When Winnie, a Hong Kong manager, was planning to emigrate to the United States, she asked her American husband Tom whether she would be able to get congee over there. 'Sure,' he said. 'But congee's a Chinese word. We'd call it rice gruel in English.' 'No,' said Winnie. 'Congee is an English word. In Chinese, we call it juk. If it's gruel in English and juk in Chinese, what language is congee? They were baffled. A similar mystery surrounded the word catty (one catty is 1.333 pounds or 0.6 of a kilogram) which English speakers assume is Chinese and they in turn assume is English. Other 'in-between' words are 'coolie' and 'amah'. During the present period of heated debate over whether English or Chinese is the best language for education, let us take a trip through the history of fraternisation between the languages used in Hong Kong. The first dwellers here spoke Cantonese. But when Hong Kong became an international entrepot in the 1840s, the language of business was Pidgin, which consisted of English vocabulary, extended with words from Portuguese, Indian and Chinese, and assembled with Chinese syntax. This is almost incomprehensible to the modern English speaker. 'There's no food upstairs - tell the servant to bring the stuff up speedily or I'll give him 100,000 lashes' would be translated: 'No got chow-chow topside, you talkee foki bring chow chop-chop or Master give him one lakh whip.' At the same time, the Chinese spoken locally acquired many English words. Some were transliterated according to sound, such as saam mun jee for sandwich, ba see for bus and dik see for taxi. In other cases, words were specially coined, such as dihn wa (electric speech) for telephone. Pidgin gradually lost its Portuguese and Indian elements and became a type of simplified English which survived until recent days. A conversation between a European architect and his 70-year-old 'cook-boy' Ah-Wong was recorded by Eric Cumine in his 1981 book Hong Kong Ways and Byways, presumably having occurred in the 1970s. 'This is Mr Brown speaking.' 'Mr Brown no home.' 'I am telling you that I am Mr Brown.' 'My talk you Mr Brown no home.' 'You damn fool I am Mr Brown.' 'Damn fool you I talkee you Mr Brown no home. You damn fool you no talk English.' A few Portuguese elements lasted through much of this century. Ever wondered why Hong Kong characters in James Clavell novels (such as Noble House, set in the 1960s) constantly exclaim 'Joss'? What Clavell had heard was the Portuguese exclamation 'Dios' (God), slightly mispronounced. Until about 15 years ago, the word lakh (Hindi for 100,000) was widely used as a number in Hong Kong. Throughout Hong Kong's recorded history English has been dominant in schools, colleges, universities, law courts and the bulk of government offices. Only in 1974 was Chinese finally recognised as an official language in Hong Kong. A new ordinance said: 'Both languages possess equal status and enjoy equality of use for the purposes of communication between the Government and members of the public.' But it was only as recently as 1989 that the Hong Kong Government started issuing laws in both languages. In 1994 it was noticed that only about 70 out of Hong Kong's 400 schools taught in Chinese. Principals were advised to switch to Chinese. Then, in 1997, schools were told they would be forced to switch to Chinese unless they were on a list of 100 schools which were exempt. The announcement was badly received, and protesters forced the Government to extend the list. Meanwhile, English and Cantonese have inbred. Recent assimilations into Cantonese include ga fey for coffee and lip for lift. Coffee without milk is known as tsai fey, literally 'vegetarian coffee'. The written Chinese word for 'dollar' is yuan, but Hong Kongers prefer the more colloquial mun, derived from the English word money. English acquired tycoon and typhoon from Chinese. 'Long time no see', a phrase widely used in English, appears to be a direct translation of the Cantonese Ho loi mm-geen. Most of the mysterious in-between words used in Hong Kong today are traceable to the Indian community. Congee is the Hindi kanji. Catty, coolie, nullah and the paddy of 'rice paddy' are also Indian. 'Amah', for domestic helper, is the Portuguese word for nurse. One remnant of Pidgin is still widely used. The term 'chopsticks' is derived from chop-chop (Pidgin for 'fast') sticks (Cantonese fai tsee). From September this year, three out of four Hong Kong schools will start to teach in Cantonese, and the standard of English is expected to suffer. Meanwhile, many professional groups from Hong Kong have been making exploratory pilgrimages to Beijing. The Cantonese-speaking groups, finding themselves unable to converse with their Putonghua-speaking counterparts, generally find there is only one workable solution. They hold their meetings in English.