Rant of the Day: English is Evil

Did I dream it? Or do I vaguely remember someone called Pierce Lam once long ago running for election, possibly in the Mid-Levels for the district board/council? By the standards of mouth-frothing Hong Kong, anti-Western neo-nationalists who occasionally appear in the opinion pages of the South China Morning Post, he is a bit forgettable. Former Director of Aviation Peter Lok, now reborn as a self-appointed patriot-oracle, spouts civil servant-style, bumptious non-sequiturs to explain Beijing’s position to the unenlightened rabble. Early pro-democrat Lau Nei-keung does an entertaining zealous-convert act in his psychopathic rants about ‘dissidents’, by which he means the huge majority who do not worship the Communist Party. Lam, by contrast, comes across as relatively rational and unemotional, if deeply unhinged by the status of the English language locally and abroad, as his letter today makes clear.

One of the lesser-known divisions among young/middle-aged Hong Kong society is that between the bright but poor folk who were locally educated (at non-‘elite’ schools) and the academically unexceptional rich kids who were sent to college overseas or attended local, hyper-expensive international schools. The former are, supposedly, crushed by rote-learning and stuck with clunky Canto-accented English and poor powers of critical thinking, while the latter can smooth-talk their way through glass ceilings and rise higher as lawyers, bankers and managers in multinational firms. The late message board Ice Red used to host some vicious feuds between the two tribes; the returnees’ habit of ordering in English in restaurants was one little gripe.

In recent years, a third option has become more popular: Western-style education at the local, taxpayer-subsidized English Schools Foundation. Originally intended for expatriate colonial administrators’ kids, the ESF now offers cut-price international schooling in English, with less exam pressure and lots of creativity, debating societies and so on, and as a result caters for a large Chinese-speaking student base. Many parents are so desperate to escape the local, everyday school system and qualify their children for international, jet-setting, knife-and-fork-using, coffee-drinking career and life, as seen on TV, that they have been known to try to throw themselves and the kid to their deaths if they fail to get an ETF place.

Pierce Lam hates the ESF, and likes to say so in letters to the editor (like this and this). His main point is that non-Chinese-speaking families should either send their kids to learn in Chinese at local schools, or spend what it takes to get them into private international/overseas establishments. The Hong Kong government itself is in a quandary over this issue and has chickened out by freezing the ESF’s subsidy. But Lam goes beyond the policy dilemma, in which the poorer are probably subsidizing the richer and the government is supporting education methods it officially rejects. To him, as his letter in today’s SCMP makes clear, this is about nationalism, cultural pride, revenge for colonial or foreign arrogance, and an absolute – and defensive – insistence that Anglo culture is no better than anyone else’s and Chinese no worse.

Peter Lok may have ended up the way he is because it seemed a smart career move following retirement from the public sector and Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese rule; perhaps he had some bitter memories of haughty gwailo superiors. For Lau Nei-keung, it may have been differences with fellow proto-democrats and the temptation of acceptance in the new order and appointments to important-sounding state bodies.

What about Lam, whose English seems excellent, if a bit overblown? Something personal must have triggered this need  to prove the irrelevance and non-superiority of English and rail against the ‘enforced popularization of a foreign language’. Did he try to get a kid into an ESF school and fail? Was he passed over for promotion because of a rival’s English? Does he feel angry about the poorer kids held back by their (often academically tougher) local education?

The bit about “those who stay should adopt the language of the people who gave them the best economic opportunities of their lives” sets the ‘inferiority complex’ alarm bell ringing. So does the claim that “The Chinese language is fully capable of sustainable development for effective use for all human endeavours.” Who said otherwise (whatever it means)? (The grandiose writing system looks like a linguistic evolutionary dead-end, but I don’t think anyone has ever claimed that any member of the Sino-Tibetan family leaves its speakers unable to say what they want.)

Lam’s letter will presumably bring howls of outrage from those who mistakenly think most people can or should speak English in Hong Kong or pedants who know that EU business is now virtually all-English. But will any address his deeper problem? Lam sees the status of English in Hong Kong almost as an act of belligerence by an uppity alien entity that deserves near-xenophobic retaliation to put it in its place. Something is clearly eating away at him.

