Dear chaps.
In our series “screams and muffled cries from the vault” we bring you another item from our archives. It explains why, when you speak to a HK person in Cantonese, he answers you in English:

“But of course!!!! Now I see clearly. The answer has been right under my nose, literally, for years.

I have complained many times, both in my blog and in general, about Hong Kong (and increasingly, mainland) people’s irritating and not a little insulting habit of answering in a completely different language when addressed in Cantonese.

When asked why they inevitably answer: “I’m afraid you wouldn’t understand, ” which is even more insulting.

Yesterday, however, I found the real reason: They’ve been brainwashed to death since childhood. Why haven’t I put two and two together before!

I was getting on the ferry and behind me were a couple with their young child in a tram. I mean pram. Feeling particularly benevolent I said to the child: “細佬, 你好! 你去邊呀. ” (Sai lou, lei hou! Lei heui bin ah) (Hello, little dude! Where are you going?) wherupon the parents, like millions of parents before them, started prodding the poor tyke and pointing at me, screaming: “Say ha-lou! Say ha-lou!” in a kind of English, in that unnaturally high-pitched, over-bright way that some parents think is easier for children to understand.

The kid looked rather put out and said nothing, certainly not “ha-lou”, so I walked on quickly, cursing myself for even trying.

Then: Bang! Epiphany.

But of course: This “say ha-lou” thing happens every but every every every bloody single time I speak to a child. Therefore it is to be presumed that all parents do it to all children all the time. The habits rammed down one’s throat in childhood are difficult if not impossible to break, and so it is that Hong Kong people, like linguistic Pavlov’s dogs, on seeing whitey invariably break into English. Or Honglish.

It’s an involuntary reflex, like closing your eyes when someone approaches your face at high speed wielding a pair of scissors.

To understand everything is to forgive everything, allegedly. So will I now treat people who answer me in a completely different language when I address them in Cantonese, with more compassion? Probably not. No, definitely not. But from now on I’ll go straight to the root of the problem: The “say ha-lou” parents. Hoi hoi, I’m going to turn this thing around, you’ll see! And in twenty years we’ll have a whole generation answering people in the same language in which they’ve been addressed!


That’s right. Cantonese will be a world language. You’ll see! Whenever the above happens now (every day) I put on a hurt face (like Chinese women in contemporary dramas on HK TV whose boyfriends won’t marry them, just after having cried in a hospital and cried on a bridge) and say: 我講緊廣東話喎! (O gong gan gong dong wah wo!) (I’m speaking Cantonese, dammit) Then their strong inbuilt politeness will take over.

One thing, one inexplicable thing’s for sure: When Hong Kong people answer you in English after you’ve spent years and years struggling (or in my case, joyfully romping) your way to a passable Cantonese, they think they’re being polite!!!! They think they’re being respectful when they slap you in the face, kick you in the groin and spit on you as you’re rolling around in the dust clutching your stomach. (Metaphorically, hallo! )

That’s good to know … but it doesn’t make it any less irritating. Persistence, as always, is the answer. Never backing down, never giving up. But it can be tiresome, oh yeah.

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