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I have always heard that mutual intelligibility between the Sinitic languages of China is low. However, I am confused by the sociolinguistics of Hong Kong cinema in 1980s and 1990s. Films from that period often contain extensive dialogue in pure Mandarian (as when a character is from the mainland or Taiwan) or Shanghai dialect (in films depicting the many Shanghainese emigrants to HK).

Were Hong Kong audiences expected to be able to follow this dialogue without assistance? Or were subtitles necessary when these films were first screened in Hong Kong cinemas? And how realistic is the trope that a visiting Taiwanese person, who speaks Mandarin, could easily understand the Cantonese speakers around him?

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    Even before the handover, I’d say there was enough Mainland influence in Hong Kong media that it wouldn’t be unexpected for Hong Kong natives to be able to understand Mandarin to some extent, even if they didn’t necessarily speak it. I don’t have any actual data or personal experience, but I wouldn’t expect the same to be the case with Wu (Shanghainese), or indeed that a Taiwanese Mandarin-speaker visiting Hong Kong would be able to understand Cantonese. Mar 13, 2023 at 13:31
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    While this is anecdata, my parents (born in the 50s in HK) have little practical understanding of Mandarin, and would likely need the subtitles to follow 100%. I think there are two separate questions here — 1) Was it just artistic license for HK characters to be portrayed as understanding Mandarin or Shanghainese? 2) To what extent would audiences have understood without subtitles? For the case of Shanghainese, I think the answer to both is clearly not; for the other, it doesn't stretch the imagination so much.
    – jogloran
    Mar 13, 2023 at 16:54
  • How is this about linguistics? At best, this is sociolinguistics.
    – Lambie
    Mar 14, 2023 at 15:25
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    To judge from the tagging available, this StackExchange is for questions on both "sociolinguistics" and "mutual intelligibility". There have already been several questions here on mutual intelligibility of Sinitic, so this question (which explores a particular subset of those mutual-intelligibility contexts) is not out of place.
    – user21126
    Mar 14, 2023 at 16:14
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    There are only two questions here, both of which have firm answers, not mere opinion. The main one is whether mutual (un)intelligibility between Sinitic meant that HK audiences would have needed subtitles for cinema with non-Cantonese Sinitic dialogue. The secondary question is whether, inversely, visiting Taiwanese could understand Cantonese as depicted in films, or whether this is dramatic license. FWIW, Michaelyus’s answer, is a good (though not 100% complete) reply to both questions.
    – user21126
    Mar 14, 2023 at 17:35

1 Answer 1

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Subtitles are an integral part of the film- and TV-viewing experience in the late 20th century in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China, multi-topolectal or not. They essentially became ubiquitous in Hong Kong by the end of the 60s, as Mandarin-speaking and Shanghainese-speaking film talent and audiences flooded into Hong Kong, whilst dubbing was still deemed economically prohibitive. This became enshrined in law later in the PRC, but the culture of subtitling had already become standard across the Sinosphere, including Singapore where dubbing was also practiced.

However, there had already been a steady stream of Mandarin and Shanghainese-speaking film talent into Hong Kong during the Republican era, especially with Kuomintang restrictions on cinema, even before the exodus post-World War II and post-1949. E.g. the Shaw Brothers started their showbiz career in Shanghai, but set up their renowned Hong Kong studios in the 1930s. Indeed, the Mandarin film and TV industry is widely seen to have helped Hong Kong become a recognised cultural powerhouse across East Asia - one work even cites the 1938 Mandarin historical epic 貂蟬 Diāochán as having:

helped to establish the reputation of Mandarin Chinese cinema in a colony characterized predominantly by Cantonese culture.

Thus, in the mid-to-late 20th century and into the 21st century, Hong Kong audiences came expecting to read (good quality!) subtitles in film, even if not everyone actually 'needed' them because of individual passive listening skills in other varieties of Chinese.

Although a Taiwanese character simply 'understanding' the Cantonese of Hong Kong, like any trope, is an exaggeration, it can be instructive to explore why this became a feature of Hong Kong cinema specifically in the 1980s. Political and social changes in Taiwan, with increased mobility of certain Taiwanese citizens (including actually being able to visit Hong Kong), combined with an avid interest in Hong Kong cinema there, plus the rise of 台灣新電影 (variously called 'Taiwan New Wave', 'Taiwan New Cinema', 'New Taiwanese Cinema') with its own complex relationship with Hong Kong cinema, meant that there was increased Taiwanese representation in Hong Kong media.

Such a portrayal may also include a measure of linguistic savviness, with Taiwanese characters being able to understand a larger measure of Cantonese than one would expect from someone with no previous exposure - the implication is often that there is a certain shared 'affinity' (now we really get into characterisation: this can be attributed to shared political ideals, cultural habits, and even linguistic ties between Cantonese, Hakka and Taiwanese Hokkien) and even that there has been previous exposure to Hong Kong, to Cantonese, and to the local culture, through the power of cinema.

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