Mr. Shangkong

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

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:28am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 11:29am

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