From The Greatest Civil War on Earth

A Cantonese and a Shanghai tailor happen to open their shops next to each other, constantly battling against the opponent in business. The street-corner neighborhood represents a new spatial trope of urban life and the rising middle class in postwar Hong Kong.

A salesman juggles his extra share of commission between the two tailor-shop owners. The film gives a glimpse of the rise of commercialism and entrepreneurship in postwar Hong Kong.

“This is like chickens talking to ducks”—a Cantonese colloquial expression that vividly spells out the linguistic as well as cultural conflicts between the Cantonese-speaking “Southerners” and Mandarin-speaking “Northerners.”

From The Greatest Wedding on Earth

A “Northerner” confronts a “Southerner” in the beginning of the film. With a comic plot centering on the rivalry between two restauranteurs, the film effectively appealed to the public audience by tapping their daily habit of restaurant-going and the local food culture.

The Cantonese young man is in an agonizing ordeal when he tries so hard to speak in Mandarin and hide his accent before his prospective father-in-law. In the form of romantic urban comedy, the film teases the clashes of Chinese dialects and regional cultures in a city where English was once the “master language” under British colonial governance.

“The ‘son’ in the sky, the ‘lock’ on the ground, the ‘ton’ in the mouth,” the man painfully twists his tongue to pronounce his woeful Mandarin. Linguistic utterances are often immediate indicators of one’s own origin and ethnic identity. The joke cracked by mispronunciation of words and misunderstanding between people sarcastically disputes a homogeneous identity of being Chinese.

"You liar. You're Cantonese." The father figure stands as the major obstacle to the marriage of the young lovers.

From The Greatest Civil War on Earth

Elders bicker over their children falling in love.

In Shanghai cinema of the 1930s and 40s, the “dance hall” trope was a favorite setting for featuring the western lifestyle of the “petit urbanites.” In the Hong Kong film of the 1960s, the dance hall and café not only provide a romantic hangout for the young people, but they also project a favorite social space for social reconciliation and cultural assimilation through their courtship.

The modern cinema house is a favorite backdrop for the romantic encounter between young lovers in many Cathay films.


Romantic comedies of Cathay-MP&GI in the 1950s and 60s: language, locality, and urban character

by Kenny K. K. Ng

Father:   Is your family still in Shandong?
Daughter:  He grew up in Hong Kong.
Father: No wonder he has an accent. He said “Shandong” but I heard “Guangdong.”
Boyfriend: I…I always lose my “ton.”
Father:  What did he say?
Daughter:  He said my shoes are fashionable.
Mother:  Please try some candies.
Boyfriend: The “son” is shining hot….The “son” in the sky…It’s too hot.
Mother:  Oh…yes, it’s too hot.
Father:  What? I don’t understand what you are talking about?
Boyfriend: I…My…my Mandarin is too bad. It’s like I’m speaking with a “lock” in my mouth.
Father:  What? “Lock”?
Boyfriend: “Lock” — the “lock” on the ground…The “son” in the sky, the “lock” on the ground, the “ton” in the mouth.
Father:  What are you saying? [Pause] You liar! You’re Cantonese!
Daughter:  Dad.
Father:  You get out! Get out now!
Mother:  Why do you lose your temper?
Father:  If you don’t get out, I’ll beat you up.
Daughter:  You go first. I’ll explain to him.
Father:  Never forgive you Cantonese bastard…

In The Greatest Wedding on Earth [Nanbei yijiaqin] (Wang Tianlin, 1962), a Cantonese-speaking young man is in love with a Mandarin-speaking woman. The comedy depicts the cultural conflicts between the Mandarin-speaking “Northerners” (Beifang ren) and the Cantonese-speaking “Southerners” (Nanfang ren), whose spoken languages and living habits are diametrically opposed. In postwar Hong Kong, the “Northerner” was a collective term referring to the mainland immigrants, with a majority of whom originating from Shanghai, whereas the “Southerner” meant the majoring of local residents in the South China and Guangdong regions. In the film, as the young lovers develop affections with each other, which cross ethnic and dialectal boundaries between their families, they find their romance in bitter conflict with their own fathers, who hold ingrained prejudices against each other’s dialects and cultures.

