Why Hong Kong People Hate Speaking Mandarin to Non-Chinese Speakers?

I constantly see the scenes of Hong Kong people showing dislikes of non-Chinese speakers speaking to them in Mandarin (also known as Putonghua) rather than Cantonese. What Hong Kong people would do is to reply those foreigners in Cantonese, but never Mandarin. Because they think that:

1. “Hey, I can speak English, why the hell you talk to me in Mandarin?”

2. “This is Hong Kong, man. Speak what the locals speak!”

2. “Don’t think that I’m a Mainland Chinese, I’m a Hong Kong-ese!”

updated on Aug 15th, 2011:

For “non-Mandarin speakers” and “non-Cantonese speakers” mentioned here, I mainly refer to foreigners who are not native Chinese or Cantonese speakers. Those Chinese living or born overseas who speak Mandarin or Cantonese don’t count.

And the hatred comes from…

A big part of the reason can be attributed to Hong Kong people’s excessive emphasis on self identification as a Hong Kong citizen (who speak Cantonese) rather than a Chinese (who speaks Mandarin), even though Hong Kong has politically been a part of China since its sovereignty being returned to China from the British government in 1997.

In fact, Hong Kong people have always been proud of the higher economic prosperity of their city than in China which was still in the early stage of development back in a few decades ago. Hong Kong people always showed superiority over Mainland Chinese at that time. Hong Kong people were more white, more educated, earned more and they spoke Cantonese. As times go by, Hong Kong people linked their superiority over Chinese with the physical and cultural difference – including the language they speak. That’s why, Hong Kong people feel offensive if foreigners speak to them in Putonghua rather than Cantonese.

Why don’t non-Chinese speakers learn Cantonese then?

1. They simply just don’t need to

Almost all the Hong Kong people can speak or at least understand a bit of English, and Chinese language (the written one) wasn’t a compulsory subject in secondary schools in Hong Kong until in the late 1970s. All university students have to write in English for their works. Even for secondary schools, there are both Chinese-medium and English-medium ones. In the early days, many secondary schools were English-medium and students have to write all their academic essays in English for all subjects except Chinese Language, Chinese Literature and Chinese History. Therefore, it’s an ingrained historical force that has trained Hong Kong people to understand English.

2. They prefer learning Mandarin

Don’t blame them, China’s economy is developing in meteoric speed and everyone is learning Mandarin, not just foreigners who want to be more competitive, but also Hong Kong locals themselves. In fact, the best Mandarin-speakers in Hong Kong are those 9-year-old kids who are forced by their rich parent to have private Putonghua lessons every week. Those 30 to 40-year-olds in Hong Kong speak the worst Mandarin.

3. Cantonese is too hard to learn

Both Cantonese and Mandarin are a language with tones, meaning if you say words with the same pinyin (phonetic spelling) in different tones, they mean differently. Mandarin has 4 tones, Vietnamese has 6 tones and Cantonese has 9 tones! (Some system says that Cantonese has 6 tones but having 9 tones is the most common understanding) So how could the foreigners not be scared away?

Is Cantonese worthwhile to learn?

These are at least 66 million Cantonese-speaking population in the world. A lot of Singaporeans and Malaysians also speak Cantonese. Most of the Chinese citizens in US, Canada and Australia speak Cantonese, too. In fact, Cantonese is the second local language in Australia*. So being able to speak Cantonese means that you can communicate with a big part of the Chinese community in the world.

I mean, any language is worthwhile to learn if you want to actually live in the culture and interact with the locals; same as anything is worthwhile to learn if you want yourself to be a better person because you feel happy about it.

You can lean some interesting Cantonese at Canton168. If you want to see examples of a English speaker learning Cantonese, go to Lost in Mong Kok.

*Source: http://www.hudong.com/wiki/%E7%B2%A4%E8%AF%AD

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232 thoughts on “Why Hong Kong People Hate Speaking Mandarin to Non-Chinese Speakers?

  1. Don’t just read book and follow what people said, use you brain to think, I’m cantonese, why I need to speak Mandarin. If you live in USA, you speak English, if you in live in Japan, you speak, Japanese, if you live in Korea, you speak korea, if you live in France, you speak Franch, if you live in Spain, you speak Spanish. Here is the question, if you speak cantonese, where are you live. it seems like cantonese got no country, because Northern conquered Southern, Cantonese people lose the country, Just like Jewish people but they are luck and rebuild the country like Israel.

