And let’s not even go into Mandarin

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…


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32 Responses to And let’s not even go into Mandarin

  1. Ladee Marmalad' says:

    All I knows about Cantonese is dat white tiger means a woman who shaved her pube and green dragon mean a man what does da same.

    Dey even made it inna a movie: WHITE TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON or some such.

  2. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Most Cantonese people’s English is better than most English-primary-language people’s Cantonese. Most locals don’t have the patience or inclination to be your unpaid Cantonese tutor as you experiment with a rudimentary Cantonese vocabulary and terrible pronunciation, all the while displaying your clothes/bags/shoes/propensity to spend what they consider an outrageous amount to catch a cab a few blocks that demonstrate how much more money the average Westerner has than the taxi drivers, 7-11 staff and foot massagers who tend to be on the receiving end of this. English is faster for dealing with you and getting on with things.

  3. Joe Blow says:

    Do not you just luv the fluent Cantonese gwai who puts on a show when talking in his/her oh so fluent Canto dialect ?

    Uhhh, why is the weekend starting early ?

  4. Vile Traveller says:

    Hong Kong’s Cantonese population indisputably has a standard of English language ability far beyond the Cantonese skills of any native English speakers. This may have something to do with English language teaching since kindergarten. As a non-native English speaker, I am all for expanding the aggressive teaching of foreign languages in pre-school establishments throughout the UK, USA, Canada and those other places down south. Cantonese, unfortunately, may be a long way behind Mandarin in that policy, but not to worry! I’m sure everyone in Hong Kong will be more than happy to switch to the mother tongue.

    I must beg to differ on the subject of short-distance taxi rides and designer goods, however. Hong Kongers display a remarkable indifference to local geography from a pedestrian viewpoint, to the extent that many don’t seem to realise that the bits between MTR stations are not, in fact, separated by unimaginable distances best not contemplated for traversing on shank’s pony. I suspect a taxi-per-headcount of population chart would see our beloved S.A.R. in the top three positions, at the very least.

    As for handbags. Well. I’m sure no local-born person would be seen dead with a designer label.

  5. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    VT – I don’t disagree on propensity for using the MTR rather than ambulation and addiction to designer handbags among many in the population. It’s more the apparent wealth gap between the gwailo/gwaipor experimenting with Cantonese and the unlucky local who is the other end of the “conversation” and just wants to get on with his or her business. Until the former can hold their own in a Cantonese conversation, they should restrict their experimenting to (a) what they can get right (eg “si gei, Lan Gwai Fong m’goi!”) or (b) the secretaries and other people who are paid to put up with their crap.

  6. Maugrim says:

    Its complicated. Personally, speaking some Cantonese just makes life easier, particularly in taxis if you know the Chinese name of your destination. From that perspective, I find it easier, especially in regards to ‘face’, to use it rather than reverting to something involving gestures, speaking a bit louder and using pigin Canto-English. To be honest, my Cantonese is pretty basic, and while its ego inflating on a sad level to have a shop assistant say loudly ‘waaaah, li sik ho chung man’ to look at the smile on their face and the mutual connection that is made makes me feel that perhaps ‘living’ in HK has a meaning beyond a place of abode.

    That said, the ones who do need a kick up the khyber pass are the ones, and they do exist, who see Chinese language/customs etc as being inferior or ‘local’.

  7. Smedley Tangbottom III says:

    There’s a blondish European (“European” as “not English”) woman out on one of the islands (?Lamma) who’s got a black belt 5th dan in Canto-lingo. She’s a right bloody smart arse.

  8. pcrghlll says:

    There was a letter in the SCMP a few years back from a gweipor complaining that, on addresing a cabbie in her beginner cantonese, he laughed and switched to English. Her conclusion: HK taxi drivers are the worst in the world! Gotta love that letters page.

  9. Vile Traveller says:

    I think limiting the example to something as specific as a mid-to-high income foreigner practicing bad Cantonese on a low-income local is a little unscientific. The wealth gap, which is indeed rapidly expanding in Hong Kong, is largely between the richest and poorest locals (excepting domestic workers) and not between poor locals and rich foreigners. The reason for the foregoing example is probably related to the simple fact that English is so commonly spoken in Hong Kong that the bad gwailo Cantonese only comes out to play when poorer, and thus less educationally-advantaged, locals are encountered.

