Daisann McLane: ‘Learning Cantonese’ in Hong Kong

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  01.29.07 | 9:20 AM ET

imageBack in 2003, we noted a terrific story by Daisann McLane about studying Cantonese in New York City’s Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants thought she was crazy to take up Cantonese. After all, Mandarin is the official language in China and is more commonly spoken. But as McLane wrote, “[W]hen I spread my Chinese homework out on restaurant and coffee shop tables, unexpected things happen. It is as if a door swings open and Chinatown invites me into the house to meet the family.” Since then, McLane, a columnist at National Geographic Traveler and the author of Cheap Hotels, has not only continued her studies, but she picked up and moved to Hong Kong. To document her experience there, she launched a blog earlier this month called Learning Cantonese. I recently traded e-mails with her about it. 

World Hum: Why did you decide to launch the blog?

Daisann McLane: The blog came about like this. I’ve been bouncing between Hong Kong and Brooklyn for the last two or three years, but mainly I’ve been in Hong Kong. Right before New Year’s, the Hong Kong Government did a shocking thing—it demolished the 49-year-old Star Ferry pier over the protests of thousands of angry citizens.
Anybody who writes about travel knows about the Hong Kong Star Ferry—it is one of those 100 great travel experiences that magazines love to put in their surveys. The ferry was one of the last remaining slices of historic Hong Kong life—and an important means of cheap transport for local people. Well the HK government has pulled the pier down to build a shopping mall and a highway that will block one of the last stretches of downtown waterfront in the city.
They didn’t get rid of the ferry service, but they constructed a new faux-“historic” pier in an inconvenient location. It looks like something out of Celebration, Florida. Basically the government has taken something that was attractive to travelers because it was a real part of city life, and turned it into a simulacrum, a tourist trap.
Of course I was upset by this. Even more so because it seems like a global trend—there’s a lot of loose capital in the world right now, and the pressure to “develop” (i.e., bulldoze neighborhoods and historic places, ruin people’s quality of community life, in order to enrich a few moguls or corporations) is worldwide. It’s happening in Brooklyn, too—my apartment there sits blocks away from another development project called Atlantic Yards that’s slated to plunk a skyscraper, condos and a sports stadium into a quiet brownstone neighborhood rich with street life.
I travel, and I write about travel for a living. I’m incredibly depressed about the way that lived experience, the richness of human activity, and history is being bulldozed by greed. The way that surprise and discovery in travel is losing ground to corporations, standardization, the “re-creation” of phony, sanitized historical places. As an issue, it may not be as crucial as global warming, but I think it’s part of the same economic machine that puts profits before people, at whatever cost.
The loss of the Star Ferry plunged me into depression at New Year’s Eve—and then I called a friend and found out that the state of New York had passed the last hurdle that would have stopped Atlantic Yards. I felt powerless, as if my memories were being erased on both sides of the ocean. I ended up staying up all night and putting this blog together.
The title “Learning Cantonese” came to me in a flash, because it is the title of the book I have been threatening to write about Chinese culture and language for the last couple of years. I realized suddenly that I didn’t have to wait to organize a book and book contract—that I could create a place where I could write about Chinese culture and Hong Kong, and about the surprise and wonderment that happens when you are learning your way around a living city. Even if you have never been to Hong Kong, I’d like the blog to give you a feeling of what the texture of life is around here. It’s my small act of preservation.
And self-preservation. The words have been coming out in a flood. Twenty thousand so far…that’s almost half a book. It’s getting a tremendous response. The readers seem to be about half Chinese and half Western, which is great.

That is great. And perhaps it explains why the blog entries read more like short stories or articles than most blog posts.

I’ve conceived the blog more as a little magazine, as vignettes from a book-in-progress (with the added plus that readers can write in—there’s a comments function). That’s why the entries tend to be long, for blogs. (A lot of readers seem to be printing them out to read offline.) I didn’t plan to do it this way, but I’ve done some Dispatches for Slate, which is a similar format, so it felt natural to me. Actually the entries aren’t that long, usually around 1,000 words each.
Also, there are lots and lots of really good travel blogs out there that are written like little commonplace books—short entries with links to things the blogger finds cool or interesting. Rather than try to compete, I’m trying to put something a bit different out there.

So how is your Cantonese coming along?

The bookFunny you asked. In Cantonese I’d say “Mah mah dei hou.” Okay-gela. In the last year I’ve been too busy with travel assignments to knuckle down and do another semester of study at the university in Hong Kong. So I’ve been studying on my own, and I have been working more on reading skills than speaking skills. My conversational ability at the moment has plateaued, but I can work my way slowly through a Hong Kong newspaper, so I don’t feel so bad.

What else are you up to these days?

I’m still at National Geographic Traveler as a columnist and contributing editor. I do a fair bit of work for Taschen, the German-based publishers of Cheap Hotels, and I’ll be doing a couple of guides for them this year and next in a new travel series they are launching. I’ve been spending about three months of the year in Brooklyn, seven in Hong Kong (in and out—to China, Thailand, Indonesia, Macau, etc), and about two months on the road in other places. I just came back from a trip to Baluchistan that I’ll be writing about in Slate, and I am on my way in two weeks to do an assignment for Traveler in India, my second India feature for them in five months.

Sounds like a good life.

I’m really, really lucky to have finally scored the life I’ve wanted for years—lots of travel, but on my own schedule. A base in a foreign country. Interesting work. I hope I can keep it all together! A lot of my energy just goes into managing two apartments, subtenants, paying bills here and there, paperwork and figuring out travel itineraries.

Thanks, Daisann. Somehow I think you’ll keep it all together.

Related on World Hum:
* On the Bus with Hong Kong’s ‘Long Hair’
* Interview with Daisann McLane: The Frugal Traveler

Photo courtesy of Daisann McLane.

6 Comments for Daisann McLane: ‘Learning Cantonese’ in Hong Kong

Marilyn Terrell 01.30.07 | 6:44 PM ET

We love you Daisann!

N8Ma 02.01.07 | 3:23 PM ET

Daisann’s writing is fluid and sophisticated. I prefer longer blogs, with coherent, well-considered ideas/arguments, to my own, which is mostly just links to more interesting writing.

Her website is essential to raising awareness of a sense of civic pride in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Do we really want to see a Starbucks in the Forbidden City, San Marco Plaza, and Machu Picchu?

puskar 03.03.08 | 10:26 PM ET

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David Fath 04.10.08 | 10:24 PM ET

I am fluent in cantonese.  For those who don’t know, “Mah mah dei hou” means so-so.

Natalie 09.12.08 | 12:17 PM ET

You have a terific site, full of great resources.  Thank you for sharing your travel adventures with us.  It is inspiring! 

My husband (Justin) and I leave on September 30th to backpack to various countries around the world for a year or so. 

As we have been planning for our adventure we have been updating a blog.  http://www.nomadbackpackers.com  We would love to have other opinions, ideas, encouragement, advice, helpful tips, and more left as comments. 

In addition, as for learning a new language, we can relate.  Both Justin and I minored in Mandarin Chinese in college.  I even spent some time at a University in Beijing studying the language.  It can be intense!  But I am sure you are doing great.


Rieth 11.15.08 | 1:59 AM ET

cantonese is a complicated language, good luck with her studies, i know daissan can do it..

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