♫ Everybody was Kung Fu fight-ing ♫

November 11, 2009 — Chinese people rarely say “no.” Of course, they often mean “no” but merely prefer not to say it. I have asked around as to why this is and the closest I can get to a clear explanation is that “no”—as a concept and a word—is simply too blunt and confrontational to be culturally acceptable. Chinese society is deeply rooted in Confucian values and philosophy which emphasize the preservation of social harmony. This is achieved through proper moral conduct by the individual and respect for one’s place and duties within various social hierarchies (family, community, school, workplace, etc.). One logical outcome of the promotion of social harmony is that affirmative or seemingly affirmative replies to a request can have a wide variety of meanings. When one hears “yes,” one has to decode from tone and context whether it really means “yes,” “maybe,” “no,” or “hell no!” A colleague of mine explained that the most tried and true ways of saying no without actually saying no include “I will give your excellent suggestion the most serious consideration and get back to you” or “I think it would be best if you did [something other than what you have expressed a desire to do].” This is not meant to be disingenuous but is merely an acceptable way of communicating that you can neither have nor do what you want, but in a respectful manner that saves face for both parties. Of course, this subtlety is not readily obvious to the less-than-delicate sensibilities of most Americans and can be extremely frustrating until one figures it out.

Cultural differences notwithstanding, communication is generally not difficult in Hong Kong. English is widely spoken and it is easy to get by without knowing any Cantonese. In the old days under British administration, English was the sole language of government and most schools used it as the primary medium of instruction. Immediately after the handover, there was a push to promote Chinese (Cantonese, specifically) and schools shifted to that language. But people soon realized that not instructing children in English was putting them at a considerable disadvantage given Hong Kong’s international profile. It soon became clear that Hong Kong people would not be well served in international competition by embracing linguistic provincialism, especially since at that same time mainland China was aggressively promoting English instruction to make their educated citizens as marketable and competitive as possible. Nowadays the linguistic profile of Hong Kong involves three languages: English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. The last of these is actually called “Putonghua” here in China. Apparently Deng Xiaoping did not like the word “Mandarin” since it connoted elitism and class consciousness—neither of which had any place in a true people’s republic—so he ordered the change. Officials in Beijing want Hong Kong people to learn Putonghua since everyone is now part of the one China, but in keeping with their overall approach to the territory they are not pushy about it. In general, Hong Kong people speak English when they need to but prefer Cantonese. There is no longer any stigma of inferiority in speaking their own language (unlike in the colonial days) and Cantonese dominates while English is an indispensable second language. In fact, the latter remains the lingua Franca (or lingua Anglia, more accurately) in law, business, and diplomacy.

Yet not everybody speaks English. In certain parts of Hong Kong it is unusual to hear a word of English spoken or to see signs in anything other than Chinese characters. When one crosses Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula it seems like a transition from an international hub into the real China, and moving further into the New Territories even more so. In Sha Tin, where I live, it does feel like a foreign country. I am usually the only gweilo in the market or on the bus and I regularly encounter people who cannot speak a word of English. At times this can be frustrating, but in general I quite like the immersion in Chinese society and am happy to live where I do instead of in some expat oasis on HK Island or Lantau.

The only solution to the language situation for a gweilo like me is to try to get a handle on Cantonese. In the first month I was here I enrolled in a special Cantonese class offered by my university for visiting faculty. I was excited about learning a new language and hopeful that I could add Cantonese alongside Hindi and Swahili on the list of languages in which I can just barely communicate. Yet on the first day of class it started to sink in just how impossibly difficult this language is. Cantonese has nine tones across which any one word has nine completely different meanings. Most words have only one syllable and are not complicated—except, of course, for those damned tones. My problem is that I never know what I am actually saying, even if I get the word right. Because many words have such different tonal meanings, Cantonese is a language in which it is virtually impossible for the novice not to embarrass himself or give grave offense. On average, if I remember a word I still have only a one-in-nine chance of saying exactly what I intend and an eight-in-nine chance of saying something else. And because Cantonese uses Chinese characters (which we are not learning) even if by some miracle I am able to become conversant on the most rudimentary level, I will still be hopelessly illiterate.

My Cantonese class is very international. Our group of students includes three Americans, an Irishman, a German, an Indian, an Italian, a Czech, an Australian, and two mainland Putonghua speakers (for whom Cantonese is almost as difficult as it is for westerners). Our instructor has the patience of Job, the skill of whoever the woman was that taught Helen Keller, and a wonderful sense of humor—the last of which is much appreciated. My experience of struggling with a tonal language like Cantonese has given me a heightened degree of empathy for immigrants to the US who strive to learn English (another notoriously difficult language). I do not hold out great hope that I will learn more than what is commonly referred to as “survival” or “taxi cab” Cantonese. Actually, I am managing to pick up a few words and phrases just in my everyday routine. I learned how to shout out my stop on the bus only after the driver blew past my apartment building a few times. In the market, I have found that a command of numbers and a few choice words can really bring down the price. Finally, for what it’s worth, I’ve also learned my Chinese name; it is 大衛 (pronounced “Daai Wai”). Are you impressed?

Last week I was asked eagerly by a colleague if I intended to participate in the upcoming university talent show. I waffled a bit and then, in appropriate Chinese fashion, said I would get back to her (see, I’m learning). Later that day, I received a mass email message advertising the talent show and encouraging all who could sing, dance, play an instrument or do kung fu to sign up. That’s right, kung fu. In the US that last pitch in a talent show announcement would be a lame attempt to be clever or funny; here it is not. Martial arts are a big deal in Hong Kong—not surprising, really. The chair of my department is a martial arts expert and schools here offer a wide range of courses at every level and in various types. Many people of all ages are really into it. I am not. The best I might offer the talent show is a few verses of the 1974 chart topper “Kung Fu Fighting.” ♫ Everybody was kung fu fight-ing;those cats were fast as light-ning.In fact it was a little bit fright-ning,but they fought with expert timing…♫ Since I can’t sing, though, maybe even that might be asking too much from me. In any event, I’ll leave the talent to the locals.

The fascination with kung fu, if not the skill, is something to which even we gweilo can lay claim. In the late 1960s and early 70s kung fu became an international sensation. Much of this owed to the peerless fame of Hong Kong legend Bruce Lee. The martial arts film star elevated what had been a staple of Hong Kong cinema for decades into a worldwide phenomenon. Films like “Fist of Fury” (1971) and “Enter the Dragon” (1973) have become classics in the genre and helped inspire the American TV series “Kung Fu” starring the recently departed David Carradine. Bruce Lee was the consummate master of his craft, whether it was martial arts or filmmaking, and he remains the source of enormous pride among the people of Hong Kong. Adding in no small measure to his legend is the fact that he died suddenly at the age of 32. Forever young like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and other cultural icons cut down in their prime, Bruce Lee went out at the height of his fame and physical prowess. Expert timing, indeed. In the years since his death Bruce Lee has remained easily the most famous Hong Kong resident ever. His pride in the Chinese culture and philosophy that was the foundation for his martial arts success has made him beloved by Chinese in the mainland as well as in Hong Kong. In 2005 an eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Bruce Lee was unveiled on Hong Kong’s “Avenue of the Stars” along the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui. After numerous requests to the government to honor the star had fallen flat, the Bruce Lee Club turned to private donors and the money came pouring in from fans across the world. The statue shows the master in his classic kung fu pose from “Fist of Fury” with his back to the harbor and a view of the city skyline behind him (see below). Quite impressive, really. However, as with the Venus de Milo or Mona Lisa, one can rarely get a clear view of him through the gaggle of local and international tourists crowded around taking pictures.

Statue of Bruce Lee on the "Avenue of the Stars," Kowloon Waterfront, Tsim Sha Tsui