“Beneath the Umbrellas” by Louis Chung

The HP Series showcases excerpts from excellent Honours Projects by students from the Department of English Language and Literature. [Read all entries here.]

Umbrella Support.png
Seen in Mong Kok; photograph by Jason S Polley, 2014.

Supervisor: Dr Tammy Lai-Ming Ho

Beneath the Umbrellas:
Cantonese as the Symbol of Hongkong Identity,
Freedom and Weapon against Corrupted Language

Language is human beings’ most important asset. It is the primary tool for people to communicate with one another. It shapes one’s perception of the world and reality. On the one hand, the nature of language as an arbitrary, ambiguous and abstract construct allows the unscrupulous government officials who mastermind the electoral reforms in Hong Kong to distort reality and corrupt the minds of their audiences. On the other, it serves as a powerful weapon for Hongkongers to resist the corrupted language of the PRC and its ideologies. Cantonese, as the mother tongue of the majority of Hongkongers, played a crucial role in the civil disobedience campaign in 2014, commonly known as the Umbrella Movement, which aimed to topple the electoral framework for the next Chief Executive Election in 2017 set up by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) on 31 August 2014. The ultimate goal for the movement was to demand full democracy and more political freedom.

In both written and spoken forms, Cantonese and Mandarin are distinct from one another, and not necessarily mutually intelligible. Since the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, Mandarin has played an increasingly important part in Hong Kong society. It can be seen from the biliteracy and trilingualism policy in Hong Kong, where Mandarin shares official status with Cantonese and English. Mandarin is incorporated into the primary and secondary curricula. Some universities also require their graduates to pass various Mandarin proficiency tests as a graduation requirement. Scholars such as Tammy Ho Lai-Ming have remarked that measures such as those mentioned above as a continuation of Beijing’s “political, ideological and linguistic encroachment” (Ho, 8). Against this aggressive form of political and linguistic intrusion, Cantonese is used by Hongkongers to uphold their unique local identity, and serves as the symbol of defiance and resistance by democratic protesters.

Evidence of such can be seen from different aspects of the Umbrella Movement. A prime example would be how the campaign is named. Umbrellas served as an important symbol of the protest as they were used by protestors to protect themselves from the sun and rain, not to mention the pepper spray and tear gas from the police. In Chinese, the Umbrella Movement is usually written using the Mandarin phrase for “umbrella” (雨傘). Still, many would prefer the Cantonese character (遮), or the Cantonese phrase (遮打), which is the Cantonese transliteration of Chater Road, in order to indicate the origin of the protest. The flexibility of Cantonese is reflected in the naming of the protest. Chinese characters are logograms and each has the potential to carry a range of meanings. Take the Cantonese character (遮) as an example: apart from meaning “umbrella”, which is a noun, it can also be read as a verb, meaning to “obscure” or “cover”, while (打), the second character in (遮打), means to “hit” or “attack”. Therefore, the protest could be interpreted as a massive civil disobedience campaign, the “Umbrella Fight Movement”, against the impending electoral reform which was far from democratic. These additional layers of meanings can only be interpreted by Cantonese speakers, and they are scarcely understood by Mandarin speakers.

During the protest, the creative use of Cantonese was found in many of the protest slogans. While the Chief Superintendent of the Police Public Relations Branch Steven Hui remarked the operations of police officers as “basked in light”/ “justice under glass” (English translation of the Chinese original of the Cantonese idiom “光明磊落”), protesters transform the phrase into a catchphrase — “Justice under glass, beaten in the dark” (光明磊落,暗角打鑊) to criticise police brutality.

 Likewise, when Andy Tsang, the current Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police Force, tried to present the image of police officers as kindly mothers (慈母), protesters replied with a creative pun, saying that police officers were not “慈母” (kindly mothers) but “持武” (armed, holding weapons) as the two phrases “慈母” and “持武” are homophones. The name was used as an alias to address police officers as a form of satire.

The fact that the PRC government regards Cantonese as a dialect, but not an official language, is a cause of heated debate about the future of Hong Kong. Cantonese has therefore become a weapon to protect and consolidate one’s identity as a Hongkonger, mobilising the creation of new Cantonese terms that involve political puns and Cantonese-specific idioms, opposing the policies imposed by Beijing to regard Mandarin as “Standard Chinese”, compared with the status as a “dialect” for Cantonese. Cantonese is also a symbol of defiance for protesters in the Umbrella Movement against the electoral reform of the Beijing government, and the pursuit of a “genuine universal suffrage” in 2017.

Throughout the essay, it is examined that language, as a double-edged sword, can be used to create or destroy, to lead or mislead, to communicate or confuse, and most importantly, to instil fear or fight for freedom. While language would lead us to different paths and outcomes, it is of utmost importance for one to understand how language can be manipulated or distorted and the underlying intention of speakers, so that informed decisions can be made amid the cluttered voices of different players.


LouisLouis Chung is a BA graduate in Stylistics and Comparative Literature (Class of 2015). [Read all entries by Louis.]

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