    • Stereotypes about Cantonese people

      I find that other Chinese, especially Mandarin-speaking people have a lot of negative stereotypes about us Cantonese people.

      For example, they say we eat all sorts of rubbish and caused SARS, are ugly, short and dark etc. I swear I have never eaten cat before.


      Anyway, I’m starting to have a complex about it and starting to hate other Chinese people, especially northerners. Especially we are getting more and more immigrants from other parts of China here, they don’t speak Cantonese and they don’t like us.They even look down on us.

      What do other Cantonese people think? What should we do? Can you think about any good things about being Cantonese (other than Guangdong province being rich)?




      • HKglory = nonsense


        1) Ever wondered why Southerners culture have retained much of ancient Chinese it’s all because northern China was historically conquered and invaded by non-Chinese Mongolic,Tungustic tribes more than 20 times. While Southern China being ruled by non-Han was only 2 times.

        2) Southerners being conquered by northerners but yet both of them are Chinese??? that’s the most stupidest thing ever, that’s like saying ancient North Koreans conquered South Koreans because they had different kingdom and tribes. Or even modern British Liverpooleans, Newcastle british, manchester because it was the London kingdom that conquered them but they need not say something so stupid like that because it’s t

      • as much as the universal aspiration for equality is called for, one key characteristics of civilization is the differenciation of class with different value attachment and the general aspiration for moving upward on the social ladder. to ones liking or not, i think in reality similar differenciation of value attachment also applies to different languages, dialects and accents. in a general impression of the reality, cantonese the dialect/language/accent and its relevant culture has always been viewed with less appreciation by other non-cantonese speaking chinese throughout chinese history. this is also why guangzhou was made the open port for foreign trade back in ming and qing dynasty(a few hundred years ago) because it was viewed as dispensible. guangdong was also made the first guinea pig for china’s economic reform starting in 1980, giving guangdong a headstart in economic affluence but such affluence has been overtaken by the shanghai delta in the last decade once the central authority decided to shift its focus.

        cantonese came into being becoz of the adoption of the spoken chinese from central china by the indigenous people living in the guangdong area after the area being conquered by the first chinese emperor 2000yrs ago. the language is a blend of ancient central chinese with distinctive indigenous accent and expressions(as hk ppl’s adoption of english in modern time but without the facilitation of nowadays multi-media). to the many chinese from places of more established civilization such as central china, cantonese is viewed as basterdized form of chinese. this is in a way similar to how ebonics(african slave’s adopted spoken form of english in america) is viewed as improper english by the mainstream english world.

        good or bad, human do differentiate and therefore discriminate. thats probably karma.

      • many languages do not come together with written scipts but that cerntainly renders these languages a disadvantage thus less influencial than those with a written form. experiences(history) and great ideas(imagination) can be spread far and broad geographically and across time if they can be recorded in writing.

        human settlement in the guangdong area can be tracked back >10,000years ago yet none of the indigenous tribes had developed any writing system therefore there is no recorded history of the area till 2000years ago when guangdong was conquerred and included into the chinese border. chinese language was brought in by the chinese troups. cantonese is a blend of chinese and local languages with the writing in chinese but the spoken form much influenced by the indigenous accent and way of expressions, just like many hk ppl speak english with distinctive cantonese accent and way of expressions despite being in a much more resourceful english learning enviroment facilitated by multi-media.

        korea and japanese also imported chinese for recording but both countries had managed to develop their own scripts later on. i think being able to develop an efficient script from ones own culture is a reflection of the group’s collective mental power and subsequently its potential of cultural influence to others. among many other things, japanese has asserted great influence on the development of the modern chinese language back 100years ago. without such influence, the chinese language would have been very different today.

        vietnamese also adopted chinese script for recording in the ancient time yet their adoption was very simplistic and only phonetically based with little regard towards the actual meaning the script conveys. vietnam (same as many other south eastern nations) never manages to develop its own written script. its current written form is an adoption of the alphabet system from the west(after being colonized by the french) to record its speech phonetically.