    On a positive note, at least greeting experimentation with languages with laughter as it is in Hong Kong is preferable to the more unpleasant reactions one might see in other countries.

  10. bah says:

    @STIII She’s Norwegian, lives on Lantau and gives lessons in Cantonese to anyone who dares. She’s quite mad.

  11. Mary Hinge says:

    Saving some gory details for Elsie Tu’s obituary? Well, here’s hoping that she doesn’t outlive you, Hemmers …

  12. Halitosis Wong says:

    I am surprised she is still alive, let alone her penning letters. 30 years ago she already looked like a fossilized broomstick.

  13. RSG says:

    1) Locals reverting to English after trying to decipher a foreigner’s crappy command of the local language is not unique to Hong Kong. Happens all over the place, especially when, say, a cab driver is just trying to make sure he’s taking you to the right place and doesn’t really care about your language skills.

    2) Unless you plan on living in Hong Kong for an extended period of time, learning Cantonese has little benefit. It’s simply not a useful language beyond South China.

    3) It’s not as though native English speakers are the only people who use English to get by in Hong Kong or in other countries. Businesspeople from non-English speaking countries also rely on English when traveling/working abroad–it’s not like all the Japanese businessmen in HK are learning Cantonese either. You can find similar patterns in many global cities now: there is a foreign population that uses English to get by, regardless of what the local language is.

    4) I speak Mandarin quite well but feel incredibly self-conscious speaking Mandarin to Hong Kongers, even though many would understand me, because using Mandarin seems like a political statement. That being said, every Mainlander visiting HK appears to expect the whole Chinese population of HK to speak standard Putonghua. But of course, I’ve heard many HKers (especially older and/or wealthier people) speak barely comprehensible Mandarin–their English is often better. Does Pierce Lam also insist that Mainland transplants to HK learn Cantonese? Should they learn to write traditional characters?

  14. Vile Traveller says:

    Re: point 4) above – coincidentally, a frequent visitor to Korea recently discovered that she should have been using her excellent English rather than her somewhat painful (to mainland ears, I’m told) Mandarin. It turns out, hordes of mainland tourists notwithstanding, a surprisingly large number of Seoul shop assistants, waiters and tourist spot attendants are much more fluent in (and eager to practice) English than Mandarin.

    Really, it’s a matter of convenience and not jingoism. I certainly don’t want to torture my eardrums by listening to any foreigners trying to speak German, so I’m quite happy for everyone to try to get along in English. It’s a much harder language to abuse.

  15. Brocco Li says:

    I once lived in Guangdong where I witnessed the situation of a Taiwanese conversing with a Cantonese in (fluent) English.

    Today I walked into my gym and found 2 overseas Chinese conversing in (perfect) English. And they were not putting on a show -as happens so often with non-Honkie Chinese- because there was no one else around, until I walked in.

    So there, or whatever.

    Colonial trivia: did you know that Kevin Sinclair (RIP) was the nemesis of Elsie Tu ?

  16. gweipo says:

    I’ve often wondered why the HK government doesn’t make speaking / reading Chinese a requirement for permanent residency. Most English speaking nations insist you speak English before they hand over residency….

  17. Ted Thomas says:

    Yes, that’s because you’re a little woman with a little woman’s brain: if that was the case, the financial industry would collapse overnight.

    But you would not understand that, of course.

    Got a nice recipe for apple crumble ?

  18. Baldleon says:

    @Hemlock: funny, in major cities in North America with significant ethnic Chinese populations, it’s assumed that people are so exposed to Chinese cuisine forks & knives are no longer supplied to “foreigners” unless requested. It’s expected that you should know how to use chopsticks

    @Ladee Marmalad’: Green Dragon – cool… learn something new everyday

    @gweipo: they do that in Quebec where new immigrants have to take mandatory classes in French

    It is true that Canto is fairly useless outside the extreme south of China, and quickly being supplanted by Mando in ethnic Chinese communities outside China. But I feel that if immigrants to countries like Sweden or Netherlands are expected to learn Swedish or Dutch respectively for reasons that these immigrants should integrate with their newly adopted countries, it is not unreasonable that newcomers to HK should also make some effort in learning Canto/Mando. I think it’s fair to say that Swedish or Dutch are also languages that have “little benefit” outside those countries, as RSG would put it.