And, until we have instant translators in every mobile phone (or he goes for therapy), it will carry on doing so. Barring dictatorial government action, people will vote with their feet, or at least their tongues and their kids’ schooling budgets. Maybe they are deluded to imagine that English can open the way to a better future, but he hasn’t proved it, and they don’t seem likely to be remotely convinced. I’ll believe it when all those civil servants stop sending their kids to British boarding schools.

This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Rant of the Day: English is Evil

  1. Ladee Marmalad' says:

    Honey, I tink you means ESF not ETF.

    All God’s children speaks Englis in der own special way.

  2. Maugrim says:

    Mind you, it was reported in the Chinese language press that Harrow (HK) requires something like a $300,000 debenture from its parents, not including annual tuition. That’s sure to attract the Mainland nouveau riche like flies to a pile of dung.

    Lam does have one point. Ever met the ESF gweilo contingent? Kowloon is a jungle. The only path that exists is the one between Pacific Place, Olivers and the Rugby Club. I once spoke with a senior ESF teacher who bemoaned the fact that Chinese kids spoke Chinese at her school socially. To be frank, there are some within the ESF who see it as some sort of English Foreign Legion, but with better benefits.

  3. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Poor Pierce’s English is generally good, but he incorrectly reads “may” as implying some sort of limitation, rather than its function as a general permissive. I’m happy for anyone to correct my English on this point.

    Otherwise, his letter starts reading a little spittle flecked quite early on. I love his determination to demonstrate his English (and a little Latin) erudition while arguing Zhongwen uber alles.

  4. Mary Hinge says:

    Section 3 of the Official Languages Ordinance (yes, there is one) says that English & Chinese are equal (yes, it uses that word) for purposes of government communications.

    Such a shame Mr Lam apparently did not read that …

  5. Maugrim says:

    Pierce has to also be careful with his use of the term ‘Chinese language’. In naming the ‘few’ places where English exists as a ‘national language’, where does it leave his own mother tongue Cantonese?

  6. David says:

    Working in a somewhat similar position to Hemlock as the Company Gweilo I can say one of the biggest business issues facing us is the poor quality of English of applicants to job openings we have.

    The Chinese family that controls our Group is always complaining about the poor quality of English that today’s generation has. This is not because they have any special respect for English (although they did get educated in a fancy DSS schools in Hong Kong and go overseas to University years ago before it was common place) but rather it is purely pragmatic. Whether we are doing business with the Japanese or the Dutch or the Indians or the Finnish or the Americans all communication and international (shipping and banking) documentation is done in English. If people do not possess a basic level of English we can not hire them as they can not help us make money. Cantonese is more than fine for the office (as I am the only one who does not understand) but it will not help us make money unless we wanted to limit our market to only Southern China as opposed to the whole world.

  7. Sir Crispin says:

    For a guy so anti-English/pro-Chinese he certainly has an over-the-top, snooty English name. (Or maybe its Welsh and I’ve offended their sensibilities now.) You’d think Pierce — doesn’t it just drip off the tongue — with his revulsion of anything anglo could have backstopped his argument by signing his letter with his Chinese name. Or was he trying to make some subtle point by using Pierce, to demonstrate his inherent superiority?

  8. Big Al says:

    Of course, there is a lot to be said about being tri-lingual and bi-literate in Hong Kong. For gweilos, it opens doors and provides opportunities for business (as opposed to speaking English very LOUDLY). Thisn is much the same as for all those gweilos who learned Japanese in the ’80s when the Japanese had money … However, much to Pierce’s obvious disgust, English is the world’s global language and Chinese is NOT. Having travelled to more than 80 countries around the globe, I can honestly say that English was understood in virtually all of them and Chinese in NONE. For Hong Kong to reject English simply because of nationalistic mouth-frothing, would not help anyone here. Pierce should also check out the English language capability of young Mainlanders – hugely better than that of their peers in Hong Kong-la.

