The changing language attitude of Hong Kongers in recent decades

By Kunyao Kuang


My final project is about the language attitude and ideology in Chinese dialect films. When I was collecting materials for the project, I found many interesting studies about Hong Kongers’ language attitudes towards Cantonese, Mandarin and English so I would like to share it here.

Hong Kong was under British colonial rule from 1841 to 1997 (excluding the Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945). During this period, Hong Kong people used both English and Cantonese. It is believed that a diglossic relationship was formed that English was prestigious language that used by the government, schools and in other formal occasions, while Cantonese was used among friends, families and in informal occasions. Code-switching of English and Cantonese was, or is very common for Hong Kongers. In 1997, Hong Kong was returned to the sovereignty of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) by British. The government of HK SAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) has carried out a new language policy, which is “Biliterate and Trilingual Policy” that Hong Kongers should be proficient in written Chinese and English, and able to speak Cantonese, Putonghua and English (Tung, 1997). Therefore, after the handover, the status of the national language of the PRC, Putonghua (also known as Mandarin), was predicted to increase tremendously very soon.

However, things are going quite differently, due to the complicated political conflicts between Chinese mainland and Hong Kong in recent years. The Hong Kong election issue in 2014 has triggered a series of occupation movements came out, and raised the anti-China emotion among Hong Kongers. As a Cantonese speaker living in a city near Hong Kong, I could also feel the tension at that time, which could be also revealed from the sensitivity of language use in Hong Kong. Speaking Putonghua represents the Chinese Mainland identity, regarded as “enemy” by some Hong Kongers, while only Cantonese is accepted and “safe” in that sensitive period. Mainland Chinese tourists who visited Hong Kong, suffered anxiety of speaking Putonghua, since there were many cases that Mainland Chinese people were treated disrespectfully or even harassed by Hong Kongers. For example, if they speak Putonghua when doing shopping, the salespersons will possibly treat them in an impolite and impatient way. Another example was that a Mandarin-speaking woman with a suitcase (seems like a tourist from Mainland China), was stopped and abused by a Cantonese speaker on the street. So lots of people from Mainland China would have the similar worries when they went to Hong Kong. My friends (Mandarin-speakers) who study in Hong Kong also felt anxious and awkward about themselves in this situation, and they are also worried about their future career in Hong Kong since they do not know Cantonese. What’s more, some of my relatives are Hong Kongers, and my cousin attended the occupation movements. I had a strange feeling when I met her (she may also feel the same way I guess), and we will not talk about the politics.

What I talked above is mainly is based on my personal experience and perception. Recent studies on Hong Kongers’ language attitude changes (towards Cantonese, Putonghua and English) may be more convincing here. Results of many previous and recent studies show that Cantonese is always the language which best represents Hong Kong, and that forms their identity. Lai’s (2016) study shows that students like Cantonese most since it is their mother tongue, and it should not be replaced by Putonghua even though it is only a dialect. As for English, it also forms a part of Hong Kongers’ identity since it has become their linguistic habitus and also linguistic capital that they treasure. Thus, English still has its prestigious status in Hong Kong.

However, their attitude towards Putonghua is more interesting. Many studies show that their attitude towards Putonghua is generally positive. In Lai’s (2016) study, the result shows that students would like to learn Putonghua because it can help them communicate with people from Mainland China and Taiwan. However, no student think that it is or it will be an important language in Hong Kong. In Lai’s (2016) study, though students do not have negative attitude towards Putonghua, Putonghua is not the language that they like the most, and being able to speak fluent Putonghua do not make them appear more intelligent or educated. Therefore, Putonghua is not regarded as a prestigious language after the handover as predicted by some scholars.

I try to interpret the result from my own observation. Due to the political conflict between Mainland China and Hong Kong, Hong Kongers tend to present a stronger sentiment and association with Cantonese than ever before, since speaking Cantonese (or code-switching of English and Cantonese) is regarded as parts of their cultural identity, distinguish them from Mainland Chinese. In other words, the Hong Kong identity but not Chinese identity has grown even stronger among young people after the handover in 1997. Before 1997, they may not feel the political threat from China, but now they do. We can also see the concern from a media perspective. Dialect, one of the five stories in a Hong Kong movie, Ten Years, tells a story that a new language policy is carried out – Putonghua should be taught in schools, and used as official language in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Cantonese is restricted for use and gradually becomes an inferior and uneducated marker. For example, in the movie, children are encouraged to learn and speak Putonghua at school, and taxis with Cantonese-speaking divers are not allowed to park in some main areas, but taxis with bidialect drivers are allowed to park any area in Hong Kong. Here, the discrimination for Cantonese can be revealed (the similar case happened in Mainland China when the Putonghua standard policy was carried out in the last century). This movie also presents the conflict between old generation (Cantonese-speakers) and new generation (Putonghua-learning kids), and the fragment identity of Hong Kong from a language perspective.

