‘It’s who I am’: publisher and typeface designer Jack Yan on Cantonese

‘It’s who I am’: publisher and typeface designer Jack Yan on Cantonese

In this third instalment of the Chinese Languages in Aotearoa project, curator Grace Gassin and magazine publisher and typeface designer Jack Yan talk about Cantonese, an especially significant language in the history of Chinese migration to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Watch the video below to hear Jack share his story in Cantonese – English, Mandarin, and Cantonese subtitles available.

As the second most widely-spoken Chinese language in the world, Cantonese has serious global currency. It is also an important heritage language in Aotearoa. Originating in Guangdong, the Cantonese language (and some related dialects from the wider Yue language family) was spoken by the majority of Chinese people who came to New Zealand in the 19th century and remains important to a number of Aotearoa’s ethnic Chinese communities, both ‘old’ and ‘new’. Until as recently as 2006, in fact, Cantonese was the country’s most widely-spoken Chinese language.

For many who claim Cantonese as their mother tongue, the language is all of these things and yet more than facts can ever convey. As Wellington-based Jack Yan quite simply puts it:

“It’s who I am. Cantonese is a language with just so much humour and subtext in every sentence and those subtleties are so often conveyed in the context or mode of expression, not in the word itself,” he says.

“For instance, something a non-native Cantonese speaker would interpret as bordering on being rude, for example, a native speaker might recognise as containing a touch of sarcasm. There’s more of that sort of colour in Cantonese, in my opinion, than in English … and it’s just so much fun!”

Jack sits on his couch. A boom mic is in shot
Jack Yan in his home during the film shoot, 2021. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse. Te Papa

The pressure of ‘blending in’

Jack, who arrived in New Zealand from Hong Kong as a child in 1976, was raised in the Wellington suburb of Newtown, where his grandmother joined him and his parents a year and a half later. At home, they all spoke Cantonese and he relished the chance to speak his language with others. Opportunities to do so in Newtown were rare – and even when they did appear, there were complications.

“Some of my Cantonese friends back then felt too embarrassed to speak a language other than English in public, they were trying to blend in,” Jack says. “I remember, I had one situation where I was badly scolded by a fellow Cantonese student’s mother over the phone just trying to speak the language to her son – I was only 14.”

Succumbing to the pressure to blend in, not all of Jack’s friends managed to retain their mother tongue into adulthood. As one of those who did, therefore, Jack says he feels a particular responsibility to share his language and culture to encourage a new generation of Cantonese New Zealanders to embrace their rich cultural heritage.

“Sharing our culture is important, because every time you share it, it grows stronger,” Jack says. “There’s a much greater recognition now, in Aotearoa, that we all came from somewhere and that as a country we should be proud of that diversity.

“In terms of Cantonese, I think we should embrace it and reclaim it at every opportunity. Let’s be proud of who we are. It’s definitely time.”

Two men review footage on their camera, smiling at what they see
Filmmakers Yong-Le Chong (left) and Tim Hamilton (right) during the film shoot, 2021. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse. Te Papa

A call to recognise Cantonese histories and peoples in Aotearoa

The conflation of ‘Chinese’ with Mandarin and local ignorance of Cantonese’s significance as a cultural identity and heritage language in Aotearoa contribute to these communities’ difficulties in advocating for greater recognition and visibility in Aotearoa, observes Jack.

“At the moment there seems to be an effort to suggest that there is only one Chinese language and that ‘Chinese’ equals Mandarin, which is simply not true,” he says. “Cantonese remains a significant language spoken within our communities and, in fact, when I was growing up here, Mandarin speakers were still in the minority. There is space for all of us at the table – of course there is – so our histories should not be erased.”

A man walks along the footpath looking towards his childhood home while two men film him
Jack, Tim, and Yong-Le during the film shoot, 2021. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse. Te Papa

Jack, as I discovered, also speaks some Taishanese, which, like Cantonese, is part of the Yue language group and historically significant to New Zealand. Although it is often absorbed into conversations more broadly about Cantonese, the dialect is highly distinctive and often difficult for Cantonese speakers to understand.

We discussed including Taishanese in his video; in the end, however, we decide to focus our efforts on Cantonese. The survival of Cantonese is currently a critical focus for Cantonese communities around the world, particularly ‘Heung Gong Yahn’ like Jack, so the compromise seems justified. Nonetheless, we hope to give people an opportunity to hear some of the differences between the two at a later stage in this project.

Jack stand with his hands on a fence that is out of shot, staring at the camera. Behind him is the crest of St Mark’s School
Still from the video, of Jack at St Mark’s School, Wellington, 2021. Photo by Tim Hamilton. Te Papa

Fighting for a more inclusive future

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Jack believes the future of Cantonese in New Zealand is potentially bright. However, it will take a concerted effort from everyone, and especially our own communities, to work against the historical and current marginalisation of Cantonese-speaking communities in Aotearoa.

“Relatively speaking, there are few resources, support services and media outlets supporting Cantonese in Aotearoa,” Jack says. “Given the social and historical significance of Cantonese here though, I would love to see it better recognised and given its fair share of resourcing. I think we deserve that.”

What are your thoughts? Do you feel connected to Cantonese language and culture? Let us know in the comments or at asianlanguages@tepapa.govt.nz.


This blog and video are part of our Chinese Languages in Aotearoa project, which is part of a wider Voices of Asian Aotearoa initiative.

Leave a comment