  9. Vile Traveller says:

    The danger inherent in learning the language of the local population in any country is that you might understand what your fellow public transport passengers are saying. This is a major incentive for English speakers to move abroad and stay there. It gives me a great buzz every time I can’t understand people talking about the latest shock revelations on their favourite soap opera. Or whatever. Not being able to speak to one’s in-laws must also be a blessing which surely contributes to the somewhat unpatriotic practice of mixed marriage which seems to be rife whenever furriners don’t stay where they belong.

    “Anyone who has read mainland universities’ Chinese translations of English textbooks will appreciate the versatility of the Chinese language.” Indeed. I can’t say I have flicked through many such translations, but would these perhaps be on a par with the “interpretations” of the Basic Law?

  10. bk says:

    Hemlock == Pierce Lame…. hear crescendo of flushes as chains get yanked.

  11. Sir Crispin says:

    “Not being able to speak to one’s in-laws must also be a blessing”

    A friend of mine has a dragon lady of a mother-in-law who is quite the pushy, self-absorbed…wait I’m being redundant…but she can’t speak any English, so he is the only family member spared her acid tongue.

  12. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Sir Crispin – the MIL must seethe and stew in frustration at the thought of the saarng-ing that she can’t deliver upon your friend, although possibly your friend’s spouse just gets double his/her usual helping as a proxy.

  13. Sir Crispin says:

    Personally I don’t understand it, if my mother behaved the way stereotypical Chinese mothers act, I’d put her in her proper place. Different cultures, but perhaps that’s why these dragon ladies get away it, because the kids enable their behaviour.

  14. Revolution says:

    “What about Lam, whose English seems excellent, if a bit overblown? Something personal must have triggered this need to prove the irrelevance and non-superiority of English and rail against the ‘enforced popularization of a foreign language’. Did he try to get a kid into an ESF school and fail?”

    Yes he did, apparently.

  15. Baldleon says:

    To add to what Maugrim said, it’s interesting how many non-Chinese who have made HK their home and have lived there for years cannot even hold a simple conversation in the lingua franca of 90%+ of the population. I highly doubt this situation exists for immigrants who have moved to places like Germany or France. Yes Canto is much different from English compared to German or French but at least show some effort to learn.

    Oh no the students are speaking Canto at her school socially! Take a look at the damn map to see where you are and show some respect for the place that you’re now calling your home.

  16. Maugrim says:

    Baldleon, I could have gone further. There are some I know who would consider themselves as being far from racist who; used barely no Cantonese at all in their time here, had few if any Chinese friends beyond nodding at those employed doing menial tasks at work and see local cuisine and indeed locals as being dirty and mysterious. I gave up when I heard a group of ESF teachers lamenting that Suen Ming Yeung spoke in Cantonese at a press conference. They felt it was some sort of ‘secret conspiracy’ going on. Disco Bay is a haven for some who feel this way. I don’t know why they even bother coming here.

  17. Chris Maden says:

    Sir Crispin & Hemlock – attacking Pierce Lam over his “snooty name” or “inferiority complex” is plain ugly. Disagree with what he says, make fun of his arguments, or whatever, but the ad hominen stuff leaves me cold.

  18. Sir Crispin says:

    Chris, don’t you think it odd that a guy who chooses to attack the use of English in Hong Kong then signs with his English name and not his Chinese one? Irony, look it up.

  19. Vile Traveller says:

    Respect for country? Interesting concept. Is it something like religion or other beliefs in invisible entities?

  20. Claw says:

    Whilst I agree that it is preferable for foreign residents to learn to speak some Cantonese, bear in mind that it is quite easy to live in HK speaking only English (where else can you do that ?) so there is little incentive for many to learn it.

    In regard to local children using Cantonese socially at ESF schools, although it is understandable it is undesirable if the intention of attending the school is to learn to speak English well. Students learn at least as much English from using it in casual conversation as they do during formal lessons. The teachers’ negative reaction is therefore a reasonable one.

