English is the prestige language in Hong Kong and manifests its hold on society in many ways. A local-born Chinese friend always speaks English in restaurants to browbeat the staff into giving us a good table, for example.

In Singapore, it's different. English is used as a common, neutral language by what is a very mixed population; its use is more utilitarian.

Here, long after the handover, the Chinese majority put English on such a pedestal that getting good school grades in it is almost the sole arbiter of being a "good student" and many parents send their children to classes solely to acquire the "right" accent. And then there's the ubiquitous "English" name, which no self-respecting Chinese Hongkonger can go through life without.

By way of a parallel, the sweeping Sinicisation of previous dynasties met with a reaction among the Xianbei ruling classes during the Northern Qi dynasty (550-577). The result was the re-emergence of the Xianbei language as the official tongue of northern China. Han Chinese who wanted government jobs had to adopt the language and the ways of their Xianbei rulers, just like the Chinese in pre-1997 Hong Kong. Chinese parents made their sons learn the Xianbei language and manners, and the pipa - a musical instrument from Central Asia - in the hope of breaking into Xianbei "high society".