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Then & now: sign language in Hong Kong

Hand language used by the deaf in Hong Kong speaks volumes about society at large, writes Jason Wordie

 

Not so long ago, the blind, deaf and crippled were habitually treated (and usually mistreated) in Chinese society as objects of pitiful derision, it being believed that they had somehow brought their physical predicaments on themselves through past-life misdeeds.

Integration of the disabled into the wider community inevitably heralds societal progress. In this regard, Hong Kong has moved forward tremendously in recent decades. Nevertheless, politically correct, politely patronising language doesn't offer much practical help. As one friend recently remarked, "I wish people wouldn't say I'm hearing-impaired; my hearing isn't impaired - it's completely absent. Fact is, I'm stone f***ing deaf!"

Sign language has steadily evolved to meet the needs of the profoundly deaf. In any language, abstract concepts are difficult to express; hand signs, therefore, must be simple and universal enough for meanings to be quickly guessed at and comprehended. In Cantonese, national stereotypes form an amusing part of this evolution. The English are depicted by a stroke of the nose to indicate its large size; this, in turn, is a reference to the Cantonese dai bei - "big nose" - which connotes perceived arrogance. Americans are characterised by a forefinger pointed towards the temple and twirled rapidly to indicate craziness. But the sign used to refer to the Japanese is the bluntest of all - a foul, two-handed universal gesture that intimates copulation. Whether this refers to Japanese people's (reputedly) highly sexed nature or simply reflects age-old Chinese contempt for them is open to debate.

Place names often offer intriguing clues to the past. The hand sign for Jordan - a deftly depicted two-storey vessel - mimics the vehicular ferries that once crossed between there and Hong Kong Island. Admiralty is signalled by a bell-ringing gesture, in reference to its Chinese name, Kam Chung - "golden bell"; this, in turn, refers to the highly polished brass bell that hung at the entrance to the long-vanished Royal Naval Dockyard. Other signs approximate easily sketched out Chinese characters; Central (Chung Wan) translates as "middle circuit", with the first character, for "middle" - as in "Middle Kingdom", or China - being followed by a swirling, circular gesture to indicate "circuit", or " wan". Western (Sheung Wan) is the character for "upper" followed by the same circular motion. Kowloon City (Kowloon Shing) is signed by outlining crenellated barbicans; in earlier times any place known as a "shing" implied a walled, fortified structure. The same gesture is used for other localities (such as Hong Kong Island's Taikoo Shing) where the name is similar, irrespective of whether or not they were ever walled. Practicality and comprehension take priority over pedantic historical accuracy.

Hand language changes as circumstances evolve. Changing local food habits offer an excellent example. Milk, these days, is depicted by the imitation of a cow's horns followed by a quick sipping gesture; two generations ago, it was indicated by a quick breast-squeezing motion. This made perfect sense - until relatively recently, few Chinese drank cow's milk and regarded the practice as a revolting foreign custom that accounted (at least in part) for the bovine smelliness habitual to many Europeans and Indians, especially in hot weather. Now, however, breast-squeezing gestures are viewed as having implicitly sexual connotations among a younger, infant-formula-raised generation that does not automatically associate the human breast with its primary function of nourishing babies.

 

 

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