  21. Chris Maden says:

    Ah! “Pierce Lam” = “Sir Crispin”! Had me fooled…

  22. Maugrim says:

    Claw, the teacher’s concern wasn’t on pedagogical grounds but was seemingly based more on “this is a slice of England, they should only be speaking English”. It seemed to be a superiority issue.

  23. cnut says:

    Lam should have been more careful with the use of the term “Chinese”. The fact is, (obviously unbeknown to non-Chinese-speaking people) Hong Kong is a predominantly Cantonese-speaking community where a significant number of locals, young and old, can’t even use (speak or write) Standard/vernacular Chinese, i.e., Putonghua/Mandarin, properly. If it’s Cantonese he’s referring to, proficiency in the spoken dialect won’t get Hong Kongers very far, in both educaton and career prospects, as some of you have rightly put it. Like it or not, English is indeed the world’s lingua franca.

  24. Stephen says:

    Didn’t another Pierce (Brosnan) say in the memorable Nobel House mini series (circa late 1980’s) “My first Language is Cantonese”

  25. Ann says:

    The chances are, Chris, that the name “Pierce” was chosen by the chap himself, not given to him by his parents. And I too find it odd that he insists on using it rather than his given Chinese moniker, given the subject matter of his letter. Hence I see nothing wrong in mocking it, in this context.

  26. Claw says:


    That puts a different slant on the matter. Not that ESF teachers have any reason to feel superior: I was at a pub quiz a few weeks ago where a team made up of ESF teachers placed Guantanamo Bay in Guatemala

  27. Baldleon says:

    The issue I have is this:

    Line up 1,000 white people who have made HK their home and have lived here for a number of years. See how many of them can hold a simple conversation in Canto.

    Line up another 1,000 South Asians and see how many of them can do the same. I bet that number is a lot higher cuz it seems like all those laborers who set up the shops on Women’s Street can converse quite well with the Cantonese shopkeepers.

    So it appears that either the HK white population is either more stupid than the South Asians when it comes to learning languages or the former thinks that they’re better than the locals and still run the place.

    Having said that, the local Cantonese lets the white folks get away with this racism. All those stupid real estate ads that feature white people to make the properties appear more high class… you know, if you don’t respect yourself how can you expect others to respect you. BTW, real white people do not prefer living in those sardine cans anyways.

    This is a separate issue from local Cantonese needing to be fluent the local language, the national language and an international language.

  28. Vile Traveller says:

    “So it appears that either the HK white population is either more stupid than the South Asians when it comes to learning languages or the former thinks that they’re better than the locals and still run the place.”

    False dichotomy, although it can be argued that the native population thinks that white foreigners are better than dark foreigners. There is no reliable scientific evidence to suggest quantitative differences in learning ability between different ethnic groups.

    There is simply no requirement to learn Cantonese to work in the type of jobs held by “white” residents in Hong Kong. Learning Cantonese will not let gwailos rise higher in the corporate hierarchy than they can without it (i.e. past the “ability barrier” and into the “relationships circle”). Nor will any foreign language speaker ever meet government Cantonese language requirements, no matter how fluent they may become conversationally. It might be more convenient to be conversant therein, but in a basic cost/benefit analysis it’s simply not worth the time in a society where time is precious.

    Interesting that this post has spawned debate, given that the original letter makes no sense at all. What is “Chinese language”? Is it like “European Language”?

  29. Baldleon says:

    Of course there are no differences in terms of learning abilities in foreign languages, so hence we’re left with the second reason, that a major reason why the white locals in HK can’t be bothered to learn Canto because they feel they’re better than the ethnic Chinese.

    All the other points you made are fair, and that the jobs generally held by “whites” do not really require any knowledge of Canto. But I think the excuse that HK is a society where time is precious is pretty pathetic. Okay so your job doesn’t require you to know the language, but 90%+ of the people in your city speak that language. Isn’t that the same criticisms immigrants in North America get when they don’t bother to learn the local language even though they may not need to use it in their everyday lives? Think Hispanics in the States.

