Myth of the bilingual Hongkonger

Richard Sheung sees complementary roles for English, Cantonese skills

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 June, 2014, 1:34pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 June, 2014, 3:19am

It is not without irony that English, or its avoidance and abuse, has been the cause of controversy recently.

First, the president of the Law Society, Ambrose Lam San-keung, flatly refused to oblige a reporter with a sound bite in English at a press conference. He was criticised for his lack of consideration, with some even calling into question his English language skills.

Then, there was lawmaker Christopher Chung Shu-kun, giving the American chief executive of the MTR Corporation a dressing-down in his broken English at the Legislative Council.

Chung's outburst, as much as Lam's silence, apparently touched a raw nerve with Hongkongers. Can both episodes be revealing of our love-hate relationship with English, and the gaps between our self-identity and reality?

Many of us were hurt, outraged even, because we thought we could and should do better. As an aspiring world city, we take unabashed pride in our colonial heritage and bilingual cosmopolitanism. If not every Hongkonger, then certainly those who are in positions of authority ought to be capable bilingual communicators.

Nonetheless, precisely because English has been a colonial language, an international education, though always at considerable public expense, was primarily for the benefit of expatriate children - never meant for anyone who wanted it. English was taught reasonably well only at the best local schools, and the most gifted students who have benefited have gone on to serve Hong Kong well.

In large part, however, the international face of Hong Kong has been built on the "bilingualism" of its colonial administrators and their top Chinese aides, each speaking mainly in their mother tongue.

It is easy to decry the avoidance or abuse of English, blaming misguided nativism, or "falling standards" since the British left. But the use of English as the first official language actually requires competencies that might be fine for its native speakers but not easily found among the Chinese, even in colonial Hong Kong.

The city is more known for being a homogeneous Cantonese speech community than any thoroughly anglicised one. English is not a language of choice for most locals in oral communication, except maybe to show off occasionally.

The interpretation service, available in Legco, should have helped to make Chung more easily understood. Indeed, simultaneous interpretation services can be usefully tapped for public events. It may make more sense for Hong Kong to be bilingual to the world through competent translation than continue with the myth of everyone being happily bilingual when, in reality, there is widespread reluctance to use our adopted language.

But the Hong Kong "international face" as we know it will wither if English continues to be either avoided or abused. The "bilingual" requirement of all senior appointments effectively disqualifies all but the locally educated with a good but not entirely confident command of English, although it is the first working language in government, academia and the professions.

Isn't it about time the rules were relaxed to make our city more inclusive and welcoming to international talent, who may be hired to fill senior positions? Together we can complement each other, linguistically and culturally, and remodel Hong Kong as the cosmopolitan city that it can be - free of the shadow of British colonialism.

Richard Sheung was a translator with the Hong Kong government before the handover. He teaches in the Department of Chinese, Translation and Linguistics at City University of Hong Kong