A lot of muttering has been going on here following Pierce Lam’s epic letter in the South China Morning Post demanding that the social and commercial status of the English language in Hong Kong somehow be drastically reduced. Two strands of thought, not mutually exclusive, stand out concerning the low levels of Cantonese found among many (reasonably long-term) white Western residents of Hong Kong.
One is that failure to learn (or ‘bother to learn’) even a smattering of Cantonese is to some degree wicked. Forget the fact that it might make life that bit harder, or make yourself look like a dimwit, not to be able to tell a taxi driver a street name in the vernacular. It is a sign of arrogance and disrespect and an insult to the bulk of the population. (When I say ‘arrogance’ etc, I mean above and beyond the usual level of presumptuousness that native English speakers are cursed with from birth worldwide.)
I would say it’s all in the way that you do it. The American tourist I recently found lost while jogging on Queen’s Road at 6.30am and trying to get directions back to his hotel from an elderly Hakka street sweeper was ill-informed about local language use, not arrogant. The haughty old colonial matrons who used to shout abuse at non-whites who were ‘too stupid’ to speak English were repulsive nonentities. Their attitude probably hasn’t totally died out, but it seems pretty rare now and – in a marked shift since pre-1997 days – it is widely considered unacceptable.
The other position is that Westerners’ failure to learn (fluent/much/any) Cantonese is simply a natural and pragmatic response to the circumstances they find themselves in. If they are happy in a Disco Bay bubble, they are, by definition, happy. If they acquire a measure of the language through work or relationships, they do so at least partially involuntarily, and use it to the extent they do out of habit, or out of need as a tool or convenience, as much as politeness. Some might learn non-organically out of a sense of obligation or for the supposed challenge/pleasure of learning a new language in adulthood – but not many.
It’s true: you can get by without it, or at least find ways to. It might involve more effort or expense, but compared with the time and work involved in learning Cantonese, that would pay for itself. That doesn’t apply to an Indonesian being put to work on a Kowloon housing estate, nor to a Westerner being posted for two years in a place like Jakarta (although it seems you can get by in English there too these days).
Arrogance, incidentally, cuts both ways. I naturally leap around with joy like a puppy dog when someone pats me on the head saying how clever I must be because I can use chopsticks like a grown-up or understand the characters that say ‘wash hand place’ in a restaurant, but it is, believe it or not, insulting. And pitiful. And if you want rudeness, try the Westerners so determined to learn Cantonese that they sharply forbid Chinese people to address them in English.
On the subject of letters in the SCMP and the decline in racial inequality since colonial times, I couldn’t help noticing this missive (right) yesterday criticizing Elsie Tu. Back in the 1950s-70s, Elsie (then Elliot) was a redoubtable campaigner who fought corruption and injustice on behalf of Hong Kong’s powerless and downtrodden. For various complex reasons I am saving for the obituary, she became part of the pro-establishment camp after 1997. It was, of course, a new, anti-colonial establishment, so there was a partial logic in siding with those who (in some cases at least) had opposed the British administration. But that put her in conflict with her successors in the local human rights business who naturally question and attack authority. Hence she became a pro-Beijing figure who condemns the pro-democrats at every turn, even though you would think it is they who inherited her values.
What’s going on? Cast your mind back to the days of colonial matrons screeching at natives too stupid to speak English. Elsie liked the common Chinese people of Hong Kong when they needed and appreciated a bossy white woman to organize them and speak for them. Nowadays, they can look after themselves, starting up anti-government political groups, mounting demonstrations and articulating demands without fear. I suspect she has never forgiven them.
Which bring us rather neatly to a somewhat similar relic of colonial times, Sir David Akers Jones. As a former official, he perhaps made less of a leap when he also aligned himself in his twilight years with the pro-establishment camp. But I wonder if the same dynamic is at work, and his presence in the pro-Beijing, anti-democracy milieu is in some ways a reaction to the locals getting uppity.
And what an excellent excuse to present an artwork: Sir David Akers Jones Psychedelic Freak Out. There is talk of an exhibition of such items in a leading Hollywood Road gallery, so this won’t be the last. Meanwhile, the weekend begins early…