In one of the comic scenes in The Greatest Wedding, the Cantonese-speaking man pretends that he is of Northern origin in Shandong in the hope of pleasing his prospective father-in-law. When he speaks up in Mandarin, he talks gibberish to ears of the outsiders as he cannot hide his Cantonese accent. His cheating clearly infuriates the father, who threatens to thrown the man out of his house. The hilarious episode creates clashes and comic effects by virtue of mispronunciations, misunderstandings, and mistakes with linguistic accents. For non-Chinese speakers, the English subtitles (that parallel the Chinese ones) in the movie have done a good job in capturing the puns and wordplays — the “ton” (tongue) in the mouth, the “son” (sun) in the sky, the “lock” (rock) on the ground — but the joke works quite differently than its Chinese dialectal counterparts. When the young man says in Mandarin, “I always lose my ‘tongue’,” he awkwardly utters the word “tongue” like “shoe.” In the Chinese dialogues, what the man really means is “I cannot twist my ‘tongue’ (she),” but he sounds like “I cannot twist my ‘shoe’ (xie).”[1] [open notes in new window]

Interestingly, to articulate “she” and “xie” properly in Mandarin, the speaker has to twist the tongue in a proper way in order to make the right utterance and so convey the right meaning. (Indeed, the Mandarin language, based on the Beijing dialect, involves a great deal of tongue-twisting in actual pronunciation, which could be very tough for many Cantonese speakers.) Here the multiple implications of the “tongue-twister” — the man’s physical incompetence to manipulate and curl his tongue, his failure to utter the word “tongue” in Mandarin, and a difficult expression to speak out correctly — amusingly reveal the natural linguistic barrier for effective communications between different dialect-speaking people. Linguistic utterances become immediate markers of group affiliations and identities, of the distinction between the self and other, which continue to engender communicational tensions and confusions in the story.

For present-day local Hong Kong viewers, even if they are watching this film today for the first time on home video as one of the classics that Cathay/MP&GI has recently released,[2] this group of “North versus South” comedies dated back to the early 1960s remains interesting to watch because of their pioneering efforts to “break the barrier between Mandarin and Cantonese films,” as well as to look at the city as a melting-pot of pluralistic languages and cultures, and its fellow citizens as “travelers on the same boat.”[3] In retrospect, these urban comedies have never lost their comical touch and realistic resonance on the cultural encounters between different Chinese communities in Hong Kong, a quintessentially immigrant city of the Chinese diaspora. As one veteran local critic has put it, “once again, the people of Hong Kong have to face Mainlanders and the paradoxical relationship of mutual attraction and resentment that exists between the Cantonese and Mandarin (Putonghua) cultures.”[4]

Dramatic dialogue and precisely language itself play a pivotal role in the comedy. The film uses mixed dialect jokes and colloquial humor to symbolize the antagonism in the urban setting between the native Cantonese residents and the large inflow of Mandarin-speaking people. Such dialect fusions indeed reflect the phenomenon of a dual language cinema booming in postwar Hong Kong. Fom the 1950s to the 70s the Hong Kong cinema industry was divided along linguistic lines, one making films in the mainland Mandarin language and the other in the local Cantonese dialect. No doubt Hong Kong was the home city of Cantonese cinema, with the majority of its citizens speaking the Cantonese dialect. Being the lingua franca in the territory, hearing the Cantonese dialect for non-native viewers had the effect of boosting assimilation and acculturation in both economic and cultural terms.

