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Hong Kong English:

A stillborn variety?
T E R E N C E T. T. PA N G

Does Hong Kong have an English of its own or was it a

prospect that failed to thrive?

IS THERE such a thing as a ‘language variety’, mean the acceptance by the local community
and, if there is, what criteria are there for of the existence of a local variety of a lan-
establishing the existence of a particular vari- guage in wide use in day-to-day communica-
ety in a particular place? Most approaches tend tion.
to focus on both the features exhibited by local Kachru also draws a distinction between
users of the language and any standards ‘performance variety’ and ‘institutionalized
imposed by experts and by tertiary institutions, variety’. The first term refers to varieties used
paying less attention to such sociological con- as foreign languages, as with Iranian English
siderations as diglossia, language attitudes, and Japanese English, in which the modifiers
and speaker identities. refer to geographical and national perfor-
Traditionally, ‘Hong Kong English’ has been mance characteristics. The varieties are used in
regarded as non-existent (cf. Luke and highly restricted contexts like those of tourism,
Richards, 1982), or commentators have commerce and other international transac-
argued that there has been no motivation for tions. Institutionalized varieties, on the other
the ‘indigenization’ of English in the territory hand, are well established within a territory
(cf. Tay, 1991:327), or, more recently, that and used for many different social functions.
‘English has a minimal social or cultural role
to play in the lives of the vast majority of the
territory’s Chinese community’ (Evans, TERENCE T. T. PANG is an assistant professor in
2000:191). However, in a recent issue of the English Department of Lingnan University,
World Englishes (19:3) as well as in the vol- Hong Kong. He started out as a historian, but
ume Hong Kong English: Autonomy and cre- during his M.Phil. research at the History
ativity (Bolton, ed., 2002b) it has been argued Department of the University of Hong Kong
that Hong Kong English does exist (cf. Bolton; digressed into applied linguistics during his
Chan; Hung; Gisborne; Benson; and Bolton & research into the compilation of local gazetteers of
Lim: all 2000). In addition, in McArthur’s the Qing Dynasty in China. He also has an M.A.
Oxford Guide to World English (2002), certain (Distinction) in TESL at the City University of Hong
features of ‘Hong Kong English’ are explicated Kong and a Ph.D. from the University of
Technology, Sydney, Australia. His research
in detail, making interesting reading. interests are multi- and inter-disciplinary. His
Kachru (1983) notes that certain conditions recent publications include a chapter in Ann John’s
exist in the acculturation and localization of ‘Genre in the Classroom’, a research monograph,
transplanted varieties of English. In the devel- ‘The Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant debate: Social
opment of a non-native transplanted variety in drama and hegemonic struggle’, published by the
particular, I would suggest that a distinction Asian Business History Centre, the University of
be made between localization and indigeniza- Queensland, and an article on early colonial
tion. By localization, I mean that a language language education in Hong Kong in ‘Australian
variety develops its own characteristics in such Language Matters’. His other interests include
aspects as phonology, syntax, lexis and gram- critical applied linguistics, self-access learning and
language testing.
mar (cf. McArthur, 2002). By indigenization, I

DOI: 10.1017/S0266078403002037
12 English Today 74, Vol. 19, No. 2 (April 2003). Printed in the United Kingdom © 2003 Cambridge University Press
In many cases, a transplanted variety of the presence of distinctive phonological, gram-
English, such as Singaporean or Indian Eng- matical, syntactic and lexical features is an
lish, is not only institutionalized but both undeniable fact, but to unwilling locals this is
localized and indigenized. In other cases, hardly a convincing argument, as these may be
however, a variety may be localized, display- considered interlanguage features, both in the
ing characteristics of its own, like English spo- sense of errors and as displaying mother-
ken in Japan, but is not indigenized, the locals tongue (mostly Cantonese) influences that fall
denying that there is such a variety as ‘Japan- short of target-language norms. Indeed, Platt
ese English’. Here, the crucial factor is motiva- reported in 1982 that English spoken in Hong
tion. The community at large has to acknowl- Kong was considered a learner’s language,
edge that (many of) its members speak a varying according to an individual’s develop-
distinctive variety of English which has ment rather than his or her place in a ‘lectal
departed from assumed Inner Circle ‘native- continuum’. While outside observers can read-
speaker’ norms. Indigenization is impossible ily point out distinctive features of a local vari-
when a community denies the existence of a ety of English, speakers of that variety may still
local variety of English and continues to seek deny its existence (or validity). While they are
exonormative reference and reassurance. In quick to point out that Singaporeans possess a
this regard, Kachru notes (1983:39): distinctive accent, very few people in Hong
A variety may exist, but unless it is recognized Kong would openly acknowledge that Hong
and accepted as a model it does not acquire a Kong people also speak with a distinctive local
status. A large majority of the non-native accent.
speakers of institutionalised varieties of English I will now briefly outline evidence for the
use a local variety of English, but when told so, localization and indigenization of English in
they are hesitant to accept the fact. Hong Kong, drawing upon two sources:
This is very much the case in Hong Kong. Bolton (2002b) and Kachru (1983). On the
There are indeed well-documented features of one hand, Bolton adopts the criteria advanced
Hong Kong English, but locals prefer to by Butler (1997) for the existence of a variety
believe that they are not speaking a local vari- of world English:
ety and consider that some of the features of 1 a standard and recognizable accent
local usage are errors. Kachru comments: ‘In 2 a distinctive vocabulary to express key fea-
the development of non-native models two tures of the physical and social environment
processes seem to work simultaneously: the 3 a distinctive history
attitudinal process, and the linguistic process’ 4 creative writing, ‘written without apology’
(1983:39). The attitudinal process is crucial to 5 reference works, such as dictionaries, etc.
indigenization while the linguistic process is
crucial to localization. The absence of indige- On the other hand, Kachru (1983) has postu-
nization may not imply that the community lated that institutionalized varieties are charac-
possesses a general negative predisposition terized by:
towards English. Instead, sometimes it is rev- A the length of time in use
erence for a native-speaker variety that hin- B the extension of their use
ders indigenization. C the emotional attachment of L2 users to par-
In this paper I argue that English in Hong ticular varieties
Kong has been localized to a large extent but D their functional importance
is not (yet) indigenized. I will touch on the E their sociolinguistic status
evidence for localization only briefly as this
has been thoroughly explored in recent litera- Kachru draws a distinction between perfor-
ture (cf. Bolton, 2002a). My concern here is mance varieties and institutionalized varieties
the reasons for the non-indigenization of Eng- of English. The former refers to varieties used
lish in Hong Kong. as foreign languages: for example, the identifi-
cation modifiers in Iranian English or Japanese
English refer to geographical or national per-
Evidence for the existence of Hong
formance characteristics. Such varieties are
Kong English used in highly restricted contexts like those of
Various criteria have been advanced for the tourism, commerce and other international
existence of a language variety. To the linguist, transactions. Institutionalized varieties, on the


other hand, are those that are well established ically proposed the teaching of ‘good English’
and used for many different social functions. to counterbalance the effects of pidgin (Bick-
Bolton’s strongest argument is that a Hong ley, 2002:216). As a result of such a goal, and
Kong accent exists, and a substantial number despite a long history of using the language
of respondents to a survey (cf. Bolton & Kwok, freely in local ways, people may not recognize
1990) indicated a preference for the accent. the local variety as legitimate. Recent years
Despite the rather small sample sizes of both have seen the re-emergence of a quasi-creole
that survey and a later study by Hung (2002), caused by extensive mixing of English lexis in
the existence of a distinctive Hong Kong a Cantonese base (Pennington, 1994). These
accent is undeniable. Similarly convincing is forces have all been unfavourable to the local-
the existence of distinctive items of Hong ization of English in Hong Kong.
Kong vocabulary, which consists of such There is still no standard reference work on
transliterations from Chinese as bak choy and Hong Kong English, but Bolton, Hung & Nelson
such local terms as almond cream. are compiling a computer database of English
Somewhat less convincing is the claim made in Hong Kong (cf. Bolton, 2002b). Local teach-
for the existence of a local English literary ers, however, given their extremely strong exo-
scene. Most of the works cited by Bolton normative preference, would probably discour-
(2002b) and Bolton & Lim (2002) are for inter- age their students from using any reference
national rather than local consumption. Bolton works on Hong Kong English that might be
& Lim note that ‘English language writers rep- based on a work of reference associated with
resented here… are cosmopolitan….’ (p. 305). this database (cf. Tsui & Bunton, 2002).
They also note that Timothy Mo’s Monkey King Eager to advance the notion that Hong Kong
‘is a vividly imagined representation of Hong English is a legitimate variety, Bolton (2002b)
Kong social community in the 1950s’ and that argues that Hong Kong is not a monolingual,
Louise Ho and Agnes Lam’s poetry appeal to an but rather a multilingual society, citing the
international English language tradition’, fea- drastic expansion in the number of people who
tures which may not greatly interest local peo- possessed some knowledge of the English lan-
ple, especially the majority which favours Can- guage in the 1980s and 1990s, the common
tonese as the medium for artistic expression use of written English in office work, and,
and literary creativity. according to a survey by Bacon-Shone and
Halliday (1998) notes that ‘Chinese is a lan- Bolton (1998), the common use of an English
guage that has long been used as a medium of name, the use of English in writing cheques
literature and technology [and] there is no (many people having relatives in an English-
need to move into another language just in speaking country), and the common use of
order to become an educated citizen’ (p. 31). code-mixing in various conversations. While
Unless therefore the literature is appropriated not querying the sampling method, I would say
by the locals and acknowledged as part of that such data still does not point to the fact
their literary tradition, the existence of a few that English has become a common lingua
literary works pertaining to local cultural and franca in Hong Kong, as it has in Singapore.
social scenes does not validate the existence of An indicator of localization, and to a certain
a local variety of English, especially when the extent of indigenization, is that subvarieties
works are not written in the local language develop within a variety, i.e. there are a num-
variety, abundantly displaying its syntactic, ber of registers for different purposes in differ-
grammatical and lexical features. ent contexts. However Luke & Richards (1982)
As far as the historical dimension is con- remark: ‘There is no equivalent of the mesolec-
cerned, it all depends on whether it is a his- tal or basilectal speech styles found, for exam-
tory of localization, of the imposition of ple, in Singapore… since there is no equivalent
native-speaker norms, or of pidginization or range of English speech varieties in regular use
creolization. Localization in fact occurred by Hong Kong Chinese’ (pp. 55–6). However,
early in language contact: even before Hong as noted by Bolton & Lim (2002), the local
Kong was ceded to Britain, a pidgin had devel- humorist Nury Vittachi distinguishes two vari-
oped along the China coast. However, soon eties of English in Hong Kong – ‘Chinglish’,
after the British took over, efforts were made being ‘a form of Standard English riddled with
to promote an exonormative standard. Thus, errors in need of eradication, and “Hong Kong
the Inspector of Schools’ Report for 1879 specif- English”, with its unique usages that mark the

14 ENGLISH TODAY 74 April 2003

English of the place’ (p. 307). There is little their business or start new ones’” (Cheng, no
subvariation and, like many, Vittachi also date, cited in Stokes, 1962:32). Today, believ-
prefers an exonormative standard for Hong ing that English standards are falling in local
Kong. schools, the number of parents sending their
Factors crucial to indigenization are items children overseas for an English-speaking edu-
B, C, D, and E on Kachru’s list. Emotional cation has been rising. According to Commis-
attachment is the number one factor. If a vari- sioner of Education Fanny Law, the percent-
ety is not regarded as substandard and age of local Chinese students attending
acquires a legitimate status, then it is certainly international schools in Hong Kong has also
indigenized. Other indicators are that the local risen from 6.8% in 1997 to 11.1% in 2001.
variety is used extensively, in both functional Hong Kong’s status as an international finan-
terms and frequency of use. If the people cial centre reinforces the belief in the impor-
speak the variety more than any other lan- tance of speaking and writing English of an
guage or as much as another language, then it internationally acceptable standard.
has certainly acquired currency. If people use The sociolinguistic situation in Hong Kong
it not only for instrumental or regulative func- decides that most young people tend to regard
tions but also for integrative functions like English as important on the one hand, but will
phatic communion, then it is certainly not use it in daily life on the other (cf. Penning-
accepted as a common variety. I will now turn ton, 1994). Many language surveys have indi-
to the status and functions of different lan- cated that English is regarded as a ‘high’ lan-
guages in Hong Kong, in an attempt to show guage, and Axler, Yang and Steven (1998)
why English is not – yet – used extensively report a questionnaire survey conducted in 1993
enough as a local language. that secondary students no longer felt their Chi-
nese identity threatened by the use of English.
Instead, they regarded English as the mark of an
educated person, and believed that the use of
Unlike Singapore, where English has from English was one of the most crucial factors in
very early days been an inter-ethnic lingua Hong Kong’s prosperity and development.
franca for a multi-racial society (cf. Chew, Paradoxically, it is exactly this positive
1999), English in Hong Kong has first been the value attached to the English language that
language of the governing race, and therefore hinders its indigenization. The local people
of law and administration, then the language have always also wanted to keep standards
of international trade and finance. Boyle very high, refusing to admit the existence of
(1997:176) argues that the colonial govern- features like a local accent or to treat certain
ment did not need to impose English in Hong local usages as normal or grammatical. Such
Kong, as ‘Hong Kong Chinese have always an attitude is especially true for the gatekeep-
wanted English’. As early as 1865, a rapid ers of language standards, i.e. language teach-
attrition rate was recorded at the prime gov- ers (cf. Tsui & Bunton, 2002). The instrumen-
ernment school, Central School (now Queen’s tal and regulative functions played by English
College) as ‘there is such a demand for Eng- in Hong Kong, coupled with its high social sta-
lish-speaking Chinese that many of the boys tus, means that the reference of the language
leave as soon as they can perform the duties of remains exonormative (i.e., an external stan-
compositors or copying clerks’ (Report on Edu- dard based on a native speaker variety like
cation for the Year 1865). Stokes (1962) notes: RP), not endonormative.
‘[A]n unfortunate result of the “cash value” of The triglossic situation means that different
learning English was a rapid turnover of stu- languages perform different social, cultural
dents, a frequent cause of complaint by the and economic functions. English remains weak
headmaster… . In 1870 twenty-nine of the in terms of interpersonal functions. Unlike the
thirty-six boys in Class 1… left before the end situation in Singapore (where Chinese, Malays
of the year’ (p.24). and Indians constitute substantial numbers in
Pang (forthcoming) observes: “The social the population, necessitating a lingua franca),
capital of the English language was readily over 95% of Hong Kong people speak Can-
grasped by the Chinese families. The parents, tonese, which is often sprinkled with words
mostly traders, wanted their boys to learn from English, Putonghua and other languages.
English not for scholarship but ‘to carry on It is used in most arenas, including classrooms


(about three-quarters of secondary schools), variety is most likely a slow and painstaking
law courts, cinemas (most films are Can- process.
tonese), karaoke bars (Canto-pop is more pop- However, in recent years, English has
ular than English or Putonghua songs), and assumed an additional interpersonal function:
television (90% of viewers prefer the local a lot of electronic messages in ICQ are in Eng-
Cantonese channels). Only 114 secondary lish. The localization of English in ICQ signals
schools in the Hong Kong Special Administra- a form of appropriation of the language by the
tive Region (HK SAR) have been allowed to community. Unlike the usual code-mixing in
use English as the medium of instruction while conversations where the base is Cantonese, in
the rest, about 300, use Chinese for subjects ICQ messages English is the base mixed with
other than the English language (Evans, Cantonese expressions and most notably with
2000). interjectory particles. However, whether this
Apart from random inter-ethnic communi- will contribute to the evolution of a local vari-
cation like that involving expatriates, and ety remains to be seen.
between locals and their Filipino domestic
helpers, the lingua franca in Hong Kong
remains Cantonese, as evident in the conver-
sation between local Chinese, South Asians, A certain linguistic purism permeates Hong
Thais, Indonesians and Nepalese. The Can- Kong society: a preference for centrist stan-
tonese-speaking population actually find it dards (the ‘high’ British or American vari-
embarrassing to speak to one another in Eng- eties), historical precedents (even archaic
lish (Pennington, 1994). However, Putonghua forms, as in the case of some Cantonese pro-
is emerging as the language of tourism, acade- nunciation), and resentment of any deviation
mic exchange with universities in China, and from the norm. This purism is also character-
government: Hong Kong people have been ized by a constant lamentation that standards
writing Chinese in this variety for more than a are falling. Evans (2000) documents a series
century. of representative texts all pointing to falling
The high status of English was both the levels of English-language proficiency among
result of former colonial policy and persistent local students and workers. Starting with
demand for it as social capital by the local Josiah Lau’s English for one minute on a Chi-
community. Lin (1996) argues that the pre- nese television channel some ten years ago,
1997 government’s policies in civil service TV programs and newspaper columns that
recruitment and professional accreditation seek to teach correct grammar, proper expres-
promoted the rise of English as a dominant sions and pronunciation in both English and
linguistic resource with socioeconomic impli- Chinese have been very popular.
cations. In addition, Pennington (1994:87) The desire for grammar instruction is insa-
observes that the status of English is that of an tiable. One of my M.A. students recently
auxiliary or secondary language. She explains attacked a Hong Kong textbook for its piece-
the phenomenon as follows: meal approach to teaching grammar: “Stu-
dents can never get the whole picture of Eng-
Given the history of British dominion over
lish grammar. Students are always troubled by
Hong Kong and the fact that the English-
speaking and Cantonese-speaking populations questions like ‘What is the difference between
of Hong Kong are mostly quite separate adjectives and adverbs?’, ‘How to use the
communities in terms of work, play, and tenses correctly?’ etc.” (Hsu, 2002). Tsui &
residence, the social distance between the Bunton (2002) note: “The exonormative atti-
English and the Cantonese speech tudes of Hong Kong’s English teachers, in
communities and “the strict functional common with those of the government and
separation between English and Cantonese” the business community, still show a prefer-
(Lin, 1990, p. 5) are not surprising. ence for Standard English in formal communi-
Considering these facts, the status of English cation” (2002:75). The predominance of such
as an auxiliary or secondary language in Hong
attitudes has resulted in policies like the “Eng-
Kong has probably been the reality for some
time (p. 87). lish in the Workplace” campaign, which gives
employees in the business sector the opportu-
The limited use of English, especially the spo- nity to sit for overseas examinations like those
ken form, means that the emergence of a local operated by UCLES (University of Cambridge

16 ENGLISH TODAY 74 April 2003

Local Examination Syndicate) and Pitman (cf. tion (as evident in code-switching). Such lan-
Tsui & Bunton). guage use is not only indicative of an inventive
There is a high level of intolerance of non- and dynamic culture, but also various prag-
standard features, although the self-same fea- matic norms and conventions.
tures continue in everyday use. In a survey in English survives in Hong Kong mainly as an
a secondary school regarding the acceptance acrolect, not serving an integrationist func-
of certain expressions such as “I am a sales” tion. However, a change is seeping in with
(salesperson) and “May I have a cup of milk technological applications. Email and ICQ
tea”, most respondents realize that these are English are both integrationist and basilectal,
non-standard forms, and the higher-form stu- with a lot of local features. Such appropriation
dents (perhaps owing to the pressure to use may eventually facilitate the indigenisation of
standard forms in public examinations) are English in Hong Kong. 
inclined not to use them (cf. Chu, 2002). This
probably reflects the predominant attitude in References
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I have argued in this paper that the mass of pp. 329-38.
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18 ENGLISH TODAY 74 April 2003