• Wed
  • Dec 24, 2014
  • Updated: 7:54pm
Mr. Shangkong
PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:28am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 11:29am

Fluency in Chinglish doesn't count as World City yardstick

HK may have the vibe, but it lacks the verbs - at least in the right place - and that's why English slide must be fixed if it is to be a true global centre


George Chen is the Financial Editor and Mr. Shangkong Columnist at the South China Morning Post. George has covered China's political and economic changes since 2002. George is the author of two books -- This is Hong Kong I Know (2014) and Foreign Banks in China (2011). George has been named a 2014 Yale World Fellow. More about George: www.mrshangkong.com

Before I start to tell you two stories, let me ask you a question: In general, do you feel English-language skills of Hong Kong people are increasing or declining since the 1997 handover?

The question popped up in my mind when I came across two real-life experiences in Hong Kong, whose official slogan is "Asia's World City", indicating how global Hong Kong can be. And one of the global elements is certainly how easy it is for foreigners, mostly English-speaking residents or visitors, to communicate with the society.

The first story was my personal experience. Recently I did some holiday shopping in Causeway Bay and I noticed there were many flags alongside several streets in the shopping district that all carried two big words and a shop's logo - "Now opened".

Now opened? How weird it sounds, I asked myself. English is not my first language but I remember my primary school teacher told me the difference between these example sentences - such as "the package is opened" and "the shop is open" in the case of the usage of the word open as verb or adjective.

Typically, when a new shop tries to declare to its neighbourhood and customers that it is ready for business, it will say "now open" or sometimes "now opening" in its advertising posters. But "Now opened"? Just a new kind of Hong Kong-Chinese-English?

I mentioned my "now open" experience to a retired Hong Kong teacher who taught English and history for decades. To my surprise, Virginia Ho, the local retired teacher, quickly began to share her personal experience with me - also about the fast-increasing English problems she spotted in the city.

Ho recently went to a branch of Hang Seng Bank, a local subsidiary of British bank HSBC, and she noticed the bank put up a notice in English near its automated teller machines. The notice said in English: "In avoidance of congestion, could customers please queue up?"

Does this sound as weird as "Now opened" to you, my readers? At least Ho found it didn't read as natural English.

"I thought better English should be: 'to avoid congestion, customers please queue up'. So I went into the bank and found a staff member to tell him about the matter, Ho said.

"He replied: 'Oh, I have returned from Australia. I think it (the notice) has no grammatical mistake. If I can understand, I believe others will understand too'," Ho said.

Apparently the Hang Seng Bank employee's comments didn't satisfy the teacher, so she wrote a formal complaint to the bank and there has been no feedback after several weeks.

Last month, a ranking of 60 countries and territories found the English-language skills of Hong Kong's adults had slumped to the level of South Korea, Indonesia, and Japan. Experts put the blame partly on the switch from teaching mainly in English to mainly in Chinese since the handover.

If you don't trust those academic studies or rankings, then tell me how you personally feel about the English level in the Asia's World City? I look forward to your emails - in proper English, or in proper Chinese - but definitely not in what some people call Chinglish or perhaps Honglish.


George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit facebook.com/mrshangkong


For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

As a native English speaker, I've come to believe that Hong Kongers nitpick one another's English grammar mainly as a form of status competition. English standards in HK are just fine.
The English level in HK is not perfect, but very good for an Asian country and miles above anywhere else in China. Let's not compare it to Singapore, where English is the OFFICIAL language of the nation - English in HK is a secondary language while Cantonese remains the main method of communication, and for a secondary language, it serves its purposes decently. There would not be so many expats living in HK if the English level here was not well above average.
HKers and mainlanders alike love promoting their English superiority as a status symbol. This very article, which isn't exactly written in perfect English either, proves this.
"Now opened? How weird it sounds, I asked myself." is a fairly stunning example of the declining standard of English among those who consider themselves fluent.
I agree with honkiepanky though; Hong Kongers DO pick on one anothers' grammar as a way to elevate themselves above the rest.
Let us not kid ourselves. The critical issue in Hong Kong isn't the decline in English grammar. It's the reluctance of the post-80's and 90's to even engage in English at all. Tung Chee Hwa's mother tongue education reforms have been a crippling blow to Hong Kong's long term competitiveness, and any attempt to promote Hong Kong as some sort of capitol of globalization is ridiculous.
Many years ago I attended a seminar by Professor Michael Halliday or M.A.K. Halliday (a well-known linguist) about English being an International language. He explained that one reason why English has become the most important International language is due to the leniency of English speakers (English being their first language/mother tongue). Most English speakers are just happy that someone can communicate in English regardless of whether they speak broken English, grammatically incorrect English or very good English.
Hong Kong is not an English-speaking city. Also, Hong Kong doesn't need English as a lingua franca like Singapore. Honestly, many Chinese people / Hongkongers can't even get their mother tongue / Chinese language right! So, we can't really expect them to speak / use English like educated natural English speakers!
You are hereby fined $500 for using "Hong Kong" and "World City" in the same sentence.
Actual enforcement of the fine will be ambiguous for now as we follow the precedent set by HK Traffic Police.
Don't know you talk about what. English is no problems in this world city.
I don't think it's a serious issue. It's only an issue in the eyes of those HK Chinese who are fortunate enough to have acquired a high level of English proficiency and now feel, in some way, superior to their fellow citizens. Methinks they are just 'snobs'.
George Chen :
You can discuss about English fluency until the cow comes home, nothing will change until people are actually using the language on a daily basis, and this will never happen in the case of HK because people are simply not doing that. For any language, if you don't use it, you lose it.
Most front line people 7/11, fast food etc., in Hong Kong can effectively communicate in English. I agree with others that most Hongkongers who aren't fluent in Cantonese are happy to see a sign written in English or to have someone explain something in less than grammatically correct English.
English is one of 2 official languages if you read the official language ordinance.




SCMP.com Account