How Kongish, a new term for Hong Kong English, is helping to redefine Hongkongers’ identity
By Tiff Chan
Do you understand the following sentences? “On earth, work hard ge not only have ants, but also have even lin ants dou ng hai ge Hong Kongers, working like slave every day. But many work slaves ng dare say, ng dare fight.”*
If you do, chances are you are fluent in English, Cantonese and what a group of post-80s Hong Kong English teachers are calling “Kongish”. The mixing up of Chinese and English elements in speech is nothing new. Chinese Pidgin English, also known as Chinese Coastal English first emerged in Guangzhou in the 17th century. It developed into a lingua franca between English traders and the Chinese they worked and did business with through the 19th century and into the beginning of the last century.
People in Hong Kong, with its colonial history, have long used English elements in their Chinese speech and Chinese elements in their English speech. For instance, it used to be quite common to hear someone use the word “inch” as both an adjective and as a verb to describe someone as arrogant or to say somebody is being sarcastic to someone else. This is because the character for arrogant, 串, is a homonym for 寸which is the character for “inch”, the unit of measurement. Although such usages have been around for a long time, the explosion of social media in recent years has led to a rapid increase in the creation and use of such expressions to form a distinctively Hong Kong kind of English, or Kongish. The rise of Kongish also coincides with Hongkonger’s heightened sense of local identity.
In August, three local English teachers and a company executive created Kongish Daily, a Facebook page sharing local news using Hong Kong English (Kongish). The site gained over 30,000 likes in three months. One of the founders, Nick Wong Chun, a lecturer at the Language and General Education Centre at Tung Wah College, says the friends had originally set up the page for research purposes. They were interested to see how people were using Kongish to communicate and were surprised by the enthusiastic response they received. The page has become a platform where people can use Kongish in an open public space.
Wong says the use of Kongish is on a spectrum, sometimes there are more Chinese elements and sometimes more English ones. Depending on the balance of elements, Kongish can either be close to standard English or to informal Chinese English, or Chinglish.
While this may make Kongish seem to be little different from Chinglish, Professor David Li Chor-Shing from the Department of Linguistics and Modern Language Studies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education explains that Chinglish tends towards non-standard English. Kongish, however, involves the use of Hong Kong-style English in which the syntax generally conforms to standard English, with recognisable Cantonese elements inserted to different extents. However, as Kongish is more informal than standard English or “High Cantonese”, users tend to be more lenient about mistakes in syntax and grammar.
The growing popularity of Kongish over the years can be traced to the emergence of online communication tools such as ICQ. People who found it hard to type Chinese characters tried using English, Romanised Cantonese and the literal translation of Chinese into English in order to communicate. Given how widespread digital text communication has become in Hong Kong people, many have incorporated elements of Kongish in their messages. “If you do not use it, you are going against the tide,” says Kongish Daily co-founder Nick Wong.
Eventually, whether something is considered correct or incorrect usage will depend on whether it is accepted in mainstream society, says Wong. “Something said to be wrong becomes not so after it develops into a common practice.”
Beyond straightforward communication, Wong thinks using Kongish helps to develop intimacy. For instance, he says his students respond more enthusiastically to jokes he makes in Kongish than equivalent ones in English.
Sonia Lee Chi-tung, a year one student studying at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University frequently uses Kongish with friends in her daily life. She shows Varsity her text conversation with her roommate:
“Nei ting yat faan ng faan hall ah bb?”
(Dear, are you coming back to hostel tonight?)
“Farn ah. Hui yuen colleague uk kei then farn lai.”
(Yes, I will come back after visiting my colleagues’ home.)
“Nei gei dim farn lai ah?”
(What time would you come back?)
“8-9 dim la I think.”
(8 to 9 o’clock I think.)
Lee says she sometimes feels proud to use Kongish because decoding it requires multiple skills. “You notice that you can only communicate with this group of people because everyone speaks the same language. As you belong to the same group, you know they can understand what you type,” Lee explains.
Lee Siu-lun, a senior lecturer of the Yale-China Chinese Language Centre at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, also thinks languages can help to form and maintain different communities.
“[Language] draws the boundary of the community. If you cannot understand, you do not belong to this group. Those who understand can communicate with each other,” Lee explains.
That is why Pedro Lok Wai-yi, another founder of Kongish Daily and a lecturer in the School of Arts and Humanities at Tung Wah College, thinks people who frequently use Kongish establish bonds with others who do the same, especially when they are discussing local events. For example, the passage at the beginning of this article refers to a sit-in by doctors working in public hospitals who protested for the dignity of their profession by demanding their pay rises be linked to civil service increments. Full understanding of the passage requires a knowledge of English, Cantonese and local Hong Kong news.
However, another co-founder of Kongish Daily, Alfred Jones Tsang, who is an instructor at the Centre for Language Education at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says Kongish also has fans outside of Hong Kong people. Tsang says Singaporeans, Malaysians and even people whose first language is English and who are learning Chinese from watching TVB programmes have also liked their Facebook page. This means that, at the most basic level, all that is required is knowledge of English and Cantonese to enjoy the posts on Kongish Daily. Tsang thinks those who leave negative comments on their page might not understand the underlying sense of humour in their posts.
Kongish cannot be used in all settings. Jeffrey Lau Wai-lun, a co-founder of Kongish Daily who works as an executive of the Inflight Sales Group (Hong Kong), has to use standard English most of the time at work. But he tries to be more relaxed in informal conversation. For instance, he inserts some Chinese colloquial words into his daily conversations with his colleagues like “you play me meh?” or “you hand in at five or I kill you.”
Lau says the community might sometimes put pressure on people who use a language that does not match their identity or position. For example, a teacher who speaks informal English instead of standard English would be questioned. “The environment forces you to speak a language that is different from the one you would voluntarily use,” Lau explains.
While Kongish may not be accepted in all situations, Kongish Daily co-founder Nick Wong Chun thinks, from his observations of the Facebook page, that people have become more accepting of it. Some followers have enthusiastically embraced the community of Kongish speakers and find camaraderie and validation in it.
As the Kongish Daily page proclaims: “Kongish hai more creative, more flexible, and more functional ge variety”. For Wong, Kongish creates community and provides another avenue for people to articulate their Hong Kong identity.
Edited by Sherry Tsui