What I really like when speaking Cantonese is how it makes me sound like a slutty canto-porn star about to give head, even when I’m cursing like a pimp on the waterfront. Not that I speak it too well, or even much. Despite living in Guangzhou on and off for the last almost four years, it’s been my Putonghua that has gotten a workout until recently. Partially because of the central edict pushing a fatuous and propagandistic ‘one-country-one-language’ agenda that means government businesses – even in the government-run arts companies – speak Mandarin, and partially because the province, being one of the economic miracles is awash in people from places where ‘Chinese’ as it as spoken is as different from the official tongue as Glaswegian is from Hungarian. So as English becomes the de-facto language of communication across Europe, so too does Mandarin become that across China. Which isn’t to say it’s an all-consuming juggernaut obliterating cultural diversity wherever it is set loose. Mandarin as it is spoken in Guangzhou is as unique a dialect as Cantonese is an unique language.
Cantonese, a sharp, cackling dialect full of slang and exaggerated expressions, was never the dominant language of China. But it came to dominate the Chinatowns of North America because the first immigrants came from the Cantonese-speaking southern province of Guangdong, where China first opened its ports to foreigners centuries ago.
It is also the chief language of Hong Kong, the vital trading and financial center that became China’s link to the West.
But over the last three decades, waves of Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants have diluted the influence of both the Cantonese language and the pioneering Cantonese families who ran Chinatowns for years.
The surging Chinese economy today has challenged Cantonese further. Because Mandarin is China’s official language, entrepreneurs like Hom have been forced to adapt, often learning the hard way that business can’t be done with Cantonese alone.
Many Cantonese speakers are racing to learn Mandarin any way they can — by watching Chinese soap operas, attending schools, paying for expensive immersion courses and even making more Mandarin-speaking friends. This is no cinch. Although Cantonese and Mandarin share the same written language, they are spoken as differently as English and French.