Just mind your language in politically divided Hong Kong

Criticism of by-election hopeful for her poor English defines the line separating rival political camps 20 years after the end of British colonialism

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 January, 2018, 1:32am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 January, 2018, 1:32am

Twenty years after the end of British colonialism, who would have guessed the ability to speak proper English can still be a contentious issue in a Legislative Council election?

This week, New People’s Party’s Judy Chan Ka-pui, a contender in the March by-election for the Hong Kong Island seat, was blasted for speaking English poorly in front of reporters, leading to questions being raised online about whether she really had lived overseas and attended a foreign university.

Apple Daily, which is rooting for election rival Agnes Chow Ting of the localist party Demosisto, has produced a video clip juxtaposing Chan’s bungled reply in English to a reporter and Chow’s more articulate responses in an English-language TV programme on current affairs.

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Chan pretty much stuttered through her reply: “I think umm Hong Kong … We are losing our compet … compet … tivety,” she said. “Hong Kong used to be umm very competitive umm among all the Asia cities. And umm we are losing that. And I’m hoping that Hong Kong will gain the strength again.”

Chow was much more fluent on TV while explaining why she thought it was better to live with the status quo and reject the restrictive framework for universal suffrage imposed by Beijing. Then again, Chan was asked to make an off-the-cuff reply but Chow had time to prepare for her TV appearance.

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And while Chow clearly showed an excellent grasp of English syntax, Chan’s pronunciation was closer to native quality. Online scepticism notwithstanding, you would probably guess that Chan had lived and studied or worked in an English-speaking community while Chow learned the language in a non-English environment like Hong Kong.

Apple Daily reporters and online sceptics were less interested in the candidates’ English standards than insinuating that Chan might have faked her university degree from Australia, from her supposedly poor language ability.

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This has led Chan to post a video clip on her Facebook page to show her diploma for a business degree in marketing from Monash University and her Australian student card, adding she was nervous at the time.

In a politically divided city, even languages may serve as a dividing line. The pro-establishment bloc most values one’s ability to speak proper Mandarin, the language of their masters up North. Members of the opposition clearly prefer English as part of the “superior” Anglo-Saxon culture and the common language of their Western supporters.