Foul language in Hong Kong: it’s not what you say but how you say it
Luisa Tam says it’s a bit rich for the police, who are notorious for their foul mouths, to push for criminalisation of insults against officers, and that obscenities do not always come with ill intent or hostility
I don’t know about you, but I have yet to meet someone who has not uttered a swear word in their life. If you’ve lived in Hong Kong for any stretch of time, you are probably used to hearing casual curse words in daily conversations among the locals. Cantonese profanities, while distinctly unsavoury and unapologetically rude, are also very colourful and entertaining at times.
It would be fair to say that on most occasions no one would even bat an eye at the interjection of an expletive here and there in everyday conversation.
At the first newspaper I worked for more than three decades ago, swearing was second nature to the majority of journalists and my news editor was one of the most foul-mouthed individuals I had ever met. To my utter surprise, swearing was not just a way to vent his anger and frustration at work, but he would customarily greet people with a stream of expletives. In his personal vernacular, swear words were akin to friendly forms of address such as “mate” or “pal”.
Hong Kong’s police chief recently raised a few eyebrows when he said he would support a move to criminalise insults against police officers during the course of their duty. Although this may not sound significant, the announcement coincided with a Baptist University debacle in which the student leader of a protesting cohort landed himself in hot water after swearing at a female lecturer during their demonstration over the university’s Mandarin language assessment. That student has since been suspended, pending the outcome of an inquiry.
The police chief is not the first to campaign for the outlawing of swearing in Hong Kong. In 2006 a district councillor launched an effort to make it a criminal offence for people to make rude references to people’s mothers by swearing. She wanted legislation to ban swearing in public and make it punishable by fines. Naturally, her campaign was not a successful one.
People always associate swearing with anger or frustration, but some people and some cultures use it as a means to connect with others.
In the early 1990s, I had the opportunity to meet media mogul Rupert Murdoch when this newspaper was owned by him. He came to visit the offices in Quarry Bay and spent some time on the news floor. One of our Australian colleagues was assigned to provide a guided tour for Murdoch. At the end of the uneventful walkabout came the photo opportunity, and this colleague casually dropped an F-bomb when instructing people how to line up for the photo. We all froze for a few seconds before Murdoch responded with a smile – in case you’re wondering, the outspoken journalist did not get the sack.
If you go down to any local teahouse in Mong Kok or Sham Shui Po, swear words permeate the air as much as pollutants choke up the atmosphere.
Some say swearing is a generational thing; young people in Hong Kong tend to have a more free-for-all attitude and find no curse words to be taboo, while older people tend to be more conservative and reluctant to resort to verbal insults. Again, go down to any of those teahouses and see for yourself.
My point is this: sometimes it’s not so much about the words you say, but how you say them. The words may be hostile but the tone can be playful and casual to dampen the impact. Obviously that is not a free pass to use any swear word, as some are still deemed unacceptable, especially in the presence of women and children.
There are many people who dislike swearing or hearing others swear, but there are also people who consider it a natural feature of their vernacular and who feel curse words are a more adequate way to express themselves.
Sometimes, swearing can even be acceptable when it is used to describe a situation rather than a person, provided the words are not offensive or obscene.
Police officers are notorious for swearing anyway, so it does look a bit out of character for the police chief to push for a ban and punish the public for swearing at them. The root of the problem is not so much about the words hurled at them; rather, it’s the intention behind using such words against a person and the reasons for the hostility and spitefulness. To use a familiar adage, “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” Over to you, chief.
Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post