Saturday, February 20, 2010

Reasons for and Attitudes to Language Challenges

As mentioned in our earlier blog, the language of Tanka, or put in simple, Tanka is under going language shift, and very probably language death. To laymen of the language like us, we might really find it a pity that there might be a culture loss including those Sea Water Songs or some unique vocabularies they have. Yet, when we look at it in a more objective way, or from the point of views of their own community, we might find it somehow inevitable that the language death would occur.

As mentioned by Uncle Wing, the Tankas live close to each other in the past; that first of all, family members live close together, and the community is also very small and condensed (Also as seen in the picture taken).


Hence, the language and culture would be more likely to be maintained, and probably carry some sense of solidarity. However, for today, the younger generation had gradually moved away from these houses, and might go onshore and live in a more urbanized area for a better job opportunity, which made them further away and not as familiar as those in the past, and thus, the language is less likely to be able to be kept (Also shown in Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Uncle Wing's children have moved from Tai O to different urban areas, such as Tung Chung and Tuen Mun.

Next, there are quite a number of terms of the language that are ‘invented’ for fishing activities, however, as mentioned, the younger generation has moved onshore and no longer stays in the fishing industry, they do not use these terms anymore and thus, would make these vocabularies of Tanka be lost. Granny Ho is a good example to illustrate this situation. She was once living on the boat and using the special terms of Tanka. Yet, her family which no longer participates in fishing activities has moved onshore. Thus, the special vocabularies for fishing have died out in her family. Moreover, Granny Ho is now working on the sightseeing sampan, for better communication with the tourists, she even learned a few English vocabularies. This indicates that the working conditions of Tanka people could exert certain impact on their language use.

Facing the shift or even death of the Tanka Language, the attitude of the Tanka people towards this has been unexpectedly neutral. As mentioned earlier, the Tanka community was discriminated, and their language, might in fact be a symbol of discrimination too, thus, losing such language, in the sense of the Tanka, can be seen as losing the identity of being discriminated, thus they did not really feel pity towards it. Like Uncle Wing, during the interview, he always emphasized that there was no difference between the Tankas and those people living onshore, and that the language they used was just the same as Cantonese. It is obvious that he is still afraid of being discriminated by others because of his identity and thus does not want to speak Tanka anymore.

Furthermore, they would see their local language and Sea Water Song as old-fashioned. To put it in another way, having the belief of being urbanized is more advanced, it does not really bother them even if their language and culture are totally lost. For instance, when we asked Granny Ho to sing Sea Water Song, she kept saying that the song has already been outdated and refused to do so. To her, speaking Tanka and singing Tanka songs are out of date, although she likes Sea Water Song very much.

Seemingly strange though, as an outsider, we hope to treasure such unique culture and language, but they, as a member of the community, did not really care to maintain or keep their culture.

Tanka Special Terms

Although Tanka and Cantonese are similar in some aspects, there are some terms that are uniquely Tanka.

Let us take a quick test and see if you can match the Tanka terms with their true meanings.

1. What does the Tanka term 邪氣 "ce4 hei3" (evil air) mean?

a. 海龍捲 waterspout
b. 邪靈 evil spirit
c. 濃霧 heavy fog
d. 臭汗味 disgusting smell

2. What does the Tanka term 針 "zam1" (needle) mean?

a. 船竿 boat pole
b. 鰻魚魚尾 tail of eel
c. 海龍捲尾 tail of waterspout
d. 臥底 someone who does an inside job

3. What does the Tanka term 開[saang1] "hoi1 saang1" mean?

a. 開心 happy
b. 開船 sail
c. 開聲 vocal training
d. 開餐 mealtime

1. a
2. c
3. b

Friday, February 19, 2010

A day in Aberdeen - visiting the Tanka Community

We went to visit the Tanka Community in Aberdeen harbour yesterday, where is home to hundreds of people living on fishing junks. It was a fun experience in which we took a ride on the boat and observed how the Tanka people communicate with their friends and tourists. We also interviewed a charming Tanka old lady, Granny Ho, who works on the sightseeing sampan. She talked about the Sea Water Song but was too shy to sing for us. She also mentioned that although some Tanka people still live on traditional fishing junks, most young Tanka people have moved to modern high-rise community spread over the nearby hillsides.

Now, please enjoy the slideshow - the beautiful Aberdeen harbour and Tanka people.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Discrimination Faced by the Tankas

In the interview, we found that Uncle Wing quite minded people calling their community Tanka people. He thought that this was only the name given by the people living onshore in order to discriminate them. Thus, he would prefer others to call them fishermen or the boat people.

