Talk Canto to Me



Written by David Yee
Translated by Jennifer J. Lau & Elaine J. Sun

Photography by Dahlia Katz


When I was a teenager, there was this video store I’d go to. It was in one of those small Chinese plazas that you see in the suburbs: a restaurant or two, an HSBC branch, maybe a dried goods place… and a video store. This particular video store was tiny, but well-stocked. It had low ceilings and fluorescent lights that made it feel like an office or call centre that someone had repurposed. Depending on the time of day, the long makeshift counter at the front was manned by either Sam or Diane. Those weren’t their real names. I never learned their real names, I just made up names for them… a habit that continued well into my adult life. I usually visited the store in the evening, which meant Diane was behind the counter. She was nice enough, but I tried to discourage small talk by silently nodding in response to her questions and looking vaguely grumpy. Again, a habit I’ve held onto past adolescence.

我十幾歲時,常常去一間出租影片店。它就是大家都見過的在多倫多市郊的那種華人商場:商場裡面通常有兩家餐廳,一家匯豐銀行,或者也會有一間海味舖⋯⋯還有一間出租影片店。店面不大,不過選擇挺多的。天花板很低。裡面的燈光有點像一般辦公室裡的螢光燈一樣,讓我懷疑它之前是一間辦公室或是一個呼叫中心。店裡櫃面的人也常常換班。不同時間去就會碰到不同的服務人員。有時候是 Sam,有時候是 Diane。(Sam 跟 Diane 是我給他們的代號,並非他們的實名。我從來都沒有問過他們怎麼稱呼。這個替人改名字的習慣跟著我長大。)我一般都是晚上去,所以碰到的經常是 Diane。她很友善,可是我不太喜歡跟別人聊天。我躲開別人目光的方法有兩種。第一:沈默地點點頭。第二:裝作不耐煩的樣子。而這些習慣也一直跟著我到了現在。

I started renting Cantonese movies because they’d always be playing at the homes of my full Chinese friends. By high school those friends were already well versed in John Woo, Chow Yun-fat, both Tony Leungs, Wong Kar-wai and the Shaw Brothers, while I was versed in Salinger, Steinbeck and Spielberg thanks to my mother — a Scottish schoolteacher — and the marked absence of my Chinese father. I was a highly literate teenager, but a shitty Chinese person. Which is how I ended up at that video store, renting Cantonese movies by the armful. 


About six months into my Canto bender, checking out Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide and a handful of others, Diane at the counter gave me a smile and a scrutinizing look that I’d become all too familiar with. She’s going to ask the question now, I thought. 

六個月後,我在瀏覽徐克的《順流逆流》的時候,Diane 贈給我一個微笑和充滿懷疑的目光。她的眼神非常熟悉。我心裡在想:她快要問那個問題了。

“Are you… Chinese?” 

There they were. Those three dreaded little words.

“Half.” I tried to be as terse as possible to dissuade further conversation.

“You understand Cantonese?”

“No, but I’m fluent in Subtitle.”








She pursed her lips a bit, then smiled warmly at me. “Okay, you watch this movie and when you hear a word you like, come back and tell me what it is. I’ll teach it to you. You can learn Cantonese this way.”

Diane was, apparently, immune to my misanthrope routine. Rather, she’d decided to make me into something different. I’d become, to her, a project, a thing with a missing piece she believed she could fill in. She wanted to be the Francine Patterson to my Koko, to bridge our linguistic divide. The next week I returned the movies earlier in the day, when Sam was working. I never went back to the store again. Diane never taught me Cantonese. 


顯然,Diane 一點都不了解我。相反,她決定要把我變成她理想中的我。對她來說,我已經成為一個大工程。我已經成為她認為有缺陷的作品,而她是可以幫到我的人。她想成為我的導師,填滿我們語言的鴻溝。接下來的一周,我比往常更早些到店裡還東西。Sam 正在上班。那天後,我再也沒有回到那個地方。Diane 也沒有教我廣東話。

My relationship to Cantonese is complicated, as is my relationship to Chinese-ness, as is my relationship to mixed-ness. Strangely enough (or predictably, relative to your thoughts on colonialism), my relationship to Scottish-ness is acutely uncomplicated. If we think of identity and culture as performance, then it is easier for me to perform being Scottish than it is for me to perform being Chinese. From years of reading trafficked Scottish comic books as a child, I’m familiar with the quaint and arcane Scottish colloquial dialect a native Scot would have absorbed as cultural history. I can even adopt a thoroughly convincing accent. And while no one — certainly no Scot — would consider me on sight to be Scottish, once I’ve spoken with them for a few minutes they are by and large convinced. 


