The bitches of Hong Kong

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The Dutch pilot landed KLM flight 887 at the Hong Kong airport so smoothly that if I had been in a conversation I would not have noticed that there had been a landing. My suitcase made the carousel before I did. The uniformed airport greeter inside the terminal held a card saying "Prof Pullum" — not Pullam or Pullman or Pullen or any of the scores of other spellings I get on my mail labels and invoices and name badges: this seems to be a culture that cares enough to get things right. The greeter took me to my driver. As the sleek black car pulled away the driver said, "Sir, seatbelt please."

"Is it the law?", I asked idly, wondering if seatbelt wearing was legally enforced even for back seat passengers in limousines.

"Half hour," said the driver smartly.

I didn't press the matter. I'm not that interested in the legal culture of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong: I'm happy to wear a seatbelt whether it legally mandated or not. I just sat back and reflected on the fact that this man was clearly my linguistic superior, by a factor of infinity. He had recognized that I had asked him a question, guessed which one it probably was, and gave an intelligible answer. I wish I could do even that much in Cantonese.

He had been bold enough to use my language. I have not been bold enough (yet) to use a single word of his. (This is a tone language. I have to do a lot of listening before I will attempt even a single remark. I am terrified of making a tonal blunder and find that instead of telling an elegant companion "That's a lovely dress" I have accidentally said "There is abundant horse shit.")

The length of our journey along coastside freeways and spectacular suspension bridges to the Harbour Plaza Metropolis in Hung Hom on the Kowloon peninsula was indeed about half an hour. At one point my driver waved an arm in the general direction of the ocean and made a remark about the bitches.

If he had been an American gangster rapper, I might have expected to find that he was pointing out some fine-looking women in tight red dresses on the corner; but I had encountered this problem of short high front vowel quality before when talking English with a Chinese speaker, so here at least I was linguistically prepared.

I looked down the hillside where he had pointed (we were going along a steep slope above the water, amid scenery rather like parts of Route 1 in California), and as I expected, there were sandy strips where one could swim.

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