The politics of multilingualism in Hong Kong

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The following article by Danny Mok appeared in today's South China Morning Post:

"Police? Jing Cha? Altered helmet may spell 'trouble' for city policeman" (5/19/15)

The article commenced with this photograph:

Since the SCMP may be behind a paywall for most Language Log readers, here is the entirety of the relatively short article:

Police? Jing Cha? A traffic officer caused a stir online by wearing a helmet with the English word "police" replaced by its phonetic translation in Putonghua.

The uniformed officer was pictured riding a police motorcycle wearing a helmet altered to prominently feature the words "Jing Cha", the pronunciation of the Putonghua word for "police", by a motorist behind him.

The picture was taken by the motorist near Lantau North police station on Shun Tung Road yesterday morning, and then widely circulated and discussed online.

A police spokesman last night confirmed the authenticity of the picture.

"The police will find out what happened.

"If it is confirmed that someone violated the regulations, there will be an appropriate follow-up," the spokesman said.

Ip Kwok-him, the chairman of the Legislative Council's security panel, said it was not appropriate for police officers to change their uniforms.

Panel member James To kun-sun said he believed the officer made the change to his helmet "for fun".

"The case was not that serious, but the force should make it clear to their staff that they are not supposed to do whatever they want to their uniforms," To said.

"Hong Kong as an international city, we have to make sure people know you are the police."

The officer's creativity fuelled an internet discussion on whether the city should adopt Putonghua phonetics in addition to its official languages, Cantonese and English.

A couple of language notes:

1. JING CHA is not a "phonetic translation in Putonghua"; it is a Putonghua (Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]) transcription of the two characters.

2. By putting a space between the two syllables (JING CHA), the policeman treats the characters as separate words ("warn" + "examine"), whereas they are actually part of a disyllabic word:

MSM jǐngchá 警察 ("police"), the Cantonese pronunciation of which would be ging2caat3

The position of Cantonese vis-à-vis Mandarin is a highly sensitive topic in Hong Kong, so something such as the addition of MSM Romanization for two characters on a policeman's helmet that to outsiders might seem innocuous for Hong Kong residents can readily lead to an uproar.  For Hong Kong citizens, the implications of such an action are not trivial.

[h/t Bob Bauer]


  1. Nathan said,

    May 19, 2015 @ 1:41 pm

    So the uproar is because the characters are seen as neutral between the two different languages, but the Romanization is explicitly Mandarin?

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 19, 2015 @ 4:26 pm

    The Hong Police official website appears to be tri-scriptal, with an English version, a traditional-characters version, and a simplified-characters version. I am assuming both hanzi versions are in MSM rather than Cantonese (sidestepping the question of how easy or hard it is for a Cantonese speaker to read such a text or at least intelligently guess at its meaning), but that's just a guess on my part. I further assume the choice between the two versions of hanzi does have symbolic/political overtones and thus that the symbolically neutral course of action is doing it both ways.

  3. Pooru said,

    May 19, 2015 @ 5:12 pm

    Same characters in ja, but core meanings given in WWWJDIC "admonish" + "surmise". Emphasis seems slightly different…

    Also, I'm surprised the first character (at least) hasn't been simplified.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 19, 2015 @ 9:19 pm

    From a resident of Hong Kong:

    There is already the perception that the HK police are controlled by mainland authorities, so this incident adds to the anxiety Hongkongers feel about the insidious mainlandization of Hong Kong [香港嘅大陸化].

  5. Keith Ivey said,

    May 19, 2015 @ 9:34 pm

    "The uniformed officer was pictured riding a police motorcycle wearing a helmet altered to prominently feature the words 'Jing Cha', the pronunciation of the Putonghua word for 'police', by a motorist behind him."

    I'm not sure what to do with that last prepositional phrase. I guess it goes with "pictured", which is supposed to mean "photographed", but of course I initially read it as the the motorist doing the altering. Or maybe it's the pronunciation used by the motorist.

  6. K. Chang said,

    May 19, 2015 @ 11:20 pm

    The interesting part is people in Hong Kong do NOT called Police "ging-chat". Everybody calls them 差人(chai-yan)

    I wonder if these guys ordered the helmets from China and someone forgot a final QA check?

  7. K. Chang said,

    May 19, 2015 @ 11:54 pm

    @J W Brewer — I read through some random pages under the traditional Chinese side and the language is decidedly neutral, no "Cantonese idioms" except the user-submitted parts where they submit "thank you notes" about the officers that helped them.

    EX: Hong Kong residents almost never refers to wallet as 皮夾 (pi-jia/pei-gaap "leather squeeze") but rather as 銀包 (yinbao/un-bao "silver bag") but in the anti-fraud tips page of the HKPD website it used the neutral term 錢包 (qianbao "money bag").

  8. K. Chang said,

    May 20, 2015 @ 4:31 am

    Hong Kong is VERY VERY sensitive about any hint of mainlandization. The current governor was blasted regularly for his (perceived?) mainland lean, and there were plenty of calls for general elections in Hong Kong so they can choose their own officials rather than appointed or approved all they way from Beijing. The 2014 HK student protests that lasted all the way to 2015 in some cases. When police eventually cleared the "occupation" sites of the students, police and courts were accused of being "Beijing puppets".

    Thus, any shift of HK Police to look any bit more like the Mainland police is bound to cause major uproar. HK police, under British rule, had green uniform. After return to Mainland China rule it shifted to the current black slack / light blue shirt, which was the standard in China and that uproar took a while to die down.