    But of course learning Mando as a means of integrating into HK society is a topic of another discussion.

  19. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Guangdongwa is can be fairly useless in Guangzhou itself in some situations due to the large influx of migrant labour from elsewhere in China. I’ve been in a few situations in Guangzhou where Cantonese has got me nowhere and I’ve had to use Mandarin.

  20. Claw says:

    One difficulty frequently encountered is that locals do not expect you to speak Cantonese so, even if you have spoken correctly, they often don’t get it as they’re trying to make out what you said in “English”.

    I have found that taxi drivers are usually appreciative of attempts to use Cantonese and understand what you mean even if you don’t get it quite right. If you use the same expressions on your friends they look at you askance. I’ve had some pretty good coversations with taxi drivers on a variety of topical subjects, try them on the Government and you will get some interesting responses.

  21. South Asian says:


    where do you get the idea that you have to learn Dutch if you live in Holland? I lived there for 4 years, no one expected my to say so much as thank you in Dutch. The vast majority speak near perfect English, much of the media is in English. in all but the most backwater of places all forms of communication are in English as much as in Dutch.

    One Dutch friend told me that Holland realised many years ago that Dutch was a minority language, and a difficult one to learn at that, and in order to survive and thrive, the nation was going to have to adopt a different language (English) whilst protecting the Dutch language from a cultural perspective. Some lessons to be learnt here, maybe?

  22. cecilie says:

    @Bah: Quite mad, am I? Please explain what’s mad about me. So far I’ve taken it to mean ‘not British’ but perhaps you know something about my mental health that I don’t.

  23. Not British says:

    why do you assume being quite mad means not British…..

    In general I perceive that much of the anti-English language sentiment expressed here and in other places really has an anti-British national tinge to it

  24. bah says:

    I’m not even British!

  25. cecilie says:

    I never said you were, or that I care where you’re from. You didn’t answer my question. Can’t explain why I’m mad? No. Thought not.

  26. Vile Traveller says:

    In some circles the thought of a global language might be considered a utopian vision opening up limitless possibilities for harmony and understanding. Unfortunately everyone wants it to be *their* language. English is the (first) de facto global language of the day, but nationalists don’t like it.

  27. stuart says:


    I heard you on Sarah’s show on RTHK the other day. Forget the odd negative cnut on this toffy-nosed blog, obviously. You are not mad, but slightly off-beam, and a heady breath of fresh air. Your comand of Canto is probably second to none, I heard you disussing participles the other day with sarah passmore this week despite your hacking cough.. Insightful and invaluable. Despie your chestiness. Well Done.

  28. Baldleon says:

    @South Asian:

    Caveat: “Temporary foreign employees and nationals from 38 countries, mostly European Union citizens, are exempt from the pre-entry test, but will have to take courses after being admitted to the Netherlands. Exceptions also have been made for nationals of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and Switzerland.”

  29. Dick Trom says:

    In Holland, that low, wet, swampy bit of country, everything is negotiable. And virtually nothing is enforced.

    Stuart: I thought there were no participles in Canto. Me is wrong ?

  30. ANON says:


    1. Stuart is correct: your blogs & photos & language videos are the BEST,
    bar none; free-spirited, happy, resourceful.
    2. Nothing worse than stuffed-shirt “bah” (?poo-bah) — except HK property developers…

  31. cecilie says:

    Thank you so much, Stuart and Anon! What Stuart meant was particles. They are little words you stick at the end of sentences to subtly alter, reinforce or completely overthrow what’s gone before. There’s no equivalent in English, but if you say about for example Bah: “He’s great!” it’s different from “He’s great! I suppose …”

    Love those particles.

  32. Mrs Rita Whip says:

    articles are placed before a noun.

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