Few personal characteristics more closely define (or confuse) individual identity than accent. People are immediately categorised by others - positively, negatively but usually permanently - by this most fundamental of educational, national and social-class markers. As George Bernard Shaw shrewdly noted in his delightful play Pygmalion, "the moment an Englishman opens his mouth, another Englishman hates or despises him!" And so it largely remains in contemporary Hong Kong, across the ethnic spectrum.
Cut-glass English accents, along with a taste for Savile Row tailoring, certain drinks, pastimes and other outwardly Anglicised social indicators, reinforce the status that an earlier generation of Hong Kong Chinese craved, along with the full paraphernalia of knighthoods and medal ribbons that went with it. These outward linguistic and costume disguises characterised the "mimic men", as Trinidad-Indian novelist V.S. Naipaul, with caustic accuracy, described deeply insecure colonised people self-consciously cut adrift from their own culture yet not really part of the world they seek to emulate.
Generations of Hong Kong "mimic men" - and women - were disparagingly referred to as "honorary whiteys" (sometimes to their faces) by genuine members of the charmed circles they sought to enter. And like any over-eager imitation, these caricatures were, ultimately, unflattering to their originators.
Hong Kong's public and political life still offers examples; like ghosts from another time, these cultural throwbacks haunt the same old places, moaning spectrally in plummy public school voices about the state of a real world that has evolved and moved on without them.
An Americanised twang, however superficial, is contemporary Hong Kong's consciously acquired foreign accent of choice. "Bamboo American" was how Missouri-born author Emily Hahn tartly described the China Coast accent she noted in the 1930s. An astute, clear-eyed observer, both of herself and the world around her, Hahn noticed that she had picked the accent up herself after some years in China. She characterised "bamboo American" as being "slightly phony"; partly British, partly mid-Atlantic, partly something else hard to really define, "it comes of talking a lot with foreigners and enunciating clearly so they'll understand". Like the "bamboo" metaphor (in Chinese) applied over the generations to superficially Westernised Chinese, some sharp-but-telling truth resides in the observation; like the people the accent defined, "bamboo American" is hard, brittle and yellow on the outside, yet papery-white, and fundamentally hollow, just below the surface.
"Bamboo American" persists, with different usages, into the present day. Languages evolve over time, and their demotic use steadily changes as well, due to altered outside influences. Hollywood slang of the 30s, indiscriminately picked up from movies, has been replaced by the equally indiscriminate, monosyllabic "Valley Girl Speak". The disconcertingly dopey-sounding accent many youngsters - expat as well as local Chinese (when speaking English) - adopt is derived from 90s southern Californian youth culture.
Slavish adherence to outward form without much inner substance is a long-practised Hong Kong survival mechanism, and language is no exception. Inane grins and a muttered series of "Yeah! Uh-Huh! Right! Totally!" could well be helping to mask the fact that the person making these intelligent-sounding phatic noises hasn't really understood much of the conversation at all. Numerous broader metaphors about contemporary Hong Kong culture and society reside within this observation.