There was no official language in Hong Kong in the 1950s. In that decade, Hong Kong population increased by several times, with immigrants from both Northern and Southern China flooding in. With such diverse origins of immigrants, we had different languages coexisted in this tiny place: Hakka, Shanghaiese, Teochew were spoken by many. There were even dialects from Tianjin and Peking. Hong Kong was a multilingual city.
The New Territories has been the habitat of Hakka people, mixed with many other ethnic groups, such as Tanka people. Hoi Pa Village in Tsuen Wan, Sam Tung Uk and Yim Tin Tsai Village in Sai Kung were famous Hakka villages, sharing similar architectural style with Hakka village in Mei County of Guangdong province of China.
The rise of Cantonese to become dominant language in Hong Kong was the result of compulsory education. Hong Kong colonial government did not state clearly its policy in “official language”. Colonial government just carried out policies quietly without making clear instructions, yet the language used in compulsory education since 1960s has always been Cantonese.
Why was Cantonese chosen? It was due to the Leftist Riots in 1967. The United Kingdom adjusted its policy of Hong Kong. Hong Kong used to be treated as a free port with minimal restrictions to immigrants. The immigrants were viewed as temporary residents who would return to their homeland when the situation permitted. Therefore, there was no long term planning for this city, which was especially obvious in respect on cultural policies. There were hardly any cultural policies at all.
Of course, this was a pragmatic strategy, considering possible threat of annexing Hong Kong by Chinese Communists.
The Cultural Revolution in China caused a change to the picture. The refugees in Hong Kong became reluctant to return to China after witnessing the brutality of the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, the Revolution stimulated Chinese mainlanders in China to seek refuge in Hong Kong. 1967 Leftist Riots, which were highly correlated with the Cultural Revolution, alarmed these once fragmented and individual refugees of the imminent threats, making them to change their mind – starting to treat Hong Kong as their homeland.
The Leftist Riots ended by the order of Zhou Enlai. This hinted the “liberation” of Hong Kong was out of schedule for China. Hong Kong therefore became the shelter for those fleeing from the Cultural Revolution. This situation made the refugees to rethink of their roles. They could no longer treat themselves as passers-by; they became settlers. In this case, Hong Kong could no longer be managed like a large-scale refugee camp. Social policies had to be adjusted for its long term development.
From that point of time, the Hong Kong government had a drastic change in its policies: large-scale construction schemes of public housing for refugees to settle down; implementation of compulsory education, not only to improve education level, but also a process of identity construction. “Identity construction” meant a nation-building process, to create a new identity: a new identity with much stronger coherence, self-identity, sense of belonging and homogenous cultural characteristics among the residents. This was accompanied by industrialization, the strengthening of the trade networks with the South East Asia and Japan, the construction of desalination plant, while reducing its economic and entrepot trade dependence on mainland China. All these aimed at building up Hong Kong as a place for long term development.
Standard Cantonese was chosen as the de facto official language. Since then, the word 廣府話 (translated as Standard Cantonese, literally means the Cantonese primarily used in the core Canton/Guangzhou region) was renamed as 廣東話 (translated as Cantonese, which includes variations used in different regions of Guangdong province). “Cantonese” is a broader sense which includes “Standard Cantonese”. Treating “Standard Cantonese” as “Cantonese” served to consolidate the leading role of people from core Canton regions as the mainstream ethnic group in Hong Kong society. Simply speaking, that is to treat the people with core Canton origin as the major ethnic group among Hong Kongers. They served to assimilate the descendants of other refugees, which in turn strengthened the British rule.
Chinese and English bilingual subtitles were compulsory in the Hong Kong movies. “Chinese” became one of the official languages (This so-called “Chinese” language was de facto Cantonese, different from Putonghua of Communist China or Mandarin of Republic of China). These were the policies to nurture Cantonese as official language of Hong Kong. With favourable cultural soil, Hong Kong Cantonese movies emerged in this decade.
The diminishing influence of Hakka dialect was more or less the result of government policies. The British made a generous offer to indigenous inhabitants allowing them to emigrate to the United Kingdom. In that era, migration to the Kingdom was rather easy. These emigrants often left in a scale which most villagers in the village emigrated at the same time. Though they may still have properties and lands in Hong Kong, they lost their cultural influence. This helped the British government to clear a major obstacle in construction of Cantonese mainstream culture in Hong Kong.
Of course, not all the inhabitants were gone. So the Cantonese in Hong Kong was actually a language which based mainly on Standard Cantonese, and mixing the dialects of Chaoshan, Hakka and other provinces to form the “Cantonese of Hong Kong”. The influence of other dialects can still be found today, such as the use of 伯娘 in greeting elder uncle’s wife.
With the grownup of first generation taught by official Cantonese, other dialects and Hakka would lose their influence. Most of current Hong Kongers speak Cantonese. So we can see that the rise of Cantonese as mainstream culture in Hong Kong was a process of cultural colonization, instead of protecting cultures. This was quite a rare case in colonial policies. British was using the tools of nation build-up to construct the identity of Hong Kongers – a cultural identity with its mainstream based on Cantonese.
Such nation-building is in fact harmful to colonial rules, as it may spark independence movements. However, Hong Kong was quite a special case. For a long period of time, the political pressure of Hong Kong was the imminent annexation from mainland China. Hong Kong population was mainly composed of refugees who concerned primarily of personal security. So the nation-building process not only did not cause any harm to the colonial rule, but served to consolidate Hong Kong society to become a stable society for prosperous economic development. The refugees once without roots were transformed into citizens taking their roots in Hong Kong.
So you may ask: why the British didn’t pick Hakka dialect as official language but Cantonese? The answer is quite simple: only Cantonese could serve the purpose. The cultural influence of Canton was too significant to be ignored. Since late Qing period, the power of local Cantonese culture strengthened with time, which reached a climax when the emergence of Cantonese warlords in the beginning of the Republic of China. Cantonese essays and writings were widespread, and many Cantonese words were invented for widespread usage at that time. The Hong Kong colonial government was just borrowing the accumulated achievements of Cantonese culture. The British picked Cantonese for its economic and cultural power, as well as its usage overseas.
My professor once said that he was asked to explain why Cantonese language and characters had such significant influence when he attended a conference in Taiwan. Why was Cantonese so well developed, while Taiwanese characters were lagged behind? The reason was the cultural accumulation. They had significant difference in historical heritage and the influence of talents.
In a wider scope, though Cantonese attained dominance in Hong Kong, Chaoshan culture still had significant influence in Singapore and Thailand. Min Nan and Chaoshan were close branches in language division. The role of Min Nan language in those countries strengthened the role of Chaoshan.
Cantonese achieved its dominance with the endorsement of Hong Kong colonial government, would it be able to surpass other languages in Southern China. Hong Kong used public resources to promote the role of Cantonese. It even established Cantonese database. Hong Kong government made use of the accumulated achievements of Cantonese culture for nation-building. Hakka was not so fortunate to have its own government or even country.
Without the support of media and education, Hakka culture could only rely on civil resources. With gradual loss of Hakka culture, Hakka people would become assimilated – blood linkage could not retain cultural heritage.
Strictly speaking, “Cantonese” refers to a language with primary Cantonese branch mixing with other dialects, which is different from “Standard Cantonese”. Though the word “Cantonese” was so widely known, it was actually a dialect when compared to “Standard Cantonese”.