Chinglish takes shape

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 March, 2007, 12:00am

When it comes to speaking English, Hong Kong students have been known to conjure up the liveliest of expressions.

If a student wants to make sure his friends won't stand him up before a get-together, it wouldn't be unusual for him to say, 'Don't fly me aeroplane'.

English teachers often frown upon the use of Chinglish, a blend of English and Cantonese in which phrases of one language are poorly translated into the other and words are combined or mispronounced.

But a group of artists are defying tradition by saying that Chinglish, rather than being a bastardisation of either or both languages, should be revered as part of our collective memory.

Chinglish - Hong Kong Art Exhibition, now on at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, features two-dimensional graphics, 3D installations and interactive exhibits that explore language and literacy.

Puk Yuk-chun's English in Chinese is a highlight. A display of English words and their Cantonese equivalents, the work shows the artist's keen observation of indigenous Cantonese culture.

'Miss Puk's work reveals the ambiguities of the local dialect . . . saying it is neither fully Chinese nor English is perhaps a better description,' said Eve Tam Mei-yee, the museum's curator of modern art.

Language is an important part of local culture, and popular idiomatic words and expressions can often reflect the collective personality of a people.

'The artwork was made in 1999 when locals were still torn between their dual political and cultural identities after the handover. The artist wanted to convey a sense of listlessness among the people at the time,' said Ms Tam.

Also on show at the exhibition are works by ceramic artist Rosanna Li, Tsang Kin-wah, Luke Ching Chin-wai, Hung Keung and Wong Chung-yu - all award winners and artists selected to take part in past Hong Kong Art Biennials.

Much of their work in this exhibition features wordplay involving Cantonese and English.

Rosanna Li's Man Wanted: Work within the Words is a collection of ceramic figurines through which the artist expresses what she describes as the 'inherent ludicrousness' of some words.

Two of the figurines are sumo wrestlers in loin cloths which Li says are the pictorial equivalent of the word 'menstruation'.

'The appearance of the word 'men' in 'menstruation' and 'menopause' is amusing as the two female biological processes have nothing to do with men,' said Li.

Li likes to explore the hidden cultural meaning behind words. 'Plenty of fun can be found in words, especially Chinese characters which are a combination of hieroglyphic symbols. Take the Chinese word 'nau' which means 'anger'. Made up of three characters, two for men, one for women, the word reveals how ancient Chinese viewed the relationship between the sexes,' said Li.

Another visually striking work is Untitled - Hong Kong by Tsang Kin-wah. The installation work is a softly-lit and spacious room plastered with Victorian-style blue wallpaper.

At first, viewers enjoy the relaxing atmosphere inside the room, but when they look closer, they discover that the circular patterns on the wallpaper are in fact made from English and Cantonese expletives.

'Upon close inspection of the obscene words on the wall, the visitors couldn't be more surprised. By creating such a visual contrast with words, the artist wants to explore how powerful language can be in affecting human emotions,' said Ms Tam.

Chinglish - Hong Kong Art Exhibition

Now on at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui until June 3. Admission is HK$5 for students; free on Wednesdays