I see that during my absence I missed another diatribe in the letters page of the South China Morning Post from Quarry Bay’s most deranged mouth-frother, Cynthia Sze. As with her last one, she exhibits an extreme hatred for the English Schools Foundation, but this time she goes further and picks on the entire English language.
Mr Di Bona should realise that the English which the Basic Law provides as an official language is local English and not native English, just like Cantonese, which is local Chinese, is the de facto official Chinese language of Hong Kong. If local English fails to become socially functional like Singlish in Singapore, the use of English as an ancillary official language will decline naturally and should discontinue in 2047.
Even if I weren’t a bit jet-lagged, I’d struggle to work out what she is rambling on about. The Basic Law’s references to language do not specify any variant of either English or Chinese. Although official languages are used orally, such as in courts, they are mostly applied in the written form – laws, government documents and so on. This suggests that by ‘English’, the Basic Law means Standard English, not the local version that uses ‘would’ instead of ‘will’ to form the future tense and pluralizes nouns like ‘furniture’ and ‘vocabulary’. And we can be pretty sure that by ‘Chinese’ it does not mean the vernacular written Cantonese that so bemuses Mainlanders looking at Apple Daily. So the stuff about local English failing to become ‘socially functional’ – whatever it means – is irrelevant.
But Cynthia Sze is just hitting her stride…
Hong Kong will always be Cantonese-speaking because the Chinese are not hegemonic like the English who have obliterated the Celtic and the Romance languages in Britain.
Now we are descending into loser-language paranoia, as once seen among French and Quebec officials who saw the dominance of English as a fiendish plot rather than a historical accident. According to this interpretation of the past, Anglo-Saxons settled in eastern and southern Britain around AD 500 on a mission to stamp out proto-Welsh/Cornish/Scottish Gaelic/Manx/etc and any remnants of Latin left lying around. (The Romans, incidentally, had already eradicated Celtic languages in what are now France, Spain and Portugal.) After their Norman cousins introduced French among the upper classes, they fought back, English returned to prominence, and the dastardly conspiracy to swamp the planet with Beowulf, Chaucer and Elvis Presley proceeded in earnest.
To the extent that modern China’s leaders are laid back about non-Mandarin languages in their country, it is because they see them as harmless – perhaps like provincial cuisines. But how laid back are they really? Mainland education and media policies seem to reflect a steady bias in favour of marginalizing ‘dialects’, discouraging the use of traditional characters and banning (when they were trendy) Hong Kong-Canto advertising slogans. Beijing, as the hub of the world’s last surviving empire, is careful to manage alien languages like Tibetan and Uighur, and doesn’t seem hugely upset by the imminent extinction of Manchu (whereas the British taxpayer has to subsidize Welsh and Gaelic radio stations). Hong Kong, meanwhile, hears more and more Mandarin in its tourist spots and public housing estates. This doesn’t mean China is determined to wipe Cantonese out, but it doesn’t mean the Vietnamese, Filipinos and other South China Sea neighbours can relax because ‘the Chinese are not hegemonic’.
To Cynthia Sze, presumably, this isn’t really the point. If I grasp her thinking correctly, the danger is that by allowing Hong Kong people to educate their kids in English to the exclusion of Chinese (training yellow people to be white?) we promote the vicious and predatory cultural expansion launched 1,500 years ago by those leather- and wool-clad Germanic tribesmen arriving in places later to be known as Sussex, Wessex and Middlesex (where ‘-sex’ means ‘Saxons’)…
Promotion of native English will render Hong Kong an accomplice in the hegemony of the English language.
I still think, as I mentioned about her ESF-phobia before, that there is something deeply personal in all this, perhaps resulting from some failure to access a prized place in an ESF school. But maybe, after all, she is just unhinged.
The SCMP wittily gave the last word to a confused onlooker…
Puzzled by opposition to English
As a non-native English speaker I am often baffled by the anti-English sentiments in some quarters of Asia’s world city. Furthermore it is fascinating to see that while English has an aura of “cool” to youngsters all over the world (including mainland China) this does not seem to be the case here. I foresee that in 10 years’ time the whole world will speak (a sort of) English except for one pocket in the southeast of China: Hong Kong.
Josephine Bersee, Mid-Levels
Cynthia Sze may have an ax to grind, or she is just a crackpot, but she certainly knows how to push your buttons.
I completely agree with Cynthia’s ignorance. English, the language, has ensured that Hong Kong remains competitive as ‘Asia’s world city’, especially given the increasing pace of Shanghai’s development as China’s new ‘financial hub’ and higher availability of international school places in countries like Singapore. I think it is a shame that local school English standards have dropped in recent years – because that means Hong Kong is yet another step closer to being a Mainland city.
A minor correction to your article though: the ‘vernacular Chinese’ that you referred to is Traditional Chinese (which is the official written Chinese language in HK). Mainlanders use Simplified Chinese.
A correction to you correction, Mr Pinsent. Vernacular Cantonese, even when written in simplified characters, is confusing and bemusing to Mainlanders, as it employs words, turns of phrase and constructions which don’t appear in Putonghua. That said, a lot of vernacular Cantonese is mostly spoken and rarely written down.
TFF is correct
Some vernacular Cantonese in fact often cannot be written down
When it is written down, some words/ phrases are written in literal Chinese ( does not matter whether traditional or simplified) but when read – or spoken – the native HK reader verbalises it completely differently .
As a very crude example ( made up for the purpose of illustration only ) : the phrase ” Log in at work ” might be actually written as ” get to the factory on time ”
As for this Cynthia Sze : I wonder at why the SCMP publishes such rubbish letters to the editor ( but then again I often wonder at the idiotic letters the SCMP publishes : sometimes by overseas readers on such trivial issues that no native HK- er would ever dream to reflect on , let alone comment on ) Yet, when I have written very serious letters to the SCMP on VERY serious issues, they have never been published
Welcome back, and my condolences on the passing of your mother – t’was a beautiful tribute indeed.
Cynthia: “English is the medium of instruction of many local schools. Local secondary graduates readily gain admission to native English-speaking universities overseas and satisfy their language requirements.”
SCMP: Sep 17th:
“English lessons failing pupils in many schools
Adrian Wan [email protected]
Many secondary schools are unprepared for the switch from teaching in Chinese to English in senior classes, threatening the city’s economic potential, scholars have warned….”
Agree with her point : “subsided places are occupied by selective non-residents who are not entitled to public subsidies.”