What does being a “Hong Konger” mean? As a special administrative region of China, with a history of British colonialism, Hong Kong contains a lot of cultural diversity within her boundaries. Hong Kong culture is neither homogeneous nor easy to generalize. Vanishing traditional industries, complaints of “white-washed”, profit-driven cultural events, and frequent removal of artworks from public spaces by the government have contributed to the weak sense of shared culture in the city. Perhaps the sole symbol that unifies the inhabitants of Hong Kong is the “Lion Rock spirit” – a term that expresses perseverance and solidarity.
What about language, a tool that shapes perceptions and worldviews? Is that a gatekeeper of Hong Kong culture? If one does not speak Cantonese, is he or she a Hong Konger? The following feature is a culmination of an open conversation with three “Hong Kongers”, all of whom are ethnically Chinese, spent the majority of their life in Hong Kong, yet profess to speak English better than Cantonese. It hindered communication with extended family, and affected exchange in a learning environment. Although faced with a rather elusive cultural identity, they recognize the beauty of it, of being truly globalized Hong Kong kids, who experience the “interconnectedness of all cultures”, as one puts it.
What is it like to be an HK KID?
“Hey! Get your man” said Justin to his teammate that was ball-watching. It was a 3-on-3, at a public basketball court in Tung Chung. Not guarding the opposing team’s player allowed them to easily slide through and get a bucket. His teammate retorted, “屌你啊，唔好扮哂野。識講英文就大哂，識講中文就講中文”, which translates as “Fuck you! Stop pretending that you are better by speaking English. Speak Chinese if you can know how to speak Chinese.”
Take a look at Justin Chung and Arianna Chan taking the Hong Kong Pop Quiz.
A second-year law major at the City University of Hong Kong, Justin Chung gets “a lot of flak” for not being fluent in Cantonese. After moving to Hong Kong from Canada at the age of 6, Chung attended an international school, a “bubble” in Hong Kong, as he describes. “I learned more Chinese in my two years at CityU than my whole time in Hong Kong”, he says. English, the language used with his family, is his first language and often slips out in the heat of the moment, especially when playing basketball. “Some people just think that you’re being pretentious, that you think you’re superior because you speak English”.
Neither “ABCs”, third-culture kids”, nor foreign expats, Justin falls into a category that has yet to be named, or researched. He is ethnically Chinese, lives in Hong Kong, but considers English as his first language. Despite the occasional friction experienced when he is with a “more local” crowd, and the mocking he received at larger family gatherings, Chung insists that he “doesn’t care enough to be traumatized.”
The language issue can pose practical difficulties for such youth in Hong Kong. 19-year old Stanley Chiu, who attended the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) for a semester relates to Justin’s experience. “做咩做 ABC?” meaning “Why are you trying to be an American-born-Chinese” is often said in response to him when he uses English. Although the HKAPA is registered as an English Medium of Instruction (EMI) institution with the HK government, “the language used in the classroom is Chinese, and students can submit their assignments in Chinese”, says Chiu. In a film history class, his group conducted their presentation in both languages – he presented his part in English while his other groupmates spoke in Cantonese. He felt that his level of Chinese negatively impacted their group presentation and class cohesion. “I make myself feel bad about it. Because I make them cope with my English”, Chiu says.
Both Chinese and English are declared official languages with equal status in Hong Kong, making many live without the pressure of learning Chinese. The prevalence of the English school system in Hong Kong also allows the youth to grow up in a relatively non-Chinese environment. Amongst the 524 secondary schools in Hong Kong, there are 112 EMI schools, 27 private international schools, and 7 Government-funded English School Foundation (ESF) schools that use English as the medium to teach.
The importance of fluency in Chinese has also waned in the mind of parents. Those with children enrolled in local schools prefer that their children focus their efforts on subjects such as Mathematics and Liberal Studies for the HKDSE, the local public examination. The examination for the Chinese language subject is often seen as the “paper of death” which dashes hopes of admission into universities. Thus, many have substituted it with the A-Levels Chinese examination, popular as a high grade is easily attained, and also recognized by local universities. This alternative almost guarantees a university seat in a city where the exam-takers outnumber the local university places offered. In 2017, there were 61,000 candidates for the HKDSE, but only 15,000 subsidized first-year degree places at the eight local public universities.
For the younger generation, however, language does not seem to assume such prominence like before. Arianna Chan, a 16-year-old student at German Swiss International School, went through a phase of immersing herself in local music and films, and forcing her mother to converse with her in Cantonese, because she feels alienated from local culture. And she admits “I sometimes feel embarrassed”. When faced with her limited proficiency in Chinese, “Many people just say ‘oh you international kid’ ”. But she emphasizes that “I feel like you should embrace the fact you can’t speak [Cantonese] but be willing to speak [it] anyways”.
Despite the fact that these kids all experienced similar struggles in life, Chung thinks there is nothing that should be done, but that one should accept the incompleteness of the sense of belonging. Chiu echoed his views by saying, it is about “how we accept”, because all the exterior notions like “culture or broader topic cannot really change how we should guide people to acknowledge your sense of belonging.”
In an increasingly globalized world, cultural diversity and individuality should be preserved and promoted, instead of emphasizing the significance of single language that only gives rise to language dominance. As Chung says, “We are Chinese through our heritage, our values, it’s not right to only define someone, who speaks the language fluently, as Chinese.” Chan agrees, and she puts forward the idea that language should not be seen as the sole expression and translation of culture, “people need to realize that culture transcends language.”