Now, since the tension has been eased a bit, the language attitudes towards Mandarin of Hong Kongers are still changing. For example, instead of regarding Putonghua as a threat, some Hong Kongers would like to learn Putonghua so that they can have more job opportunities since a large group of new comers are from Mainland China. More Hong Kongers seem to take a cooperative attitude now. Also, it would also be interesting to reveal the language attitude toward Cantonese (Hong Kong style) of Mainland Chinese.

Lastly, if you would like to know more about language (or dialect) attitudes in Chinese dialect films, you can visit the website that I made. Here is the link: I would like to hear your voice.




Fong, E. T. Y. (2010). Changing intergroup relations with Mainland Chinese: An analysis of changes in Hong Kong movies as a popular cultural discourse. Multilingua-Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication, 29(1), 29-53.

Lai, M. L. (2001). Hong Kong students’ attitudes towards Cantonese, Putonghua and English after the change of sovereignty. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 22(2), 112-133.

Tung, C.H. (1997) Building Hong Kong for a new era. Address by the Chief Executive, the Honourable Tung Chee Hwa at the Provisional Legislative Council meeting on 8 October 1997. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.



3 thoughts on “The changing language attitude of Hong Kongers in recent decades”

  1. Yu-Ting, Liu

    Hello Kunyao,

    It’s always interesting to see how language associates with identity. The situation you mentioned is more or less the same in Taiwan. If I speak perfect Taiwanese, then I’m considered more as a “real Taiwanese”. Or if a foreigner code-switching of Mandarin and some Taiwanese. People would find the person interesting, because he or she knows the local culture, which is different from Mainland China even we share the same language.

    About the changes in Hong Kong recently, I believe Cantonese stands for a big part of their identity and self-recognition. When I went travel to Hong Kong last summer, I was surprised that not every Hong Konger can manage to speak Mandarin well. Sometimes I spoke English to order food at a restaurant, but probably it’s because they were not used to my accent. But then I talked to a local friend, he pointed out how Cantonese are important to their daily lives, and said Mandarin will never overpass it. Now Hong Kong is facing the threat from Mainland China. I think language policy makers should consider many aspects to make proper changes. In my opinion, the three languages should weigh the same in school curriculum. Since they are all important due to historical and political changes, none of them should be “restricted” or become inferior to any other. Again, I don’t really familiar with the tense between Hong Kong and Mainland China. These are just my experiences and thought by interacting with Hong Kongers! Correct me if im wrong!


  2. Hi Kunyao,

    Thanks for sharing such deep insight into the language issue between mainland China and Hongkong. Your personal experience and perspectives refreshes my view as well. I knew there used to be much tension between Hong Kongers and mainlanders because HKers thought mainlanders are competing and taking up their resources or something like that. I didn’t know it intensified to the extent that all mandarin speakers are affected. I was wondering if there is any language policy in the “One Country, Two System” principle?



  3. Shengwen Xu (comment #6)

    Hello, Katherine

    I am really interested in the topic of your post, and I should definitely go and see your website!
    As also a Cantonese speaker, I also read about what you mentioned in the post about Hong Kongers. And I would like to share a similar anecdote occurred in my city. When we were in primary school, the government has carried out a big campaign to promote Mandarin as the standard Chinese. And all the teachers were required to teach in Mandarin. Therefore, many Cantonese-speaking teachers had to switch their language. Actually their strong Cantonese accent caused us trouble in understanding. But with all these years passing along, the majority of teachers in the Chinese educational system in my hometown can speak standard Chinese. However, a few years ago, a local television channel was told to change all their programs into Mandarin instead of Cantonese, which caused strong opposition from the local people. As for me, the campaign to promote Mandarin as the standard Chinese actually threatens the existence of local dialects, for example, Cantonese. I notice that many students now speak less Cantonese due to the common use of Mandarin at school and with friends. As a Cantonese speaker and a language lover, I really don’t want to see the local dialect disappear gradually.


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