HONG KONG: Speaking English might be a waste of time for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, but that definitely isn’t the case for Hong Kong actress Stephy Tang who was recently awarded the Screen International Rising Star Asia Award at the New York Asia Film Festival.
At the award ceremony in the Big Apple, Tang gave a speech in English, and media in her home city gave her a big thumbs up for the dramatic improvement in her spoken language skills.
I am particularly happy for Tang, because nearly a decade ago I conducted an interview with her that accidentally made her spoken English a subject of ridicule.
NOT MANY SPEAK THE OFFICIAL LANGUAGE
I was reporting at the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong, collaring celebrities to speak to the camera in English. Many avoided speaking English to the press due to a lack of confidence in their language skills.
Tang, striding down the red carpet with singer-songwriter Justin Lo, approached our camera. Initially I planned to only ask Lo questions, knowing his time in the US would have left him confident in English.
But after answering my questions, he unexpectedly passed the microphone to Tang. She braved the chance and took a couple of simple questions. I was impressed.
Although English is an official language of the city, it is already hard to find Hongkongers with the courage to speak English, let alone on camera. Tang made an effort, setting a positive example.
The video went viral, with one unofficial clip attracting more than one million views. Tang’s broken English made her a laughing stock, and landed her on the cover of some gossip magazines. I had never felt so awful for an interviewee. Humilitating her was never my intention.
Despite her misfortune, however, Tang showed a far better attitude a decade ago than Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, did earlier this month.
At a regular media conference, the impatient Chief Executive said she was “sick of wasting time” answering in English because she already said everything she wanted to in Cantonese, the lingua franca of Hong Kong. Lam suggested using simultaneous translation in future to entertain the English press.
The statement caused a huge backlash. Many accused Lam of not only disrespecting English-language media but also sidelining one of the city’s official languages. Some questioned if she would make the same statement about questions asked in Mandarin, the language spoken in mainland China.
Lam’s impatience got on the nerves of Hong Kong people, who worry about the future of their cultural identity amid China’s growing control over the city’s affairs.
LANGUAGE AND CULTURAL IDENTITY
Hong Kong inherited the English language from its British colonisers, which sets it apart from many cities in Asia.
While Hong Kong may be a Chinese city at its core, the English language brought opportunities that allowed the city to thrive internationally in the 1980s and 1990s. It was also a point of pride.
Hongkongers, unlike their mainland counterparts, felt they had a language bridge to the rest of the world.
But in 1997 Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China. Since then, China has grown to become the world’s second largest economy, and Hong Kong has been leaning towards the mainland both politically and economically.
As Beijing tightens its grip on Hong Kong’s politics, particularly the pro-democracy movement and so-called separatists, many pragmatic Hongkongers are more likely to see China as the future, rushing north of the border in the hope of making big bucks.
Nevertheless, many Hongkongers, particularly the younger generation, do not show allegiance towards Beijing even after two decades of Chinese rule. The Hong Kong government has felt pushback on proposed measures that would please Beijing.
One example was the introduction of the national education curriculum in 2012, later abandoned in the face of strong opposition led by student protester Joshua Wong.
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Another was the controversy over the use of Mandarin instead of Cantonese as a medium of instruction for Chinese language classes in schools.
Such moves are seen as tactics to turn Hong Kong into a “real” Chinese city such as Guangzhou, where the young generation has been encouraged to ditch their Cantonese tradition in favour of Mandarin.
Witnessing such changes, Hongkongers are particularly wary about the potential loss of their cultural identity, in which both Cantonese and English play a large part. These worries were depicted in the award-winning dystopian film Ten Years (2015), which was heavily criticised and banned in mainland China.
Lam’s statement provoked concerns over Hong Kong’s language politics. Was the city’s leader making yet another move to please Beijing, or testing the Hong Kong people’s bottom line?
The huge uproar forced her to issue a late-night apology clarifying the government’s stance on the status of the English language. The following day, reporters wasted no time trolling Lam, asking her questions only in English, to which she did not respond.
To Tang, brushing up her spoken English was certainly not a waste of time. She has expressed her wish to further her acting career in Hollywood.
Being able to speak English fluently will open new, global doors to her acting career that will make Hong Kong proud. She sets a perfect example not only for Lam but also all Hongkongers who eye the economic benefits on mainland China.
Vivienne Chow is a Hong Kong-based journalist and founding director of non-profit educational initiative Cultural Journalism Campus. A version of this commentary first appeared on Lowy Institute's The Interpreter. Read it here.