Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Words of warning: mind your language

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 April, 2009, 12:00am

If there is ever a lesson to be learned from the war of words, created by HK Magazine columnist Chip Tsao, it is: never underestimate the power of words. In his intended satirical portrayal of the arrogant attitude of employers of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, Tsao hit a raw nerve with the Filipino community here and abroad with his reckless usage of language. To redeem himself, Tsao decided to give English lessons in an interview for the On a Clear Day Commercial Radio programme.

Apparently, he believed that the problem was readers' misunderstanding of 'satire', 'self-mockery' and 'servant'. When asked how he felt about the uproar, Tsao replied that it was 'no big deal', adding that he also hoped this controversy would make people more interested in learning the English language.

Hello? Is he serious? Or is he the one who is ignorant - clearly missing the point? In what has been coined the ''nation of servants' controversy', his haphazard use of words and literary devices has started a feud across the globe. Whether he was poking fun at Hongkongers or mainland Chinese authorities, he crossed the line by doing so at the expense of others' ethnicity and national identity. He failed miserably in communicating what he claimed to be his intended message - arrogant attitudes of employers and the plight of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong - since the piece was no 'great awakening' for employers, and the Spratly Islands is hardly a catalyst for change for conditions of employment.

And his reaction proves his arrogance and disconnect to the consequences of his bad jokes in poor taste, and the feelings of those who were the butt of them.

Netizens have gone wild, retaliating over what they feel is an insult to Filipinos and reciprocating with damning words not only for Tsao but for Hongkongers and anyone Chinese. Whether his words were taken out of context is not the point: offence was taken and injury caused. He can't walk away from the anger and hate his words generated.

Tsao may feel vindicated by pointing out that 'servant' does not carry negative connotations and it may help his case to point out that he debased Chinese as 'peasants', but it does little to curb the fury. Tsao's experience may help keep free speech in perspective. Race is a delicate issue locally, as elsewhere. Free speech does not guarantee the right to irresponsibly deride others.

Likewise, our legislature, which has become a gladiator pit for some in a contest of verbal abuse and pointless spats, has halted discussion of real issues that have an impact on real life, in the name of free speech.

Many people take offence at the spiteful language employed by the League of Social Democrats lawmakers. Aimed to insult, cause humiliation and demean, the verbal assaults that have dominated local politics have accomplished nothing in regard to the work of the legislature. Offensive expressions have no place in public discourse and public figures have a responsibility to keep such words out of public life.

Words - their sound, feel and nuance - are powerful. They can inspire the very best and the worst in us. Tossed around carelessly, they can mislead and offend. Manipulated, they can warp realities. Used in disrespect, language breeds prejudice, anger, hate and retaliation.

And when hateful words take on a prominent place in our social consciousness, whether through political showgrounds or media outlets, they can sustain ideas of intolerance and stereotyping. Language aimed at wounding reinforces discriminatory societal perceptions and, ultimately, hampers individual free will and thought.

History tells us that it is often the little incidents that produce big wars. The grave consequences of misunderstandings, however small, take a tremendous amount of time and effort to right.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA