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Norwegian preaches Cantonese “fundamentalism” through unconventional language classes

by Rachel Cheung

Dressed in a police officer’s uniform and brandishing a baton, Mister Public Security Bureau rushes to different restaurants in Hong Kong and demands that people replace traditional characters on the menu with simplified ones. This is a scene from one of Cecilie Gamst Berg’s YouTube videos. Gamst Berg is a Norwegian who has been teaching Cantonese in Hong Kong for 16 years and the videos are a part of her unusual take on Cantonese learning.

Gamst Berg’s passion for the Cantonese language and Hong Kong culture propels her to teach Cantonese through different channels. Until 2011, she was one of the hosts of an RTHK radio programme called Naked Cantonese, which ran for four years. But she was not satisfied with just that. She wanted to have her own TV programme. After being rejected by several producers, she turned to YouTube and began broadcasting her own videos on her channel.

Her eccentric videos are full of crazy characters, costumes and cheap props. They feature colourful stories that teach people Cantonese, as well as Gamst Berg talking about her adventures in China. Like her Cantonese classes, they are full of fun scenarios. They revolve around adult themes such as drinking and brothels and reflect her belief that language learning is all about imagination and creativity.

Gamst Berg appears in all them, assuming the improbable personas of characters such as the language police officer (the aforementioned Mr Public Security) and the beer-bellied local “bloke” Ah Mok. “I invented all of them, except one, which is my favourite – Aluminium Man,” she says.

In person, Gamst Berg provides private tutoring in places like Hong Kong diners and restaurants and holds parties for students at her village house in Pui O, which she has named the “Happy Jellyfish People’s Democratic Language Bureau”. She also calls herself a Cantonese fundamentalist because the word “fundamentalist” combines fun and mentalist, a fun, crazy and creative person just like her.

Her teaching career began in a private school where she taught English. But friends and colleagues were more interested in knowing how she learnt Cantonese and demanded that she teach them. This soon became a full time job with a good income. She now has 35 to 40 regular students, most of whom are foreigners.

Many of her students learn about Gamst Berg from her podcasts. They are drawn by her creativity and passion for Cantonese and her unorthodox methods. “She’s energetic, outgoing and crazy, but in a good way,” says one of her students, Megan Choy.

Choy graduated in the United States and is now a doctor at a private clinic. She has lessons with Berg once a week. They sit at a dim sum restaurant and study the Chinese menu word by word. When Choy fails to recognise a character, Berg makes wild gestures and draws graphics to remind her.

The courses are customised to students’ preferences and abilities. “Everybody has the same ability to learn a language. [Be] methodical, do exercises, learn by heart,” she says, because that helps you memorise simple and daily conversations.

Gamst Berg believes there are two elements that make her courses so successful – being fun and practical. She considers what students need in different situations and makes lessons out of them. Gamst Berg often conducts her lessons in restaurants. “That’s my classroom because it’s real life situation with waiters,” she says. The students also gain great satisfaction after successfully ordering in Cantonese.

From her 16 years of teaching in Hong Kong, she observes that many Hong Kong people assume language learning should be boring in order to be effective. This is something she completely disagrees with and so she puts a lot of effort into coming up with funny plots and materials for her videos. Humour has become her signature; it distinguishes her from other Cantonese teachers. “If it’s interesting and funny, then people will watch it and learn. I take this humorous approach seriously,” says Gamst Berg, who actually taught herself the language in her early thirties.

Gamst Berg came to China in 1988 in her late twenties. She left Norway to escape the cold and dark and boarded the Trans-Siberian train with the aim of ending up in Australia.  She arrived in Beijing after 12 days on the train but once she got off, she decided within 20 seconds that she wanted to stay there for the rest of her life.

She says she was stunned by the beauty of the city, recalling that it was like stepping into a black and white photo without any modern ugliness like commercial billboards and fast food chains.

Unfortunately, after five months, her visa expired twice and she could not get another one. Public security officials suggested she try Hong Kong. She eventually settled here so that she could visit mainland China whenever she wanted.

Last year, she published a book, Don’t Joke on The Stairs, about her adventures in China and her love for the country.

After imploring Varsity to buy it, she lifts the dollar notes to her nose, sniffs them with her eyes closed and jokingly says: “Smells good.”

Gamst Berg’s fascination with and affection for China is unending.  After she came to Hong Kong, she first learnt Chinese language through a Mandarin song, “Around Wintertime” by Taiwanese singer, Chyi Chin. In those days, karaoke consisted of a big room with people and a microphone. There was no monitor for subtitles. She could only memorise the lyrics in order to sing the song.

After learning Chinese from songs, she moved onto read newspapers and watch cartoons to learn the language.

Later on, she began noticing some strange characters that she could not find in the dictionary. “And that was when I started getting really interested in Cantonese because it looks so cool and it wasn’t in the dictionary,” she says.

Even though she has not received any tertiary education, Gamst Berg has a flair for language learning. She managed to speak Cantonese within a year and a half by speaking to everyone and became famous in her village for her Cantonese proficiency; although she says her language learning never stops. Improbable as it may seem, she says her Chinese reading skills are self-taught.

However, she finds people’s response to her Cantonese capability very annoying. “I can speak. So why can’t they treat me like a normal human being?” she asks. Many people make a fuss about it instead of conversing with her properly in Cantonese.

Gamst Berg observes this reaction only exists in Hong Kong. “If you are in Norway and you speak Norwegian, nobody would say ‘Wow! You can speak Norwegian! But you are Chinese!’ No, they will just answer you,” she explains.

Moreover, she believes the attitude of locals hinders foreigners and other people from learning Cantonese. “The only problem of Cantonese is Hong Kong people,” she says. She explains that Hong Kong people often answer foreigners in English, laugh at them or even chide them for their mispronunciation. In addition, they often tell foreigners that Cantonese is too difficult for them, which Gamst Berg finds extremely patronising.

Her student Megan Choy, agrees. Choy has been learning Cantonese with Gamst Berg for a year and a half. She could not speak Cantonese before that. She says she was once mocked for her mispronunciation of Cheung Sha Wan when she was asking for directions. She blames the confusing phonetics that misled her to pronounce the word “Sha” wrongly. She also dislikes Hong Kong people’s judgmental tone and attitude.

Gamst Berg is a staunch supporter of Cantonese and even took part in the protests to protect Cantonese from being encroached upon by Putonghua. She thinks local people should recognise Cantonese as a language instead of a dialect because Cantonese has its own characters and grammar. And she is very defensive about this opinion. “Call it a dialect and this interview is off,” she says.

While Gamst Berg may be irritated by the attitude of Hong Kong people, this does not stop her from teaching Cantonese. In addition to her own YouTube channel and podcast, she also has a blog which she updates weekly with her encounters and observations of daily life. She also encourages people to learn Cantonese and buy her novels and DVDs.

Cecilie Gamst Berg thinks Cantonese sounds great, and more than that, it is fun and innovative. She is nothing if not a Cantonese zealot and has a stated goal in life – to make Cantonese a world language.

Edited by Jennifer Lam