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Hong Kong: a melting pot of languages and culture

When Britain seized power of one fifth of the world’s land in the 18th century, they also anglicised and heavily influenced their cultures. As well as shaping the politics, law, education and languages of the Empire, they also destroyed fundamental parts of their national identities. Many people consider their influence in India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong a form of mass cultural genocide.

Although it can be said that Britain’s impact on these cultures and countries was negative, I can see that there were some benefits as well. They successfully established world class education systems based on the comprehensive and compulsory education in Britain; created democracies and governments; encouraged a strong economy through international trade; and controversially I believe that they had an unequivocal impact on the languages and to an extent the culture of the Empire. In particular, in Hong Kong.

Having lived in Hong Kong for three years, I remember the vast extremes of Western Hong Kong and Asian Hong Kong. One minute you could fool yourself and believe you were in Britain (if you ignored the raging humidity of course) and the next you’d be engulfed by Asia. But perhaps the British occupation’s most lasting impact on Hong Kong is on the national language.

Until 1974 the official language of Hong Kong was English. But after substantial protests demanding that the Chinese language was given an equal position in law, the official language changed. However the impact of English remained and nowadays the “official” languages of Hong Kong are English and Mandarin.

On one hand you could argue that English had a detrimental influence on Cantonese in Hong Kong. But the way I see it is that the British influence on the culture and languages of Hong Kong has simply made it more diverse and worldly.

Three languages are now widely spoken by the people of Hong Kong: Cantonese mostly, but also English and Mandarin. The influence of China and Britain on a small region such as Hong Kong has created a “trilingual and biliterate” population. This degree of multilingualism is rarely seen throughout the rest of the world. The people of Hong Kong have started to commonly “code-switch” between the three languages, therefore almost creating a new language which is an amalgamation of the three. This cross-influence of cultures and languages gives Hong Kong a distinctive identity from the rest of China, and they are proud of their unique identity as “Hong Kong Chinese”.

To argue that the impact of Britain on Hong Kong was undeniably adverse and nothing more is clearly invalid. You may believe that the British destroyed the culture and identity of Hong Kong, but to me they expanded the culture, they diversified the language and created a strong “Hong Kong-er” identity.  The British colonisation of Hong Kong has created a functioning trilingual population and I for one – an aspiring linguist – envy them that.

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Paula Campbell

Our guest blog writer, Paula Campbell, recently completed an internship with Lingo24. She shares her views and personal experience of the English influence on the languages and culture of Hong Kong.

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