Public Housing Notice in Monolingual Chinese: Is Hong Kong still Bilingual?
By Joyce Cheung
(Research Fellow, School of Graduate Studies, Lingnan University)
Recently, I noticed a very intriguing phenomenon – take the large-scaled public housing estate where I live as an example, one can easily spot a variety of notices and memoranda announcing news such as the lift suspension for renovation, water suspension, marking scheme on air-conditioners’ dripping water, rental adjustment etc. These notices are seemingly trivial yet directly impactful on residents’ daily life. However, for residents who are non-Chinese speakers, they could by no means comprehend the traditional Chinese characters in order to make sense of the latest updates. Just imagine us being the ethnic minorities who can only understand English, we may not be able to receive important messages like rental adjustment, which is a serious concern.
Now based on the official information released by the Hong Kong Government, both Chinese and English are the official languages in the city(1). According to the 2016 Population By-census (2), 431,616 non-Chinese speakers are residing in Hong Kong, in which over 300 thousands mainly communicate in English. Although nearly half of the English speakers live in Hong Kong Island, more than half scatter across districts in Kowloon and New Territories (Census and Statistics Department, 2011(3) ). For some ethnic minorities, say Indians, there is a fifty-fifty ratio of those communicating in English to those using other languages. Though we cannot and shall never assume that all non-Chinese speakers can communicate in English, bilingual versions of public announcement can undoubtedly deliver messages to more users than monolingual ones do.
In view of this, the government has set up the Official Language Division(4) to provide public document and letters with translation and proofreading services, to offer guidelines and systems in regulating the use of languages, as well as to formulate reference materials which facilitate formal writing. However, such professional yet basic services are exclusive to civil servants. Take Hong Kong Housing Authority (HA) which built 227 public housing estates as an example – HA’s website clearly states that ‘about 60% of our rental estates has been outsourced to PSAs [property services agents], while the rest are directly managed by the HD [Housing Department](5). In other words, more than a hundred housing estates are managed by the property services agents. Whether these companies have established any bilingual-writing systems to cater for residents’ language needs and to accord with the city’s official language stipulation is up for further investigation. That said, like the large-scaled housing estate where I live and managed by the Creative Enterprise Holdings Limited, it houses quite a number of South Asian households but the English translations of notices are nowhere to be seen in the lobby; even for the LINKS which runs malls in multiple housing estates, its website does not provide an English version neither(6) which is rather puzzling.
The government did respond to LegCo members’ enquiry on LINKS’ food options for ethnic minorities in the Subcommittee on Rights of Ethnic Minorities on March 13, 2017, replying that ‘the Government and HA [Housing Authority] cannot and will not interfere with Link’s day-to-day operation and commercial decisions. (7)Therefore, it is not hard to imagine the Housing Authority has little supervision over the outsourcing management companies, hence notices in the public housing estates are found not following a standard translation procedure. As a matter of fact, common private companies may not be highly sensitive in terms of residents’ language needs; nonetheless, in an officially-bilingual and internationalised city, I argue that, even the government does not intervene individual management company’s operation, the government should proactively lend these companies translation templates and models as well as to liaise them with local organisations (e.g. Centre for Harmony and Enhancement of Ethnic Minority Residents (CHEER)) in order to provide non-Chinese speaking residents the necessary information promptly.
1GovHK. (2020). Hong Kong – the Facts. https://www.gov.hk/en/about/abouthk/facts.htm
2Census and Statistics Department. (2017). Population Aged 5 and Over by Duration of Residence in Hong Kong, Ethnicity, Year and Usual Spoken Language https://www.censtatd.gov.hk/hkstat/sub/sp459.jsp?productCode=B112160A
3Census and Statistics Department. (2012). Population Aged 5 and Over by District Council District, Ethnicity and Usual Language, 2011 (A210) https://www.census2011.gov.hk/en/main-table.html#
4Civil Service Bureau. (2018). Official Language Division. https://www.csb.gov.hk/english/aboutus/org/scsd/1470.html
5Hong Kong Housing Authority. (2020). Property Management. https://www.housingauthority.gov.hk/en/public-housing/estate-management/property-management/index.html
6LINKS. (n.d.)https://www.linkhk.com/tc/home/(in Chinese)
7Legislative Council. (2017). LC Paper No. CB(2)1351/16-17(01): Legislative Council Subcommittee on Rights of Ethnic Minorities Meeting on 13 March 2017 Supplementary Information. https://www.legco.gov.hk/yr16-17/english/hc/sub_com/hs52/papers/hs5220170508cb2-1351-1-e.pdf