Is Hong Kong’s new equality chief guilty of intimidation? No, just bad English

Academic’s interpretation of a seemingly harmless email from the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission shows how paranoid the city has become

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 May, 2016, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 May, 2016, 4:14pm

After making some critical remarks on her Facebook account about Alfred Chan Cheung-ming, the newly appointed chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission, University of Hong Kong (HKU) associate professor Petula Ho Sik-ying received an email from Chan which she found “deeply disturbing”.

“I have been working closely with X, Y , Z [Ho’s HKU colleagues] and T [head of HKU’s Department of Social Work and Social Administration at which Ho teaches]. I hope they take me from a different perspective,” read the email.

That a seemingly harmless email like this could be perceived, by someone whose job is to be rational and to think critically, as an attempt to intimidate – I know your boss so you’d better shut up – gives an idea of how paranoid and fixated on witch-hunting our city has become.

All we know is that Chan embarrassed himself and the government by making such an elementary mistake in English

Hong Kong has been in the grip of fear for some time now. The most recent and dramatic demonstration of this fact is the movie Ten Years’ winning of Hong Kong’s 35th Best Film Award.

Hong Kong filmmakers used to have a knack for turning their desire to profit into what moviegoers wanted. That is, after all, what commercial cinema as mass entertainment is all about.

Ten Years, by contrast, is a movie too consumed with fear to give any thought to profit. In fact, it’s less a movie than a perfunctorily dramatised worst-case scenario of Hong Kong in 10 years’ time.

In 2025, the movie imagines, taxi drivers will be required by law to speak Putonghua while grocery store owners will be censured for selling “local eggs”. Under such circumstances, the only thing left to do for a social activist is burn himself in front of the British Embassy.

Voting it as the best film of the year is a clear endorsement of the new, self-imposed role of filmmaker as fear-monger. This spells trouble not just for the local film industry, but for the entire society. If the profit motive can’t even hold its ground in the usually profit-driven film industry, how can we expect people in the larger society to know which side their bread is buttered on?

But I digress. If Chan’s email is evidence of any guilt, if Chan himself is guilty of anything, it’s bad English. Is it too much to expect of a university’s chair professor to write “see me from a different perspective” instead of the grammatically unforgivable “take me from a different perspective”?

That an important person in the government is capable of writing like this is not only disappointing. It’s damaging to his credibility. The press release issued by the government announcing Chan’s appointment talks about Chan’s “clear vision, passion and commitment” and says that he possesses “good leadership, management and communication skills”.

The public can’t possibly know that for sure. All we know is that Chan embarrassed himself and the government by making such an elementary mistake in English. This kind of incompetence only fuels the widely shared perception that most high-ranking officials in the government have done nothing to deserve their big fat salaries.

Perry Lam is a local cultural critic