New art exhibit transgression/cantosphere explores a language under threat

In late September of last year, just as classes were getting under-way at UBC, a pro-democracy protest was erupting in Hong Kong. Dubbed the Umbrella Revolution, it lasted 79 days and involved thousands of protestors, many of them students. While it’s difficult to tell what the long-term outcome of their efforts will be, the incident sparked something right here in Vancouver: the transgression/cantosphere exhibit.

As a collaborative project by interdisciplinary art company Hong Kong Exile (HKX), UBC linguist Zoe Lam and local artist Howie Tsui, transgression/cantosphere is a celebration of the Cantonese language, which is under threat due to the Chinese government’s desire to establish Mandarin as the national standard.

Visitors to the gallery are greeted by a sign that reads "Historic Chinatown," over which the Chinese characters for transgression and cantosphere are alternately projected.

“Naming is a powerful action,” said Lam, the language consultant for the project, on the team’s decision to create the term cantosphere as a way to refer to the countless Cantonese-speaking communities that exist worldwide. “They are geographically separated, [but] they are one cultural entity, and they deserve our protection.”

Lam, whose research centres around tone languages and perception of pitch in speech, is quick to identify the main antagonists to her native language.

In Southern China, Cantonese is banned in radio and TV programmes. In Hong Kong, schools are shifting their language of instruction from Cantonese to Mandarin in return for government subsidies.

In Vancouver’s Chinatown neighbourhood, condo developers put up an oversized sign greeting the predominantly Cantonese-speaking population in Mandarin. While it’s unclear whether that was an oversight or a strategic move to attract Mainland Chinese investors, the artists behind transgression/cantosphere consider it a symptom of the move away from Cantonese.

The language standardization has even infiltrated the homes of native Cantonese speakers around the world. Many Cantonese-speaking parents, hoping to ensure better employment opportunities for their children, now speak Mandarin at home instead.

Recognizing the power of humour to connect individuals and undermine authority, as well as the Chinese community’s long history of tone-based punning, the "transgression/cantosphere" exhibit features a pun generator that projects Cantonese idioms onto the gallery walls. One of the projected words in the sentence is then shuffled and replaced with a tonal variation of the same syllable, transforming its meaning. “I want genuine universal suffrage,” one of the tag lines of the Umbrella Revolution, becomes “I want genuine universal garlic.” The visual changes are accompanied by recorded readings of each variation, as well as the clatter of mahjongg tiles.

“Our first vision is that [Cantonese-speaking] people become aware of the threats to their own language and culture,” said Lam, hopeful that the exhibit will remind Vancouver’s Cantonese population to value their heritage.

The second goal is to raise awareness of Cantonese language and culture among the non-Cantonese-speaking general public, who may not know that more than one Chinese language exists.

An English translation of the exhibit’s puns is available as a handout at the gallery. “It’s a story,” said Lam, pointing out that the lines, when read in a particular sequence, form a narrative that speaks directly to the Umbrella Revolution.

transgression/cantosphere will be running at Centre A until March 28.