In Hong Kong, the bugle for the battle to protect Cantonese was first sounded in 2010, in response to the pro-Cantonese movement in Guangzhou.
That summer, a deputy director of the Guangzhou People’s Political Consultative Conference, proposed replacing Cantonese with Putonghua on news and variety programmes on television. He said Putonghua broadcasts would make visitors feel more welcome during the Asian Games held in the city in November.
This sparked protests and a campaign to protect Cantonese and resist what was seen as the hegemony of Putonghua.
On July 25, 2010, more than 1,000 protesters, most of them young people mobilised through the Internet, took to the streets of Guangzhou to defend their mother tongue. Their action resonated with some Hongkongers.
A week later, more than 200 people marched from Southorn Playground in Wan Chai to the government headquarters in Central. They wanted to support the Cantonese movement in Guangzhou and warn against any future encroachment on Cantonese in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong protesters waved banners with slogans such as “different dialects; mutual respect” and “defend cultural freedom, no more thought suppression”.
Choi Suk-fong, a 52-year-old former reporter turned activist, volunteered as an organiser for the Hong Kong rally. Choi says she felt compelled to organise the protest, although she had no organisation or support behind her, because the moves to limit Cantonese in Guangzhou signalled the blatant invasion of Putonghua.
Choi says there was no solid organisation behind the demonstration. She had simply contacted Guangzhou citizens via social networking sites and created a Facebook event to call on people to support the protest.
Several Guangzhou people joined the demonstration in Hong Kong on August 1. During another demonstration in Guangzhou a week later, hundreds of people were tailed closely and some were arrested, including reporters and supporters from Hong Kong.
Choi says the campaign has strengthened the ties between people in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, who share much in language, culture and family ties. She stresses the pro-Cantonese campaign is fighting for equality and the coexistence of Cantonese and Putonghua rather than trying to oppose the government and subvert the country.
“The invasion of language is equivalent to infringing on culture. That’s deplorable,” Choi says.
Kevin Yip Ka-wing, 20, who initiated the campaign along with Choi, says the rally was both a show of support for fellow Cantonese speakers across the border and a wake-up call for Hong Kong.
“The pro-Cantonese campaign in Hong Kong is spontaneous and it is where strength and passion are truly found,” says Yip. “Neither political parties nor other interests are involved. Everyone is a leader.”
Despite his efforts to promote the campaign, few people were interested in the rally. “People only need one excuse for not standing out. What we need to do is find a hundred reasons to persuade them,” he says.