        the current cantonese adoption of chinese script to record its speech is in many ways similar to the simplistic phonetic adoption the vietnamese did. its a corruption of the sophisticated script. its also a reflection of the simplistic mindset. this should in a way explain why there is no any notable literary work of cantonese origin that can project influence and inspiration to other chinese.

        mandarin becomes the dominant representative of the chinese language is the result of evolution. mandarin is the dialect spoken across central and northern china plain which has facilitated man flow and communication resulting in a blend of many dialects and languages(eg mongol and manchu) interacting over the course of time. during the process, the chinese language has always remained the dominant force due to the written script. the blend helps mandarin to have evolved faster than other dialects just like english has evolved faster than other european languages after taking in influences from different culture. this is in theory the same as an mind open to different opinions and influences is expected to improve faster than a narrow mind. the communist and the nationalist surely had helped speed up the spread of mandarin but their decision to push it is because mandarin was already in a leading position by comparison. Singapore’s Harry Lee Kwang Yew hates communist and singapore’s chinese population is non-mandarin speaking at time of its founding 60yrs ago but singapore also adopted mandarin as one of its official languages.

        english become the global “putonghua” is also not any single person/ party’s effort or decision.

        cantonese is a backward dialect/ language due to the warm weather and the segregation from the rest of china by big mountains. its accent is generally percieved as unpleasant to ears by other chinese and therefore has a stigmatizing effect on the speaker. from a unity point of view, a common script is a bless to china for remaining intact and reducing communicating cost and misunderstanding. a common tongue should be seen as a bless too.

  2. I live in guangdong,I am French and my mandarin is better than my english.When I go to HongKong very little people understand what say when i speak english.But If I switch to Mandarin people understand and are a lot more friendly.Some of them answer in Cantonese but I don’t mind,Cantonese is easy to understand with the help of mandarin and the context,I try my best to speak Cantonese but Hk Cantonese is different from the mainland one.

  3. Pingback: Mainland People Are Ghetto | Free Domlet

  4. Helpful article, thanks.
    Currently, I learn Mandarin (simplified Chinese), reading this article hepls me decide not to learn Canton (at least now), LOL. :))))
    And I hope people of HK will understand, when foreigner speaks Mandarin to them. HK people is nice isn’t it?


    • While I was in Guangzhou, what little Cantonese I knew was very useful. The locals there love to hear a guailo speaking their city’s language, whereas in Hong Kong, they’re not so surprised to hear foreigners who know a little Cantonese.

  5. One reason for not learning Cantonese is that universities across America don’t seem to offer any choice. Mandarin is all that’s offered.

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  7. All fine. They can continue to be proudly a Hong Kong local. Who cares? Except since when Cantonese people in HK are “more white” than mainland Chinese? Is this a joke? Cantonese are known to be shorter and darker than Northern Chinese for a fact.

    • Here are my two cents.

      Look, we are all proud of where we are from. I love my little beijing to death. It doesn’t matter how others complain about the traffic and air quality. I hope it gets easier for them. To me it is the most wonderful city in the world because that’s my city. Equally I understand why Hong Kong people love Hong Kong and are proud of their city. Absolutely normal.

      In beijing, I don’t care where you’re from, you can speak mandarin and English to me because that’s the two languages I speak. But if you speak Cantonese to me, I’d apologise that I don’t understand it. There is nothing behind it other than I simply don’t speak Cantonese and don’t feel the need to learn Cantonese since billions of people speak mandarin in china. I wouldn’t feel offended, in any way, if a white or black person who lived in Hong Kong or Guangzhou studied Cantonese tried to talk to me in Cantonese. Good for them. Why even think twice about a situation like that and feel hurt that not everyone studied mandarin? People make their own choices. If they want to live in beijing study Chinese, we open our arms making them feel at home. If they prefer Hong Kong, cool. Good to have diversity.

      If you truly love your city and people and culture and language, have that confidence. Why be offended by another language or culture? Why the constant comparison, competition, and petty hurt feelings? Just because there are more and more non-Chinese study mandarin other than Cantonese now? Come on. That says a lot about the inferiority complex of some people more than anything else.