    I forgot, they’re Honkies / Chinese… an inferior people

  30. FB3 says:

    Has anyone considered that perhaps some locals don’t like it when expats can speak Cantonese.

    I know when I first came to HK, my local colleagues were shocked when I started to understand some of the conversations in the office & switched to more colloquial terms to avoid being rumbled.

    My experience on the mainland is that people were more willing to teach you their language than HK locals.

  31. Vile Traveller says:

    The criticism is indeed the same all over the world, and equally invalid. If a Bangladeshi immigrant to the UK is perfectly happy not speaking the Queen’s, then that should be nobody’s business but hers. No locals are harmed by foreigner’s inability or disinclination to learn their language, nor can any observed correlation of lack of respect and linguistic laziness be considered in any way causal (unless someone would care to point out the relevant research to support this hypothesis?). Imitation is supposed to indicate flattery, not respect. I have tremendous respect for Carl Sagan, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to start wearing corduroy blazers.

    Let me elaborate the “time is precious” thing. Hong Kong has 7 days of statutory annual leave. Saturday is only a day off if your Employer is enlightened enough to say so. There are more public holidays than in the English-speaking world, except for the ones that fall on a Saturday. Working hours are long.

    All of this means that the precious free time taken to learn another language must be balanced against the benefits gained – the ability to dine a little off the beaten track, or to shop more confidently in the local market (assuming one is insular enough to never make any Cantonese-speaking friends who might be willing to join in such jaunts from time to time). A back-of-the-envelope calculation would soon show a deficit.

  32. Mrchingchong says:

    Most white people are racists. Those who choose to live in HK are especially racists because they actually think that every local persons in HK think that they are “superior”. They act superior because they are RACISTS. Just let the truth be heard and not beating around the bush. I guess there are exception of “non-racist” white people in HK but they are hard to find and will generally lump into the group of “oh I’m a better than thou white person living in Asia! Bow down to my white face!”

  33. Vile Traveller says:

    Nothing like a refreshingly unbigoted viewpoint, I always say.

  34. Claw says:

    Mrchingchong — you may be right, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that the locals are any less racist. Racism seems to be one of the few universal characteristics, the whole world seems to think that we are OK, everyone else is a barbarian, heathen etc.

  35. Beyond the Pale says:

    This is a complex issue. I have to say that despite an interest in languages (O-levels in Latin, French, German and Russian & A-level in German) and a desire to learn Cantonese, I have found it difficult to find the time to master more than taxi Cantonese, largely due to the extended working hours. While Cantonese is not per se a difficult language, tonal languages are a particular challenge to speakers of atonal languages. Add to that the fact that my work is entirely in English and that my colleagues all speak English, and it becomes less straightforward. I note that the police were actually given a couple of hours of Cantonese each morning. I would welcome a regulation that forces employers of non-local staff to provide Cantonese lessons in a similar way…

    Interestingly a colleague who sent his son to a local junior school was dissuaded from sending him to secondary school because they as non-Chinese would not be able to give him the support he needed with Chinese characters.

    PS All people start off racist, classist, sexist, ethnist, anyone-other-than-me-ist – it is what we do with it that matters.

    PPS Hong Kong is generally very accepting to Westerners who cannot carry out a conversation in Cantonese, and I really appreciate this. It is one of the things that makes Hong Kong accessible to many more people across the world and makes it a great gateway to China.

  36. Richard P says:

    I think Mrchingchong must have had a similar sour experience with ‘white people’ (who/whatever they are) as a certain Mr Lam of Central.

    Racism is, of course, completely indefensible, but the reasons for racism differ within each context. Perhaps Pierce Lam’s rhetoric demonstrates the result of an ill-judged exchange of words or a curt finale to an interview with ‘someone of lighter skin’, but his finely-worded rant (and that is what it is) suggests a psychological trend that can end in extreme attitudes. Let’s hope these, and others such as Mrchingchong, can be overcome before they take on other demonstrable forms. Sadly, we know where that path leads.

Comments are closed.