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.