The changing use(s) of English in Hong Kong : popular culture and cultural anxiety

Hau Nung, Annie CHAN

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review


Hong Kong actor Tony Leung, winner of the Best Actor award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival for his performance in director Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, recently appeared in a short film promoting the importance of the English language for Hong Kong's workforce. The short film, which was broadcast on Hong Kong's terrestrial television, begins by showing a man stranded in a dark cave who comes across a magic lamp. On rubbing the lamp, a genie (played by Leung) appears, asking in English what the man's wishes are. Unable to reply in English (or perhaps unable to understand the genie's question), the man's golden opportunity is lost as the genie retreats back into the lamp. Meanwhile, another man (also played by Leung) who comes across the same lamp, rubs it, and to the genie's question regarding his wishes, replies "I want to be you!", and his wish is promptly granted- Magic wand in hand, ear-to-ear grin on his face, the man who was once desperate and stranded has turned into the genie himself. The message is anything but subtle. Perhaps the urgency of the problem of low English standards among Hong Kong's workforce has rendered subtlety gratuitous. Tony Leung, as one of the few Hong Kong actors who has been brought into the international limelight, speaks fluent and accent-free English in the short film. His success as an actor may not be entirely related to his English language abilities; but his performance in the short film seems to hint that without good English, even a brilliant actor like Leung would not have become the international star that he is. And in any case, without good English, one would surely end up like the nameless man in the film, unable to seize whatever golden opportunities that might come his way. Other local actors who have made their appearances in Hollywood, including Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat and Sammo Hung, like Tony Leung, are by no means highly educated; yet ail have made a conscious effort to polish up their English, and international fame (at least by Hong Kong standards) is their reward. Deteriorating English standards amongst Hong Kong's workforce in particular amongst the young, is characterized by increasing use of hybridized forms of English. The current economic downturn, which has been in evidence since Hong Kong's return of sovereignty to China in 1997, has created much anxiety amongst policy makers and the general population. Failure to improve the situation means more than economic hardship; it would also reflect badly on the successful implementation of the 'one country two systems' approach devised by the late Deng Xiaoping. And English, amongst other things, has been singled out as one of the areas where improvement could help lift Hong Kong out of its economic decline. While hybrid English is condemned by educators and the business community, it is celebrated and thrives in the sphere of popular culture. This paper argues that this seeming contradiction can be read as a revelation of Hong Kong's postcolonial identity in formation. Moreover, lukewarm response to numerous government initiatives to improve English standards is in part a manifestation, of Hong Kong people's lack of confidence in the postcolonial government's ability to get Hong Kong out of its current economic rut.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)122-144
Number of pages23
JournalHybridity : Journal of Cultures, Texts and Identities
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2001


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