A socio-historical approach to multilingualism in Hong Kong Kingsley Bolton and Sin-Inn Lee


This chapter sets out to provide an historical overview of the sociolinguistics of Hong Kong society, with particular reference to the Chinese and English languages, as well as a discussion of linguistic minorities within the Hong Kong speech community. One danger in analysing the past in this context (as well as in all historical contexts) is to project the present and the categories of present-day society back into the past, and to read the past through the prism of the present. In the context of Hong Kong, at its most obvious, that might involve an historical imaginary where the three major languages of contemporary society, Cantonese, Putonghua, and English, jostle for power, in similar fashion to today. All of this is obviously fictional, given that Putonghua did not gain the status of the national language of China until the early 1950s, and that the earliest language surveys fail to mention either Mandarin or Putonghua until the 1960s and 1970s. It is also important to note that the term ‘multilingualism’ itself is of very recent origin, and did not gain currency as a linguistic concept until the late twentieth century (Coulmas, 2017, pp. 27—28). Our survey of linguistic history thus takes us from a largely forgotten past to the present-day dynamics of a multilingual global city (Figure 3.1).

The history of Chinese languages in Hong Kong

In today’s Hong Kong, 92% of the population are ethnically Chinese, and the vast majority of these are immigrants from southern China, especially Guangdong and Fujian provinces, or the descendants of immigrants from those provinces. Little is known about the history' of the territory' before British occupation and historians generally agree that ‘[wjhen the British arrived in the late 1830s, the island was but a remote outpost in the Chinese Empire, speckled with a few tiny fishing villages’, and an estimated total population of 5,000 land and boat inhabitants (Carroll, 2005, p. 20). The arrival of the British on the island soon attracted a large influx of merchants, traders, and workmen (‘coolies’) from southern China, and the population expanded rapidly in the 1840s. One early missionary', looking for a base for missionary

Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China

Figure 3.1 Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China.

activity, was particularly struck by the diversity of languages spoken in the colony at that time:

Another difficulty [...] is the great diversity of dialects which prevails among its limited population of 19,000 Chinese, and which is necessarily produced by the heterogeneous elements of which it is composed. There are three principal dialects in the island, the speaker of one of which would be unintelligible to the speaker of another. [...] There is the Hok-ha [Hakka] dialect, spoken by 3500 settlers from the north-east of the Canton province. The Pun-te [Punti, Cantonese], or dialect of the place and neighbourhood, is also subdivided into the Sin-On [San-on, Sinan], spoken by the original inhabitants and the settlers from Macao; the Pwan-yu [Pun-yue, Panyu], spoken by the settlers from Whampoa; and the Nan-hoi [Nam-hoi, Nanhai]. There are also the Hak-lo [Hoklo, i.e. Chiu Chau, Fukien] dialect from Fokeen, and some other varieties, each of them spoken by a few hundreds or tens of persons.

(Smith, 1847, pp. 511—512)

Smith’s description of the sociolinguistic landscape was written in 1846, five years after the British had established a base on the island, and description of ‘dialects’ identifies three major local languages, Pun-te (‘Punti’ or Cantonese), Hok-ba (Hakka), and Hoklo (‘Hokkicn’). These varieties are later represented in government language censuses and continue to be spoken in Hong Kong today. The term Рнп-te that Smith uses in the above quotation is a transliteration of the Cantonese bundeib ФЙЬ,, meaning ‘local’. Punti is a somewhat archaic item of Hong Kong English lexis, which, until recently, was widely used in the Hong Kong law courts to refer to the Cantonese language. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century the term Punti was used in distinction to Hakka (§l|t), which meant ‘guest family’ and referred to the Hakka or Kejia speakers who are thought to have migrated southward from Shanxi province in Northern China from CE 317 onwards, while Hakka migrants are believed to have reached Guangdong province between 1127 and 1644 (Moser, 1985, p. 237). The Hoklo of Fujian origin also migrated southwards into Guangdong province, and large numbers of Hokkien (Fukien, Fujian ?§M) speakers also settled in the far west of Guangdong province and on Hainan Island. The term ‘Cantonese’ is rather recent in origin, and dates from nineteenth-century references to Yueyu Щ-т, ‘the language of the Yue people’ (Faure, 1996, p. 37). The term Cantonese is also ambiguous; on the one hand, it is associated with Guangzhou (‘Canton’) (Gwongjau ivd mj'l'lsi§), the regional capital of Guangdong province, but, on the other, it has also been used as an umbrella term to refer to the dialects of Guangdong as a whole (Gwongdung wa Iff Ж to) ■ Among Chinese linguists and dialectologists, the preferred term is Yueyu or Yue language, which refers collectively to southern Chinese dialects spoken in parts of Guangdong province, as well as parts of Guangxi, and Fujian provinces.

