Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Historical Development of Hong Kong Sign Language

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Historical Development of Hong Kong Sign Language

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article traces the origins of Hong Kong Sign Language (hereafter HKSL) and its subsequent development in relation to the establishment of Deaf education in Hong Kong after World War II. We begin with a detailed description of the history of Deaf education with a particular focus on the role of sign language in such development. We then compare the use of sign language among Deaf students in the first two Deaf schools in Hong Kong in the postwar period, and how both signing varieties contributed to the later development of HKSL. We maintain that the modern form of HKSL is a mixture of the Nanjing/Shanghai variety of Chinese Sign Language and the signing varieties developed locally among Deaf people in Hong Kong. This finding supports Woodward's (1993) hypothesis that some form of signing must have existed in Hong Kong before Nanjing/Shanghai signs were introduced in 1948 and 1949 by a Deaf signing couple who set up the first signing school.

THIS ARTICLE TRACES the origins of Hong Kong Sign Language (hereafter HKSL) and its subsequent development in relation to the establishment of Deaf education in Hong Kong after World War II.1 Our data come from historical documents, relevant literature, and interviews with Deaf signers who graduated from différent Deaf schools in the postwar period. We maintain that the modern form of HKSL is a mixture of the Nanjing/ Shanghai variety of Chinese Sign Language and the signing varieties developed locally among Deaf people in Hong Kong. This finding supports Woodward's (1993) hypothesis that some form of signing must have existed in Hong Kong before Nanjing/Shanghai signs were introduced in 1948 and 1949 by a Deaf signing couple who set up the first signing school.

We first present a literature review and explain the purpose of this study. These are followed by a discussion of the methodology and an overview of Deaf education in Hong Kong both before and after World War II. We then consider the use of sign language in the two earliest Deaf schools and examine the ways in which the Nanjing/ Shanghai signs gradually mixed with the local signing varieties developed by Deaf people, which led to the evolution of the present form of HKSL. The conclusion summarizes the information presented and comments on our hopes for Deaf education in Hong Kong and for the revitalization of HKSL.

Literature Review and the Purpose of This Study

Formal Deaf education in Hong Kong began in 1935. Before that, no documentation can be found that mentions the number of Deaf people in Hong Kong, what their lives were like, or whether they used signs to communicate among themselves.2 Despite a lack of historical records, we cannot rule out the possibility that some forms of signed communication existed among Deaf people at that time. As is frequently reported in the literature, sign languages develop spontaneously whenever Deaf people have regular contact with each other (Groce i985;Woodward 1993, 2003; Senghas, Senghas, and Pyers 2005). There is reason to believe that, because of the high population density, Deaf people in Hong Kong were able to meet frequendy in the early days. At the turn of the twentieth century, Hong Kong was home to around 280,000 people, and its population density was 31,500 persons per square kilometer, one of the highest density figures in the world at that time (Hong Kong Government 1900). By 1961, Hong Kong's total population had soared to nearly three million, and certain districts reported a population density of 200,000 persons per square kilometer (Hong Kong Government, Census and Statistics Department 1969). Given these figures, one would expect that Deaf people encountered each other on the streets with some frequency and thus developed some form of manual communication even though historical records cannot be found.

Besides regular contacts, another favorable condition for the emergence of sign language is the establishment of Deaf schools, particularly residential ones (Winzer 1993). …

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