Language matters

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.


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11 Responses to Language matters

  1. Old Timer says:

    In Discovery Bay we have one Peter Lau representing Regina and the the NPP, and exhorting voters to “Discover the Better.” And he’s a franchisee for Dymocks.

  2. maugrim says:

    The reason that the Government under Tung changed the MOI requirement that not all schools could use English as their medium of instruction was simply because most schools, their teachers and students are incapable of teaching/learning using that toungue owing to their weak foundation. Thus the move by the present Government to allow more schools to use English only ensures that a greater level of Chinglish ends up being used, hardly improving the situation at all.

  3. Real Tax Payer says:

    It’s encouraging that there are so many young people vying for these DC seats regardless of the language of their election material.

    I personally know two district councilors . One is Stephen Chan Chit-Kwai ( C & W : A05 – University) who is one of the most hard-working, honest , intelligent and dedicated people I have ever known, who consistently wins hands down. He is affiliated to no particular party : rather- he just wants to do the best for his district. If Donald Tsang had a few people like Stephen Chan in Exco and Legco our little world would be a much better-governed place. The other is the husband of a friend . But in both cases they said that the DC work takes up an enormous amount of their personal time, so it’s no mean task if one wins

    Seems Hemlock lives in C&W sub-district A02 – Mid-levels East from the candidates he refers to

    Rather amusingly – if you check the govt website which introduces the candidates you will find that Longhair actually writes his name ( sic) ” Leung Kwok-Hung(longhair) “

  4. Plod says:

    Think the SCMP ranter about election blurb lived in Tsuen Wan. Smacked of an ‘everyone else should go out of their way for my benefit’ attitude. Have to agree that a couple of lines only in English just to acknowledge my existence is more than enough to satisfy me.

  5. Joe Blow says:

    He must be one of those degree-holding members that the NPP is so proud of.

  6. isomoliu says:

    Hemmers, you must have wandered off from Escalator Land. Candidate 1 is not your candidate. She’s in A01.

  7. Allen Pinsent says:

    Hemlock really captures the large English gap that exists in Hong Kong. I am often amazed by the pitch-perfect English spoken by some locally-born Hongkongers at the international firms/ESF schools and also shocked at the declining standard of English of most local university graduates.

    Sadly, the huge gap English proficiency in HK reflects the growing class divide in this city.

  8. hkterrence says:

    Absolutely correct about English in schools. The game is rigged,man.

  9. Stephen says:

    When the candidates wheel out their big guns in my district its always Jasper Tsang who gives me a ‘good morning’ flashing me that sinister toothy smile of his – I know he probably wants me on the next flight permanently out and he knows that no sane gweilo is going to vote DAB. The rest blank me.

    Same goes with the phone calls – “Can anyone in the household speak Cantonese” “No” , “Sorry” , hang up. If they get past the door Gestapo and ring my bell there is always apologies and the candidate moves on without muttering one word of their manifesto.

    However will that change this DC election now that P. Zimmermann managed to sneak in under the nose of Queen Regina ?

  10. Cerebos says:

    stop press! Stanley & Shek O’s (Southern, D17) very own Young Turk has just sent out an English language manifesto that runs to two pages. First time I’ve ever received something in the godly tongue from a DC. How the world changes.

    Unfortunately he’s running on the Liberal ticket [complete with ringing and lengthy endorsement from Miriam Lau Lau King Yee, GBS (gulp) , JP, Chairman of the Liberal Party] so wizened ineffective crone Chan Lee Pui Ying gets the vote. Again!

  11. Walter De Havilland says:

    The Liberal Party candidate is my area has given us a lengthy story (in English) about when he was a kid giving his pocket money to beggars instead of buying ice-cream or going to the cinema. On the basis of this he wants me to vote for him!

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