Alongside the native language cinema was the Mandarin-language industry, which took root when film talent from Shanghai fled the mainland and settled in Hong Kong. The southbound migrations of Chinese filmmakers had come during several phases of political instability since the 1930s. The civil war of 1946-9 and soon the Communist takeover of China saw a massive migratory wave of filmmakers, entrepreneurs, cultural elites, and political exiles from China to Hong Kong. The influx of the southbound filmmakers evidently contributed to the development of a full-grown Mandarin cinema in Hong Kong. The Cantonese and Mandarin cinemas remained parallel film cultures, acquiring distinct characteristics and audience appeals, but also competing with and complementing each other under the capitalist lifestyle in the British colonial city.[5]

Viewed from the perspective of the multiplicity of Chinese-language cinemas, the coexistence of Cantonese and Mandarin cinemas in colonial Hong Kong was a unique cultural and historical phenomenon. It has posed intriguing questions for film historians and critics. Insofar as studies of Chinese cinema have engaged with issues of nationhood, locality, and identity through examining functions of images, narratives, and performance, the issues of languages and sound in film as significantly analytical prisms have been little addressed. Recent scholarship begins to pay critical attention to the diversified alternatives of “Chinese-language cinema,” which cover a great variety of languages and regional cultures in a vast geographical and cultural terrain in Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, and the Chinese diaspora.[6] In short, the multiplicity of Chinese-language cinema is not restricted to the exclusive notion of national cinema, when the inherent complexity of languages in film defies the boundary of the nation state.

How effectively or ineffectively does the spoken language project the idea of a collective Chinese identity on screen? I argue that the presence of dialects and accents in film disputes the uniformity and commonality of identity. Indeed, dialectal disparity points to the existence of multiple linguistic communities and their cultural variance, a lively state of cultural heterogeneity characteristic of urban Hong Kong. In order to discuss the contesting visions of nationhood, locality, and linguistic difference in dialect film, first I have to return to a brief review of the relationships between vernacular language and Chinese cinemas.

To begin with, the promotion and institutionalization of the modern vernacular (Mandarin based on the Beijing dialect) as Guoyu — the “national language” — was a crucial part of the cultural politics to unify the country linguistically and hence strengthen China as a modern nation. The process culminated during the May Fourth period of the late 1910s, and it prevailed well into the 1920s with the establishment of Guoyu as the official language in school curriculums and textbooks. Nonetheless, the cultural politics of the vernacular movement and the rise of dialect film — this case, Cantonese cinema — have received little critical attention. With the advent of sound technology in the movie industries, Hong Kong emerged as the largest Cantonese film production center in the 1930s, exporting its product not only to Cantonese-speaking communities in South China, but also to the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia and North America. Hong Kong’s cultural base in the local language proved to be its greatest strength, allowing it to promote a “dialect cinema,” thanks to its traditional art of local opera as well as to its vibrant music industry imported from the West.

The tremendous market of Cantonese-speaking audiences had made even such major Shanghai studios as Lianhua and Tianyi set their branches in Hong Kong. Ironically, it was the Tianyi studio in Shanghai (run by the brothers Shaw) that produced the first Cantonese talkie, White Golden Dragon [Baijing long] (Tang Xiaodan, 1933). The film was a Cantonese opera movie starring the great opera star Sit Gok-sin (Xie Juexian). It became an instant hit on its release in Canton, Hong Kong, Macau, and Southeast Asia. Soon after that, Cantonese talkies began to take the market by storm, and rumor had it that Ruan Lingyu, a famous silent movie star and a native Cantonese actress, was almost set to move from Lianhua to Tianyi to shoot her first sound and Cantonese picture.[7]

Naturally, when Chinese cinema changed from silent to sound film in the early 1930s, the question of spoken dialects on screen turned into a controversial political matter. The transition to talkies transformed the cinemas of Shanghai and Hong Kong/Guangzhou into the main filmmaking hubs of north and south. As Shanghai became the production center of Mandarin films, Hong Kong was host to Cantonese filmmaking, each vying for a share of the overseas market. The keen market competition between Mandarin and Cantonese film industries intensified with the Chinese government’s policy forbidding production of dialect movies across the country. During the 1930s, the cultural authority of the Nationalist government was ready to impose measures to unify the spoken language (Mandarin) in film as a way to enhance the country’s political unity.[8]

Strong opposition in Guangdong arose in the face of a proposed ban on the Cantonese cinema. The representatives of the Cantonese film industry argued that because Mandarin was far from popular in South China regions, language unification should be implemented in phases. More importantly, they claimed that making Cantonese films helped to promote the cause of nationalism by enlightening the masses, promulgating scientific knowledge, and stimulating the people’s noble emotions, as Cantonese films were popular among the local populace.[9] The central government, however, imposed censorship on dialect films in order to reinforce political and cultural controls. Beneath the agenda of unification with Guoyu, however, lies an attendant cultural nationalism that viewed all other local vernaculars as inferior and hence detrimental to the nation’s progress and modernity. No wonder that under the Nationalist censorship scheme, the Cantonese dialect was on the top of the list along with superstition and sexual morality as undesirable elements in Chinese film culture — things deemed frivolous, vulgar, and provocative.[10]

The cultural politics of dialect film vis-à-vis dominant Mandarin culture reveals uneasy negotiations in Chinese cinemas as a locus of a multitude of different cultures, languages, and identities. If linguistic commonality greatly enhances laying the bases for national consciousness by creating shared communities and languages-of-power,[11] then the linguistic siutation in colonial Hong Kong was rather paradoxical. Hong Kong is the biggest Cantonese-speaking city, one where the local people have never accepted Guoyu as a spoken language.

Significantly, the status of the English language further complicates questions of language and identity in a city under British sovereignty. English was the official language that supported the city’s economic development and maintained its colonial governance. The Hong Kong-British government promoted the teaching of English to train local elites and absorb them into the civil servant system. Since English was functional for effective governance and essential in the fields of aviation, business, finance, legal matters, science and technology, mastery of this foreign, colonial language was a vehicle for economic mobility for the citizens. To be sure, the British government had never attempted to strive for linguistic (English) colonization as the foundation for long-term rule and expansion, since the British policy toward Hong Kong was one of reaping economic benefits through so-called “free trade.” This indifference of the British regime toward Chinese culture, paradoxically, allowed the cultural sphere to be occupied by the Chinese language, and Chinese-language culture continued to survive and prosper in a relatively free environment.[12]

In other words, the colonial government had a practical as well as indifferent attitude toward the Chinese language. Official recognition of the Chinese language's status had come rather late in Hong Kong. It was not until 1972 that the government established the Official Languages Ordinance to legalize Chinese so that it enjoyed the same status as English in law and public administration (in response to the civil social movement demanding the legalization of Chinese earlier in 1970). The new law recognized English and Chinese as of equal status for communications between the government officials and members of the public. In the eyes of the colonial law, however, the practice of bilingualism in the official speech referred to English and Cantonese. The government excluded Mandarin as an official spoken language, since the majority of the population spoke Cantonese, which would have “more relevance and reality for the population as a whole.”[13] Realistically speaking, the government shifted toward greater awareness of Chinese so as to facilitate communications with its Cantonese-speaking citizens and thus stabilize the government’s rule over the colony. Chinese served a supplementary function to English. This pragmatic policy rendered spoken Mandarin as a nonessential “third language” unrecognized by the ruling regime.

In spite of colonial status, Hong Kong had maintained various close ties with the mother country, particularly the South China regions. The cultural link with the motherland and with Chinese tradition had never been suppressed or delinked from the colonial subjects and ethnic Chinese residents migrating from China. On the other hand, the majority of the Chinese population, made up of refugees or descendents of refugees, maintained a strong “sojourner mentality.” Local Chinese inhabitants treated the situation of Cantonese vis-à-vis Mandarin as comparable to the coexistence of two major regional vernaculars. While mostly economic and intellectual elites had linguistic competence in English, Mandarin became the minority language, the linguistic register of the Chinese diaspora with its ambivalent attitude toward cultural China.