According to Uncle Wing, about seventy years ago, there were only two communities in Tai O, which were Hoklo people and the boat people. Because of convenience, the boat people always worked on the junks with bare feet. Even when they went home, they did not wear shoes either. This made the people living onshore look down on them and exclude them. At that time, the problem of discrimination was very serious. The boat people could not even go on shore. This situation did not improve until the Cultural Revolution was launched and the status of the boat people became higher.

Therefore, although “Tanka people” is only a neutral term used to describe people living on boats, it gives Uncle Wing a negative feeling because it makes him think of the discrimination from the people living onshore, and thus he resists people calling him Tanka people.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"haam4 seoi2 go1 鹹水歌" (Sea Water Song)


Haam4 seoi2 go1鹹水歌 (Sea Water Song) is a traditional song sung by the Tanka community on different occasions such as wedding ceremonies, friends gatherings and fishing (e.g. classifying different kinds of fish). It was particularly important to sing haam4 seoi2 go1 in wedding ceremony. People who delivered their compliments by means of haam4 seoi2 go1 could show their sincerity.

The lyrics of haam4 seoi2 go1 are intelligible only to the Tanka community. Yet, Tanka people nowadays tend not to teach their next generation Tanka language as well as haam4 seoi2 go1 because they are considered as old-fashioned. Also, there are different forms of entertainments in Hong Kong, people no longer sing haam4 seoi2 go1 in their spare time.

From the case of haam4 seoi2 go1, we can see that a loss of language can lead to a loss of culture. If Tanka people no longer teach their next generation Tanka language, haam4 seoi2 go1 is seen to die out very soon. Below are some lyrics of haam4 seoi2 go1 for fish classification provided by Uncle Wing, let’s have a taste of Tanka, the endangered, culture.

Chinese transcription of haam4 seoi2 go1 for fish classification:

"牙帶出身 游曬白肚"

"黃花出水 頭帶金銀"

"立錐出身 游作個竇"


English interpretation of haam4 seoi2 go1 for fish classification:

"Largehead hairtail becomes white in color after death,"

"Yellow croaker has a golden yellow head,"

"Moray eel makes a shelter, when it gets older,"

"Weather loach ties itself when it is in danger."

Sources of photos (in order of appearance):

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A day in Tai O - visiting the Tanka Community

Just before the Chinese New Year, we headed to the far northwestern coast edge of Lantau Island, Tai O, to visit the Tanka Community. Although the Tanka people were busy preparing for the festival, with the help of YWCA, we were lucky to have Uncle Wing, one of the Tanka people, to conduct an in-depth interview with us.

Uncle Wing is a friendly and talkative old man, who used to work as a fisherman when he was young. He is now retired and he sometimes works as a tour guide in Tai O. He gave us quite a lot of information about the Tanka language, culture and his attitude towards the shift and death of the language. He spoke about the Sea Water Song, taught us some Tanka special terms and told us stories of how the Tanka people were being discriminated in the past. He even invited us to his home, the Chinese stilt-house community, which is home to the Tanka people, who have built their homes on stilts above the tidal flats for generations.

Please have a look at the slideshow - "Oriental Venice" and Uncle Wing

Friday, February 12, 2010

What is Tanka Community?

Hello, everybody! We are Carrie, Vienna, Phyllis and Jerome, students from The University of Hong Kong, majoring in Language and Communication. In the project IMLD2010 for the course LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication, we would like to investigate the language situations of the Tanka community in Hong Kong.

The Tanka community (蜑家 daan6gaa1), also known as the community of fisherfolk or boat dwellers, is a traditional minority in Hong Kong. The community is now facing language challenges with regard to its mother tongue, such as language shift and possibly language death. By examining the reasons for the threats to their language, as well as the attitude of the Tanka community towards such a phenomenon, we strive to draw people's attention to this linguistic minority and consequently to the importance of cultural diversity.

By Ho Wing Lun Vienna,
Lam Ka Yee Carrie,
Ng Tik Lun Jerome,
Wong Wing Sui Phyllis.
(Project IMLD2010, School of English,
The University of Hong Kong)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The 11th International Mother Language Day (IMLD)

International Mother Language Day, launched by the General Conference of UNESCO in November 1999, has been observed on 21 February yearly since February 2000, with an aim to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism, and to celebrate the world’s 6,000 languages as intangible cultural heritage.

The Language and Communication Programme of the School of English is marking the 11th International Mother Language Day, on 21 February 2010, with projects by students of the course LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication on the language situations of various minority communities in Hong Kong, including the Tanka community, the South Asian community, mixed marriages, and non-local HKU students.

One of the aims of this project is to remind ourselves and others of the various less-thought-about multilingual communities in Hong Kong, who face challenges in their communicative practices which involve their mother tongue(s) as positioned alongside other languages of global and local significance.

A broader aim is to raise awareness amongst the university community and wider society of UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day (21 February) and the significance of linguistic and cultural diversity, and to invite commitments for next year’s IMLD 2011.