Archived article

Letters from Hong Kong: Characters under the Cantonese umbrella

Italo Calvino once wrote of “... this world dense with writing that surrounds us on all sides.” This seems an apt description of the experience of visiting the protest sites in the city. Writing, drawings, signs, symbols can be seen “on all sides”.

Letters from Hong Kong: Characters under the Cantonese umbrella

Much of the writing is of course in Chinese. Cantonese, to be specific, which is the native language of the vast majority of Hongkongers. This requires some explanation. Hong Kong people traditionally speak Cantonese but read and write a Chinese that closely follows what most people call Mandarin. The first division between Hong Kong and China occurred when the People’s Republic moved to a new set of simplified characters while Hong Kong kept “traditional” characters, which are more pictorial. Although they are related, they are not always mutually intelligible. In addition, much Chinese written in Hong Kong uses characters and word order to correspond more closely to the way people actually speak; contrary to much conventional wisdom, therefore, not all Chinese text is intelligible to all Chinese. Hong Kong has even invented new characters. [c.f. “Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese” in Language Log.]

I wonder what the characters with their intricate and intertwined strokes must look like in the eyes of those who can’t read Chinese? Bruce Davidson, commenting on the graffitied signatures on the New York subway, said that they were like “ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.”

For those of us who speak and breathe the language, Cantonese is not “ancient” at all. It is living, evolving. It is an energetic, expressive, sometimes dignified vernacular. There’s a time and place for everything, they say. In school, students are told not to write in Cantonese: it’s inelegant, it’s “too spoken.” On the streets, however, Cantonese can be a delightful contribution to the consolidation of a unique Hong Kong identity.

Indeed, a recent article in Quartz explores how protesters in Hong Kong are using Cantonese as a form of political, ideological and linguistic resistance. “Umbrella Movement”, a term referring to the occupy movement and the protests, for example, has been rendered as 遮打運動, which is distinctively Cantonese (for this, see also Lucas Kleins’s “Occupy Translation”). However, “Umbrella Movement” has been translated to 雨傘運動 as well, especially in writing. While 遮打運動 has a strong local Hong Kong flavour, 雨傘運動 can be readily understood by Mandarin speakers.

Still, even if 傘 is used instead of 遮, Hongkongers are setting themselves apart by using the traditional writing system (傘) instead of the simplified one (伞). It is exactly “umbrella”, written in the traditional form, that has inspired some cases of creative use.  


1). Christopher Hutton, a language and linguistic professor at the University of Hong Kong, has remarked that the Chinese character below combines the existing characters of “support” (撐) and “umbrella” (傘)—which rhyme in Cantonese. A new meaning is born: to support through holding up an umbrella. It may gain currency and be adopted into the Cantonese vocabulary, even though it is now only a sort of pictograph. In the picture, Guan Gong (關公), the Chinese figure famous for his legacy of loyalty, integrity and bravery, is seen holding a paper and silk umbrella.


[caption id='attachment_0' align='aligncenter' width='100%']Seen in Mong Kok; photo by Jason S Polley[/caption]


2). A cartoon showing Chinese chess board with regular chess pieces on top arrayed against a sea of [yellow] umbrellas on bottom. [source: Kerim Friedman


[caption id='attachment_1' align='aligncenter' width='100%']Credit: Kerim Friedman[/caption]


This illustration works especially since 卒 (‘pawn’) on the chess board is visually suggestive of 傘 (‘umbrella’), which in turn is a metaphor for a protester holding up an umbrella. Pawns, because they are quite powerless. But the more optimistic message is that they, not the opposite side (which composes of a marshal, officers, ministers, horses, chariots, cannons and soldiers), are the majority, as they fill up the entire lower section of the board. 


3). One of the important differences between the traditional characters still used in Hong Kong and the simplified characters used in Mainland China is that the former have retained many pictorial elements and possibilities. Perhaps the illustration below spells out the difference between the traditional and the simplified forms more explicitly. In the traditional form of “umbrella” (傘), four “yan” or “persons” (人) find shelter and protection under a shared canopy. The simplified version (伞), on the other hand, is devoid of any humans.


[caption id='attachment_2' align='aligncenter' width='100%']沒有傘,如何撐 Without people How to support?[/caption]


One can draw from that what conclusions one wishes.

* * *


Produced together with Tammy Ho Lai-Ming of Hong Kong Baptist University and co-editor of the the literary journal Cha, this is a column for original, creative pieces that capture the voices and zeitgeist. Please send questions, ideas, etc. to the editor.


Previous “Letters from Hong Kong”:
“Letters from Hong Kong: Poems in situ
“Where the lines in the sand meet” by Peter Gordon
“Occupy Tour Guide” by Erik Wennermark
“Occupy Translation” by Lucas Klein
“‘Free’ Verse” by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim
“Protests in black and white” by Eddie Tay
“A Tragedy of Errors” by Colin Cavendish-Jones
“Model citizens”
“Bamboo and umbrellas”
A Poetic Backgrounder to the Hong Kong Protests

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming teaches at Hong Kong Baptist University and is co-editor of the journal Cha.