Historically, the multilingual diversity of Chinese languages in the region was preceded by, and overlapped with other forms of multilingualism, given that the earliest inhabitants of the region were non-Chinese ‘valley-dwelling, rice-raising Tai tribesmen related to existing groups like the Zhuang’ (Moser, 1985, p. 206). Support for this hypothesis has come from linguists such as Bauer and Benedict, who have claimed that a number of the colloquial words still found in the Yue dialects may be the expression of ‘an ancient

Tai substratum’ (Bauer & Benedict, 1997, p. xxxix). Many historians believe that the original inhabitants of the region were non-Sinitic Austro-Asiatic peoples related to similar ethnic groups in western China and the northern districts of present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. In addition, sea-borne Austronesian migrants from what is now Indonesia may have also had settlements in the area. According to Balfour (1941, p. 332), the Punti themselves were relatively recent migrants who colonised Guangdong province from North China, from the Sung dynasty (960 CE) onwards, thus arriving in the area a few hundred years before the Hakkas (who were then dubbed ‘foreigners’). Another ethnic group important throughout the early years of Hong Kong were the ‘Tanka’ boat people, who spoke a variety of Cantonese, lived on boats along the southern coast, and were ‘the founders of maritime commerce in the Far East’, before the arrival of foreign traders from India and Persia in around the fourth century CE (Balfour, 1941, p. 344).

As late as the Tang dynasty (618—907 CE) northern Chinese settlement in Guangdong province was still rather limited, although significant numbers of Arabs, Indians, and Persians had by this time settled at Guangzhou (Khanfu in Arabic). Although the emperor maintained a number of military posts in Guangdong, including one at Panyu, near Guangzhou, large-scale migration of northern Chinese into the area probably did not begin until the Sung dynasty (960—1278 CE). Balfour states that the first major northern clan to settle throughout Guangdong were the Tang family, who had migrated from Honan (Henan), and were ‘the founders of the Punti population’, and that the Punti and Hakka were ‘both of the same Northern Chinese stock and belong to successive waves of migration which followed the same route’ (Balfour, 1941, p. 446). Around this time, members of the Tang clan established themselves as major landholders in what later became the New Territories of Hong Kong, and even settled areas of Hong Kong and Lantau Island (p. 448). Later, at the beginning of the Ching (Qing) dynasty, in the years 1662—1669, the Manchu government ordered a mass evacuation of all the coastal areas of Guangdong province, in order to deal with the problem of pirates. Most villagers were ordered to move to areas some 50 li (approximately 25 kilometres) from the coast, and at this time many Punti villages in the area were abandoned and settled by Hakkas (Balfour, 1941, p. 463). When the British arrived in Hong Kong in 1842, they found that a significant proportion of the 3,000—5,000 strong population (estimates vary) were of Hakka stock. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, Hong Kong developed rapidly as a trading hub and entrepot, and British rule was extended to the Kowloon peninsula in 1860 and to the hinterland of the New Territories in 1898. The population of the territory exceeded 450,000 by 1911, which was the year of the first language census in the territory, the results of which are set out in Table 3.1

A number of points are noteworthy in connection with this, the earliest of all language censuses in the community. First and foremost, we again see the use of the term ‘Punti’, which was later replaced by ‘Cantonese’ from the 1960s

Table 3.1 The 1911 Hong Kong census results on languages


Hong Kong Island and Kowloon

New Tertitories, Northern District

New Territories, Southern District


























Not stated












Note: The total population in 1911 was 456,739.

onwards. We also see the use of the term ‘Hoklo’, which is used throughout all census reports from 1911 until 1971 as a category of description referring to both the Chiu Chau (Teo Chew) and Fukien (Fujian) dialects of China. As far as the actual results of the 1911 language census are concerned, a number of results are noteworthy, including (i) the fact that Punti (or ‘Cantonese’) is the most widely spoken variety of Chinese, with 81.0% of respondents identifying this as their ‘usual language’; (ii) that there are two sizeable minority Chinese ethnolinguistic groups: the Hakka, comprising 15.1% of the population (although outnumbering the Punti in the northern New Territories), and the Hoklo, accounting for 1.9%. The continued existence of these Chinese minority linguistic groups is visible in subsequent language censuses up to and including the present day. It is also noteworthy that the 1911 Census results have no reference to the number of Mandarin (Guanhua В Ш§) speakers in the community, which is perhaps unsurprising, given that the first modern attempts to promote the ‘national language’ (Guoyu ®§и) are not made until the 1920s (So, 1992). In Hong Kong, it is not until 1960 that ‘national language’ (romanised as Kuo Yu) is included in the census, with 0.99% of the sample indicating that was their ‘usual language’, a designation that is first replaced by the (standard mainland) term Putonghua (‘common speech’) in 1991, and thereafter retained in following censuses. The 1911 census also included questions relating to literacy, the results for which indicated that whereas a sizable proportion of male respondents claimed to be able to read and write (71.6%), the corresponding figure for females was very low (14.3%) (Bacon-Shone & Bolton, 1998).

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