My relationship to Cantonese is complicated, as is my relationship to Chinese-ness, as is my relationship to mixed-ness.

The opposite is true in my performance of being Chinese. Our dominant metaphors for identity are fullness and wholeness. We have no way to talk about a mixed-race identity other than being fractional, which begets a cultural understanding of us as being less. Moreover, the inability to speak both mother tongues is seen as a failure. A deficiency. Maybe not consciously, but culturally. My inability to speak Cantonese (or any dialect) delegitimizes my Asian subjectivity because it’s already seen as fragmented. I become Chinese in name only. A cultural paper son. Worse, I am forgiven my linguistic shortcomings because of my White half, not held to the same standard as a “legitimate” Asian. 


People don’t choose to be right-handed or left-handed. Factors you aren’t aware or in control of push you in one direction or the other; dominance of one side is claimed before you can walk. This is how most people view bicultural identity: one side must have more influence. It’s the only way they know how to conceptualize identity, in terms of a binary, but it’s also damaging. The expectation it places on mixed-race people is that both hands are required to be dominant. 


In Lan Kwai Fong a few years ago, at the end of a long night, I find myself chatting with the owner of the bar I’m running up a tab at. He’s half French, half Chinese and fluently trilingual. We converse in English, then in French for a bit, and I watch him argue with the bartender in Cantonese. 


“You’re living the dream” I tell him. He brings me another Sing Tao and raises a thick, French eyebrow. “You can get by in every place you’re from, like a local. That must be nice.” 

He waves the comment off with a swipe of his Gauloises. “Not really. The locals can all tell. They still speak to me in English here, because my accent isn’t perfect. And the French… they’re just assholes.”

“Still.” I steal one of his cigarettes and light it. “It’s like you were born ambidextrous.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

I shake my head. “Long story, forget it.”







A crowd of young people pass by, the tones
of a language I don’t understand wash over us. I smoke a stolen French cigarette and think up a new name for this new acquaintance. Pierre, maybe. We talk about Hong Kong movies and that brilliant stereo scene from Infernal Affairs. I tell him that, even though I don’t speak or understand Cantonese, the sound of it just feels like home. I drink on the house and smoke all of his cigarettes. As the bar shuts down, I give him what money I’ve still got as a tip.


“Forget it.” He hands it back, then crumples his empty pack of Gauloises and tosses it in a bin. “Hey, if you’re around for a while and you want to learn some Cantonese, come back and I can teach you a few phrases. Simple stuff.”

“Yeah. That sounds good, I’ll do that.”

We say goodnight and I head back toward the MTR. The night air is warm and sticky. Cantopop bleeds out the walls of an after-hours club. I stay in Hong Kong a while longer, but I never return to that bar again. Pierre never teaches me Cantonese. 

It’s true what they say about old habits. They really do die hard.



我們說了再見,然後我轉頭向地鐵走去。夜晚的空氣溫暖而黏呼呼的。粵語流行曲穿過夜店的牆壁飄蕩在街頭。我在香港待了一陣子,但是我再也沒有回去那間酒吧。Pierre 也沒有教我廣東話。


David Yee is a mixed race actor and playwright, born and raised in Toronto. He is the co-founding Artistic Director of fu-GEN Theatre Company, Canada’s premiere professional Asian Canadian theatre company. A Dora Mavor Moore Award nominated actor and playwright, his work has been produced internationally and at home. He is a Governor General’s Literary Award Laureate for his play carried away on the crest of a wave. He has worked extensively in the Asian Canadian community as an artist and an advocate. He has been called many things, but prefers ‘outlaw poet’ to them all.