Fans of Pierce Lam, the South China Morning Post letter-writer with a deep loathing of the role of the English language in Hong Kong have the chance to meet him in person – almost – courtesy of yesterday’s RTHK Backchat talk show (archived here and here). He appears to be a bit older than expected; his English, as the letters suggest, is strong, if of the thick-accented variety common among Hongkongers who learnt it from books and local teachers.
While the letters make him sound xenophobic and determined to eradicate the tongue of Shakespeare planet-wide, he is more moderate in real life, agreeing with fellow guest and SCMP-ranter Peter Lok’s pragmatic view that English is essential to some and irrelevant to others in this city. Sadly, the RTHK presenters are too polite to probe the psychological origins of Lam’s hang-up about English and schools, though he offers a clue in the show when he laments the way students are made to feel worthless if they fail to do well in the subject.
My theory is that this is about the yawning gap between the career prospects of Hong Kong’s Western- or elite-educated few versus those of the mass of local kids condemned to rote-learning and poor English. The former have entrenched themselves in all the good jobs and positions of power, and they use English (and the wider culture it comes with) to exclude the rest. By forcing everyone else’s kids to attend standard local schools, the civil servants (and pro-establishment business class) ensure that their own offspring will not have to face so much competition later in life. In short: making kids with poor English feel worthless is the intention. It is oligarchy that Lam should be picking on.
Other recent letters on language in the SCMP complain that candidates in forthcoming District Council elections distribute their literature in Chinese only. This is borne out by youthful candidates 1, 2 and 3 in my own neighbourhood, who have just launched their campaigns…
Candidate 1’s banners mention her name in English – Wai Pui Shuen – announce that she is a solicitor, and even contain a string of warm and fuzzy slogans of the sort that would suggest ‘closet-DAB’ were they in Chinese only (most pro-Beijing types in this area run as ‘independents’).
Candidate 2 sent me an all-Chinese leaflet stuck together with tape in such a way that it could only be opened mutilated. Thanks to my linguistic gifts, I can read her family name ‘Chan’ and work out that she is into Mid-Levels light bus services and pedestrian safety, plus something about the law and buildings.
Candidate 3 is one Wilheim Tang Wai-chung, who lists his credentials (BA (Hons), PgDE, LL.B undergrad) and membership of an unhealthy number of committees in English. A quick glance at the all-Chinese blurb on the back reveals an interest in the 40M bus route and Central Market, plus what must be standard Democratic Party platform. We will be hearing more of him, I suspect.
If we check out Chart 8.1 of the ever-fascinating 2006 Population By-census Thematic Report on Ethnic Minorities, we find that only in three districts (Wanchai, Central & Western and Islands) do non-Chinese account for over 10% of the population. Elsewhere, the report shows that nearly 60% of minorities in Hong Kong are Filipino or Indonesian, most of whom are not voters. If half of the 15% who are South Asian, 10% who are white and all the rest are qualified to vote, then non-Chinese voters would represent roughly 2% of the total in my (fairly barbarian-infested) District.
So candidates are probably being perfectly rational in dedicating all or virtually all of the space on their brochures to the Chinese-reading audience (even allowing for the fact that some ethnic Chinese read only English). If one candidate had known in advance that all her rivals were going to ignore the English-reading electorate, it might make sense for her to insert a little slip in the mailings addressed to ‘Dear English-speaking residents…’ to try and grab the whole of that 2%. Otherwise it’s hardly worth the bother. And it’s not as if anyone – apart from a few SCMP letter-writers – wants to read the stuff anyway.