Understanding this particular linguistic and socio-cultural context helps in analyzing the social milieus in the North-South urban film series, which humorously engage social, regional, ethnic, linguistic, and ideological conflicts. MP&GI produced The Greatest Wedding on Earth as the second film of the popular trilogy that included The Greatest Civil War on Earth [Nanbei he] (1961) and The Greatest Love Affair on Earth [Nanbei xixiangfeng] (1964). Directed by Wang Tianlin (Wong Tim Lam), the trilogy was a huge box-office success at the time. These romantic comedies successfully turned cultural disputes into humorous dramas about mutual love and hatred between the characters. The Greatest Civil War centers on the bitter feud between a Cantonese and a Shanghainese tailor, who happen to have their shops next to each other and coincidently share the same flat. The two follow-ups to The Greatest Civil War employ parallel dramatic plots. The Greatest Wedding focuses on two rival restauranteurs, who specializing respectively in Cantonese and northern cuisines. Again, their younger siblings fall in love, irrespective of the differences in their family backgrounds. In The Greatest Love Affair, a northern father opposes his daughter’s wish to marry a poor Cantonese suitor. These North-South comic dramas each revolve around two feuding families so as to satirize how new Chinese urban dwellers from different regional backgrounds clash, and the films end with mixed marriages of young couples that eventually resolved the strife between their fathers.

The Greatest Civil War premiered on the eve of the Lunar New Year in February 1961.[14] The film's tremendous popularity spawned two MP&GI sequels as well as other imitations in Hong Kong and Taiwan.[15] According to director Wang Tianlin, Stephen Soong (Song Qi) originally wrote The Greatest Civil War as a one-act play for charity fundraising; he was inspired by a Mainland film which used two different dialects.[16] A prolific director at the peak of his directorial career, Wang was able to work in both the Mandarin and Cantonese film industries. He had directed various dialect films in Chaozhou and Amoy across a wide range of genres from slapstick comedies to swordplays and musicals.[17] Because of his versatile experience working in both language cinemas, Wang was good at eliciting terrific performances from the Mandarin comedian Liu Enjia and the talented Cantonese actor Liang Xingbo (known as Leung Sing-bo in Cantonese, a distinguished Cantonese opera artist and an impressive comedian in film, hailed as the “King of Comedians”). In the film, the two comedians play the fathers/opponents and they always steal the show and provide much of the laughter.

Irrespective of the North-South comedies' popular appeal and the film company’s market strategy, the films were emblematic of problems of urban immigration, overcrowding, and clashes of cultures, brought about by a wave of Mainland migrants and refugees flooding the city. The studio’s publicity materials highlighted these social implications of the films:

"The population of Hong Kong has increased drastically in the past decade. Chinese and foreigners live together, while people from the north and south intermingle with each other. This tiny place houses people of diverse dialects and languages of the world, with mixed varieties of local customs and living habits. Such a situation would easily cause confrontations and worthless squabbles between people."[18]

"Many families in Hong Kong are living in cramped conditions as they have to share very limited space on one single floor. But it’s hard for people of different native tongues to get along together. Some southerners may mistake the speech of northerners for French, while some northerners may find the speech of their southern neighbors as alien as the talk of ‘Greek legends.’"[19]

These promotional statements were as much hyperbole as genuinely addressing the colony's postwar social reality. The Hong Kong population had increased fivefold from 600,000 in 1945 (once the war with Japan ended) to 3 million in 1960. The figure further rose to 4 million in 1970.[20] For a colonial government to deal with, Hong Kong in the 1950s was the decade of refugees, squatters, and tenement buildings. The squatter population increased at the rate of 100,000 a year in the early 1960s. The practical mission of providing sufficient housing stock for the mass influx of population was formidable.[21] Since the colonial government had not come up with a well-planned public housing policy until the 1970s, the immediate period after WWII saw a growing social malaise as many of the penniless refugees not only spoke different languages but also had different customs and habits and even political beliefs. In addition, friction between rightwing and leftwing Mainland migrants was rampant.

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