      I’ve lived outside of china and heard tons of insulting comments on mainland Chinese from Hong Kong people. When they were the only group of Chinese going overseas decades ago, they could demonlise us as much as they can. Now mainland china is rising from the ashes and suddenly we stole the spotlight and hurt Cantonese’ feelings? I think it’s just a fair game. You’ve represented us long enough as the carrier and frontier of Chinese culture. Now how about let us shine a little too and show the rest of the world another big part of the Chinese culture they’ve missed out on? Language is the carrier of a culture. It’s only natural that more and more people are studying mandarin.

      As for the economy and power shift blah blah blah, honestly who cares? Get a life. I’d rather jump into a tricycle having a beer in my hand touring the hutongs than thinking about omg why there are even non-Chinese speak Cantonese? I suggest my lovely Hong Kong fellows do the same. Do something that makes you happy other than feeling hurt and offended like you’ve lost a game to mainland Chinese in front of the rest of the world.

      FYI, I think mandarin truly is a rich and beautiful language. Cantonese I don’t know enough to say much but it sounds nice in songs.

      • Oh yeah I forgot the culture bit where some Cantonese argue they preserved true Chinese culture and we’ve lost it since culture revolution or some shit like that.

        Ok I see you preserved it pretty well in IFC and Disney land and ocean park and we lost it completely with our Great Wall and Forbidden City and Summer Palace, isn’t it? People, get a grip.

      • I suspect this HK anti-mandarin situation is an exaggeration. I have returned to Australia from Beijing and there are many Hong Kong people here. I will use mandarin with any Chinese person I meet and I am always met with either of two reactions: a) a look of surprise, followed by a response in mandarin, or b) seemingly no surprise at all with a reply in mandarin with absolutely no hesitation, in a way they would respond to any Chinese person.

        You would think people would be even more likely to want to use English here than in Asia since it’s our only national language, but people have responded to me in mandarin 100% of the time (not English, not Cantonese), this includes numerous people from Hong Kong.

        When I lived in Beijing my girlfriend would only ever speak to me in mandarin (her first language is Cantonese and she speaks English). I had no idea she even spoke English until I knew her for six months, when we were in the company of a foreigner who did not speak Chinese (my mother!).

        I personally haven’t experienced any first-hand evidence of anti-mandarin sentiment, although I can’t speak for the specific case of ‘Hong Kong people living in Hong Kong’, since I did not know mandarin when I lived in Hong Kong (although I have spent thousands of hours studying mandarin since then, for an average of maybe 8 to 10 hours a day).

        In summary: In Australia, Hong Kong people will speak to you in mandarin without any issues whatsoever, and would probably rather speak in mandarin than in English (although I’m just speculating about that). The only situation where I haven’t been able to use mandarin with a Chinese person was with an ABC who grew up here and does not speak mandarin.

  8. There are so many different between Chinese people (Mainland Chinese people) and Hong Konger. We have different culture, languages, living style and even believes. Since the occupation of Communist China in 1997, China has trying to destroy any ”Hong Kong identities” in my motherland. In these few years wherever i visit any districts in HK, Mandarin is everywhere and even the pupils from primary school and high school are speaking such languages! I can’t believe that changes happened in my homeland. I can’t even believe that the SAR trying to destroy our own languages in my place. Jesus H Christ!

  9. Pingback: Why Does Mandarin Win Out Cantonese as the Standard Spoken Version of Chinese? | HK Chili

  10. Pingback: Confusion about Cantonese, Mandarin, Traditional and Simplified Chinese | HK Chili

  11. I will pick Cantonese, simply because it sounds better when spoken ANd sung and not because of any cultural or political reasons. Why don’t we all just choose a language that sounds pleasing to us rather than fight?

  12. Pingback: Why Does Mandarin Win Out Cantonese as the Standard Spoken Version of Chinese? | Jin Wong

  13. Pingback: Confusion about Cantonese, Mandarin, Traditional and Simplified Chinese | Jin Wong

  14. When I’m at a store or restaurant, I do not speak with the peasants serving me. I just point at what I want and throw my money on the floor for the peons to scrabble for.

    Sometimes if I meet with one of my social standing, I will speak with them in Latin, the true language of the Empire.

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