Arts & Culture

Hong Kong's disappearing indigenous culture

Ming Gor uses his boat for cultural tours to promote Tanka heritage the Tanka identity [Divya Gopalan/Al Jazeera]

Hong Kong - When the British first arrived in Hong Kong in the 19th century, they came across a group of indigenous people on fishing boats and asked them what the place was called. 

"Hong Kong," those people replied.

The name stuck, but the culture and the language weren't as resilient.

Hong Kong is the Tanka words for "fragrant harbour".

The language is spoken by people who call themselves "Soi Seung Yan", meaning "those born of the water". They were the earliest inhabitants of the region in coastal southern China.

Fifty-year-old Ming Gor is one of the last fluent speakers of the Tanka language. Until 2004, he lived on a boat and was a fisherman just like his father and grandfather.

But stringent environmental laws and government policy made it difficult to earn a living on the South China Sea, forcing him to move to land with his family. He says it's a familiar story in his community, which has been rapidly disappearing over the past few decades.

Lisa Lim is a linguistics professor at Hong Kong University and founder of the website linguisticsminorities.hk. 

Her research found that discriminatory practices in the 18th century preserved the Tanka culture. The people were not allowed to marry in the community or live onshore, so they lived on small boats grouped together to form colonies. 

However, she added that modern era posed the greatest challenges to them in preserving their heritage.

Younger generations have moved onshore, to urban areas, for better job opportunities and easier lifestyle.

Historically considered the lowest class of Chinese and outcasts, the Tanka were quick to shed their identity once they started assimilating with the wider Cantonese community. 

But not Ming Gor. He now uses his boat for cultural tours to promote Tanka heritage and to promote the Tanka identity.

"Tanka fisherman had such low social status in Hong Kong that their long history and contribution to society has been overlooked. I want this to change and tell the world that we once were here."

Bring back the Hakka

It's a similar story for the Hakka community, according to Lau Chun-Fat, a Hakka academic campaigning to preserve dialects and languages from extinction.

After studying to work as a biologist in Germany, he returned to his village in Yuen Long in 1993.

His dismay at finding out nobody spoke Hakka led him back to university to pursue a career as a Hakka scholar.

"My village is a very small one, it has 100 inhabitants," he said.

"In the whole village, I'm the only one who speaks to my children in Hakka. The older generation know Hakka, but they speak to their children in Cantonese."

The Hakka came to Hong Kong about 300 years ago and settled in what was then rural New Territories. 

Hakka grandmother and grandson in Po Kat Tsai village in Fanling, New Territories [Amy Ip Ka Man/Al Jazeera]

Until 1945, they were one of four main native groups in the territory. That changed when the civil war in China sent more than a million Cantonese refugees across the border into the British colony between 1945 and 1951.

It was also during this period that the colonial government closed all village schools that were teaching in the various indigenous languages. They opened new institutions that only taught in Cantonese.

His first day of school was the first time he heard the southern Chinese dialect.

This, according to Lau, signalled a shift in their culture. Many parents felt their children would have better opportunities if they assimilated with the Cantonese.

Naomi Wong, 40, works for a trading company in the city but lives in the Hakka village house she grew up in with her parents.

Her 80-year-old father gets emotional when asked about the language. He told us that Hakka is a language full of wisdom and should not be forgotten. But his daughter says her generation find it easier to communicate in Cantonese.

Naomi and her group of Hakka friends can understand the language and use it when they talk to their parents and the older generation. In conversation with each other, they use Cantonese.

There is no official government campaign to promote or preserve indigenous languages.

The Hong Kong government does not differentiate among the various Chinese ethnicities, so there are no official records to document the different communities.

Lau is despondent when we asked about his efforts to revive Hakka language and culture.

"I just want people to know that Hakka existed in Hong Kong and still exists in some parts. I know it is practically impossible to make Hakka last forever here, but I want to make it known to people that Hakka was once an integral part of Hong Kong and its culture." 

Naomi Wong's family in Po Kat Tsai village, Fanling [Amy Ip Ka Man/Al Jazeera]
Fishing boats travelling across Lei Yue Men Harbour [Amy Ip Ka Man/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera News