Do You Speak Hong Kong English?

Take a walk along the praya and you’ll eventually reach a tiny cha chaan teng where you can have one of the best cocktail buns and yin yeung in Hong Kong. To get there, you’ll have to cross the nullah, then turn right at the car park. The restaurant is right across from the shroff. It can be hard to spot, but there’s usually a lap sap lady collecting cardboard out front.

If the preceding paragraph makes any sense, congratulations – you probably live in Hong Kong. A century and a half of British colonialism has given the city a variety of Englishes unlike anywhere else – an English that is now being reshaped yet again by the crosscurrents of local politics and the global economy.

Earlier this year, reader Newton Wan wrote to Zolima CityMag suggesting we look into all of the unusual or archaic English words that are still used in Hong Kong. Some of these can be described as Hong Kong officialese: words like “spinster” and “sitting-out area” that are routinely used by the Hong Kong government despite being rather old fashioned by global standards. The frequent use of the Latin word cum to join two nouns is particularly amusing to some Internet users, thanks to its shared meaning with the word for male ejaculate. Some officials seem to be embarrassed by the online attention, as the word in question has been replaced by a forward slash on many “litter-cum-recyclables collection bins” around the city.

Other words date back to the early days of the colonial era, when Portuguese traders adapted words from India into a kind of pan-Asian pidgin, which was later used by British colonists when they arrived in the 19th century. You’ll find many instances of this in Hong Kong. Shroff is derived from the Hindi and Arabic word saraf, which originally referred to a bullion merchant; it eventually came to mean a place where you pay your bill, and for years it was used in Britain’s East Asian colonies to describe a cashier in a car park, hospital or government office. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “the word has almost completely fallen out of use, except in Hong Kong English.”

Nullah is another word with roots in India. Its original meaning refers to a stream in a narrow valley, but in Hong Kong, it came to refer to the man-made drainage channels that were built to channel flood waters from the mountains into the sea. There are still quite a few nullahs around, like the Fo Tan Nullah or the Kwun Tong Nullah, but many have been covered up through the years, leaving only street names as a reminder, such as Stone Nullah Lane in Wan Chai or Nullah Road in Mongkok.

In one case, the Kai Tak Nullah was renamed Kai Tak River by community activists in their fight to save the waterway from being capped by concrete. To them, river sounded more scenic, like a place to idle and enjoy a nice day; nullah implied a sewer. The Hong Kong government has since adopted the new appellation.

Hong Kong English

Photo by @triny_c

Praya is another example of a word used in official contexts but rarely in everyday speech. It comes from the Portuguese word for beach, praía, but in Hong Kong it was used to refer to a waterfront promenade. Today, the word is found only in the names of specific places, like the Kennedy Town Praya, Aberdeen Praya Road or Cheung Chau Praya. A number of new waterfront promenades have been built in recent years, but they are usually called just that – waterfront promenades.

Godown has suffered a similar fate. Derived from the Malay word gudung, it is a synonym for warehouse. Wharf, one of the city’s largest property developers, was originally founded as the Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company. A number of Hong Kong buildings still bear the name, including the Chivas Godown, whose painted façade looms over the Chai Wan typhoon shelter. But the word seems to have fallen out of regular Hong Kong usage, although it remains common in India.

Words of Cantonese origin remain more frequently used – not surprising, considering that Cantonese is the usual language of 88.9 percent of Hong Kong’s population, according to the 2016 by-census.

Chop refers to an official stamp, and anyone who has done business in Hong Kong knows that no document is complete without one; in Sheung Wan, Ma Wan Lane is lined by hawker stalls selling custom chops mounted on ornately carved stone handles.

You don’t need to look far to find other examples. Many of them have to do with food, including all of the treats served in a cha chaan teng, like pineapple buns, milk tea and yin yeung – a rich blend of tea and coffee. When Chinese New Year rolls around, everyone expects to receive lai see, the Cantonese name for a red envelope containing lucky cash. Lap sap means rubbish. Jetso means discount, and while its usage in English has declined over the years, you can still see it in names like the Jetso Club, a loyalty programme offered by the department store Aeon. As recently as 2015, the Hong Kong government launched a retail discount programme whose official English name was “HAPPY @ Hongkong Super JETSO” – quite possibly the most distinctly Hong Kong phrase ever coined.

Hong Kong English

Children in a Catholic school classroom in Hong Kong in 1930 – Photo courtesy USC Libraries.

Cantonese has shaped local English in many other ways, too. “Hong Kong English is quite staccato sounding,” says linguist Jane Setter. “This is probably because of the influence of Cantonese, which has a specific kind of speech rhythm. Very often you find the structure of Cantonese has an effect on Hong Kong English.”

Setter is an expert in phonology and one of the authors of Hong Kong English, which she published in 2010 along with Hong Kong-based English professors Cathy Wong and Brian Chan. The book outlines everything that makes Hong Kong English unique, from the distinctive voicing of consonants to the exceptionally high use of the word “actually,” which takes the place of other words such as “really” and “well.”

Photo by Loes van Iperen for Zolima CityMag

According to Hong Kong English, some linguists see this particular quirk as an embodiment of the Chinese value of face – “the idea being that these speakers are anxious to seek recognition of their statements or ideas rather than being genuinely liked by others.” In their research, Setter, Wong and Chan found that Hong Kong English speakers use the word “actually” three times more often than English speakers who are not originally from the city.

That’s an example of how the things that define a particular variety of English go far deeper than vocabulary or accent. Setter says that, before Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China in 1997, English was “at the point of nativisation” – similar to how it has become an all-pervasive language in India and Singapore. “But it was kind of stuck there. It wasn’t having endonormative development which is development on its own terms.”

A big reason for that was politics. As the handover loomed, colonial authorities promoted the use of Chinese in government; after 1997, new policies were introduced to replace English with Cantonese in many local schools. “The overall level of English has certainly gone downhill,” says journalist and cultural critic Vivienne Chow. “One noticeable change is the reluctance to maintain the bilingual policy even at the government level. A lot of the times, government information officers do not answer reporters’ questions in English, or they would send answers over in Chinese first and the English version later, if you are lucky.”

While English definitely plays second fiddle to Cantonese, however, it’s not clear that the English spoken in everyday society is in worse shape than it was in the past. More than two decades ago, scholar JE Joseph noted that a “myth of declining English” has existed since the very early days of Hong Kong as a British colony. This has always been contradicted by statistics. “English is actually on an upward course, and its decline is a myth,” wrote Joseph in 1996.

Hong Kong English

Members of the Belilios Public School English Society in 1939 – Photo courtesy Belilios Public School.

The same is true today. In 2006, the census reported that English was the most commonly used language of 2.8 percent of people in Hong Kong; by 2016, that number had risen to 4.3 percent. The percentage of people who say they are able to speak English is on a similar trajectory. In 2006, 44.7 percent of people in Hong Kong could speak English; ten years later, the number was 53.2 percent.

The colonial era ended more than 20 years ago, and yet English continues to maintain a prominent position in Hong Kong. Part of the reason why is the historical legacy of English-language institutions and education, along with the fact that Hong Kong remains officially bilingual. But the rise of English as the world’s predominant global language has a lot to do with it, too. As linguist Braj Kachru has argued for years, English is now a pluricentric language, and the way it is spoken in India or Malaysia — or Hong Kong — is just as legitimate as the way people speak it in England or the United States.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong English continues to evolve. Setter says she has noticed more American influence in recent years, thanks in part to the large number of Hongkongers who have returned home after growing up in Canada or the United States. And Cantonese continues to exert just as much sway as always. New words like hea (a kind of disaffected idleness) and add oil (an expression of encouragement) have entered the lexicon in the past few years; the latter has even been added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So add oil, Hong Kong – and keep making English your own.


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