I See Ghosts

On purpose, I haven’t spilled much ink in Learning Cantonese
on the “meta”–on what I think this blog is about. I just figured I
would write, people would read, and everybody would figure out that I’m
not exactly teaching Chinese here (if you want to dig into the Wah
and all its maddening, head-banging twists and delightful surprises,
then run, do not walk,  to Sheik’s Cantonese language site, linked in my bookmarks.)

But an interesting exchange occurred yesterday in the comments, between two of the blog’s regular readers, and the issue they raised–whether or not I’m writing too much about “politics” and not enough about “ordinary people” got me thinking maybe I do need to explain myself a bit.

I know that some of you come here to read anecdotes of daily
life, and others are more interested in political and current affairs.
But I can’t separate out the two realms, because both are part of my everyday experience of the Cantonese language. I read the papers in the
morning, I walk the streets and go to demonstrations and marches and to
Legco meetings, and many if not most of my buddies here (like Hemlock,
Long Hair, Francis) are journos, politicians, or involved in civic life
in one way or another. And, hey, I’m a journalist, too. I love Hong Kong’s messy, noisy political scene as much as I love lo seui ngoh.

As reader N8Ma points out, Hong Kong’s very existence is a political affair,
thanks to the down and dirty deal the British cut with the Chinese in
the 1980s. You can’t get away from the fact that the citadel of the
Cantonese language is a “Special Administrative Region”, where
everything is subject to “interpretation”. And, occasionally when Beijing doesn’t
like the result and thinks it can get away with it, to “re-interpretation”. Hong Kong is a phantom zone–on the
books, citizens are guaranteed rule of law, freedom of speech
and assembly, an open free market. In reality, Hong Kongers only have
those things up to a point. When a freedom rocks the socks of some
powerful cartel, tycoon, politician, or institution, all bets are off.

With a flourish of a pen in Beijing, the Cantonese language could
disappear in Hong Kong in a generation. It’s already happened to large
extent in Guangzhou. I think about this a lot, because who wants to go crazy learning a language that might end up being suffocated? Not that I think this is going to happen in Hong Kong. But
when you are “Special”, nothing is ever certain.

You can’t write about the visible Hong Kong without writing about this invisible phantom world too. I buy a catty of baak choi jai
in the Central street market, and as the lady hands me my change, I
suddenly have a vision of wrecking balls and giant construction cranes.
The gaai sih, the old traditional wet market located steps from the
downtown cathedrals of banking and commerce, has been slated by the HKSAR urban
planning commission for, ahem, “redevelopment.” You know what that
means–they want to tear it down and build a “replica” of a traditional
old street, hidden underneath a couple of expensive condos, skyscrapers and parking

In Hong Kong, you can’t even buy vegetables withough being brushed by
ghosts from the dark world of invisible handshakes and secret
decisions. So how can I possibly write about this city and its language
without burning a handful or two of paper for the gwai sitting on my shoulders?


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