” released in 1988 (starring Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung and Alex Man), however, the same “nah” uttered by Jacky Cheung (who played the character of Fly, a lowly street thug) became a provocative word, akin to raising your middle finger at someone and saying “Nah! If you could do it I would chop my dick off!” The onomatopoeic “nah” has been replaced by “wei”. The best examples of using “wei” as an onomatopoeic word can be found in the work of Wong Yuk Man and Albert Cheng, two famous radio talk-show hosts in the 1990s known for their social commentary and phone-in segments. In their shows, they often used “wei” as a way to catch the audiences’ attention. These examples all represent the collective influence modern television and radio broadcasts have on colloquial Cantonese, as part of the formation process of Hong Kong Cantonese.

Translator’s Notes:

[1] As the original dialogue is in Cantonese, some of the nuances that could still be observed in writing would be lost completely in an English translation.

[2] I have taken the liberty to translate the Cantonese onomatopoeic word “nah” to mean “see here” or “look here”, as “nah” invites the receiver to pay attention to what the speaker is going to talk about.

(Editor’s Note: This article is published in the 59th printed edition of Passion Times. Please support our printed newspaper by subscribing here: