Magazine article The Spectator

Sir Percy Is Also a Bowl of Noodles

Magazine article The Spectator

Sir Percy Is Also a Bowl of Noodles

Article excerpt

Hong Kong

THERE ARE many fashionable things to do in Hong Kong, from consuming Cantonese food in the exotic surroundings of David Tang's China Club to buying Italian fashions from hard-faced Cantonese salesgirls. Learning the Cantonese language, however, is not one of them.

It is, therefore, a small group that assembles each week in a classroom high up on the slopes of Hong Kong island. By this time of the evening the diligent schoolchildren have long gone, no doubt to those fearsome hours of homework that will enable them to outsmart their dullard European rivals. A steady stream of taxis groans up the hillside to decant people coming to agreeable evening classes in Chinese calligraphy or floral arrangements.

Not many of them climb all the way to the third floor, where the mysteries of Cantonese are unfolded. Frankly, one can understand why.

The people of Hong Kong, in their tens of thousands, flock earnestly to tuition in Mandarin, the mainstream tongue of mainland China spoken by the best part of one billion human beings. They presume, with good reason, that proficiency in Putonghua, or `common language', will stand them in patriotic good stead after the British leave next July.

That leaves only a few mainlanders and a number of undaunted foreigners who have any interest in acquiring a working knowledge of a language spoken by most of the six million inhabitants of Hong Kong and at least 60 million more in the neighbouring province of Guangdong.

Undaunted you have to be. For a start, there is the fact that reasonable mastery of Cantonese is unlikely to enable even the most fleeting conversation with a Peking taxi-driver. Then there is the exceedingly daunting information that although both Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages, there are more tones to master in Cantonese. The ramifications are terrifying. It is quite literally the case that without correct command of the six main tones, it is possible to insult the dignity of your local tailor's grandmother while asking for the measurements of a pair of trousers. Well, one thinks at this point, basic Arabic turned out to be not so bad, maybe this will be the same. Ha! There are deceptive moments of reassurance. No past tense? Phew. No Romance language gender-traps? Fine . . . up to a point. No Teutonic diktats about word order in the sentence? How beguilingly Oriental. How does one say yes or no? Well ... one doesn't, exactly. Gosh, the student thinks, it's all so vague! Just how did Sir Percy Cradock and all those frightfully clever Foreign Office types pin down the Chinese when they were negotiating over the future of this place?

Lesson by lesson, the artful uses of the Chinese language sink in. Take, for example, the classifiers. Never heard of a classifier? Well, it is a useful word that groups the nouns after it. So you can't simply demand, let us say, a bowl of fried rice. The dutiful student learns that the bowl being a round object like a coin - adopts a classifying prefix without which its syllables may mean nothing. For good measure, the classifier for round objects also includes people and nations. So Sir Percy Cradock of Great Britain takes the same classifier as a bowl of noodles. There must be something instructive in that. Could it be that our chaps were not quite as brilliant as we thought?

But these are unworthy thoughts for us classroom pupils plodding through our verbs and numbers in the humid Hong Kong night through our verbs and numbers. …

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