    Trivia: Police Cars in China are marked with Police 警察 on the front, but on the side, it will usually say 公安 (Public Security). In Hong Kong they are usually marked as 警Police察 on all sides.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2015 @ 7:45 am

    I wonder how people would react if caai1jan4 and / or 差人 were put on Hong Kong police helmets and police cars in addition to Police 警察.

  10. Rachel said,

    May 20, 2015 @ 11:44 am

    All very interesting… One particular thing that interests me is how the word is broken into two syllables. I get the impression from all the recent Mainland Mandarin texts I've seen that few people care about the distinction between 'words' and 'syllables', when it comes to Pīnyīn romanization. Words are routinely broken into syllables, without such accoutrements as tone marks, capitalization, etc. A lot of this is practicality, of course; tone marks are not easily accessible on lots of keyboards, as one example. But even textbooks for teaching Mandarin frequently break words into syllables, listing Pīnyīn ruby text directly under the relevant character, without linking syllables into words or sentences. (Capitalization and punctuation for Pīnyīn are also frequently not used.) I can't find a quick online example of this, but the main textbook I'm currently using doesn't present Pīnyīn strung together into sentences; it uses it only as character-dependent ruby text.

    I'm curious about the reasons that go into this. Part must be the relatively fuzzy border between 'words' and 'characters' in Mandarin; part must be some practicalities of typing (perhaps a lot of people find it easier to edit Pīnyīn when it's directly below its associated character, rather than strung together into sentences?); some must be unconcern with the rules of proper Pīnyīn, partly because, I think, for a lot of people, Pīnyīn is considered 'training wheels' to use only as a link to learning characters.

    Anyway, an interesting feature… maybe a trend? It seems to have accelerated in the past decade or so, but maybe that's just my subjective experience of it.

  11. K. Chang said,

    May 20, 2015 @ 2:32 pm

    The ruby text run-on are seen more on products such as herbal powdered drink mixes. I will dig up a sample later.

  12. Eidolon said,

    May 20, 2015 @ 5:21 pm

    "Police? Jing Cha? A traffic officer caused a stir online by wearing a helmet with the English word "police" replaced by its phonetic translation in Putonghua."

    Though this article stirred a debate about the position of Cantonese vis-a-vis Mandarin in HK, isn't the issue ultimately a different one, having to do with the replacement of an English – ie "internationally understood" – word with one that is understood only by Mandarin speakers who know pinyin? I do agree that it is relevant to the mainlandization process, though, because the Chinese mainland police care a lot less about being "internationally understood" than HK police do.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2015 @ 10:26 pm

    From Bob Bauer

    @Victor Mair:

    "I wonder how people would react if caai1jan4 and / or 差人 were put on Hong Kong police helmets and police cars in addition to Police 警察."

    The answer to your question is that 差人 caa1 jan4 'the police; policeman' is colloquial (documented in Sidney Lau's Cantonese-English dictionary 1977:42), and so it would not be acceptable in the formal, serious context of a policeman's uniform

    Another colloquial– even derogatory — Cantonese word is 差佬 caai1 lou2 'policeman; copper; cop' derogatory (Sidney Lau 1977:41).

  14. K. Chang said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 3:39 am

    差人 is indeed colloquial… but it predates the term 警察. 

    In pre-Republic Chinese history, local justice ministry branches are known as 衙門 (ya-meng) and those employed / tasked by the local official are known as 衙門差役 (tasked laborer from ya-meng) Later it was shortened to 差役 or just 差人.They investigate and arrest people for the officials to render judgements. (The Term 衙門 dates back to the Soong Dynasty, while the term 差人 can be traced as far as Ming Dynasty. )

    Hong Police is a little different in that when the British first took over there was no formal Chinese name for the force, leading to multiple names being used, and one of which was a very historical 香港差役, and that became the informal name 差人 used to refer to all HK Police. If you want to get gender specific, you can use 差佬 for male or 差婆 for female. But it is not a formal name, and thus will not appear in formal documents or signs.

    佬 (lo) is not always considered derogatory in Cantonese, merely very colloquial and informal. For example, big brother is 大佬 dai-lo (or senior lieutenant in a gang, or just "boss") and is basically something use for a mature guy as opposed to a young kid 仔 (zai)

  15. K. Chang said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 3:45 am

    According to Wikipedia, the term 警察 did not appear in Chinese until late Qing Dynasty, circa 1880's and was imported from the Japanese language.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 7:48 am

    @K. Chang

    When you write "ya-meng", what language are you using?

    In MSM, 衙門 would be pronounced as yámén, in Cantonese it would be ngaa4mun4, and in Taiwanese it would be gêmn̂g.

    This word, by the way, was borrowed into English as "yamen" during the Qing (Manchu) period, as early as 1747, according to Merriam-Webster:

    My 1971 ed. of the OED, under "yamoun", has it going back to 1827.

    This Wikipedia article is informative:

    The Chinese Wikipedia traces the term back to the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589).

    Note that the word was originally written as yámén 牙門 (lit., "tooth-gate").

    Here's the etymological note from the American Heritage dictionary, 5th ed.:

    [Mandarin yámen, from Middle Chinese nja⋮ mun : Middle Chinese nja⋮, magistracy, headquarters of a magistrate; akin to nja⋮, tooth, flag with a serrated edge planted outside an official's tent + Middle Chinese mun, gate.]

  17. julie lee said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 2:28 pm

    I wonder if the policemen with the offending helmet on the motorbike is a Mainlander or a native Hong Kong person. I would guess a Mainlander, or someone who came out of Mainland schools and has Mainland sensibilities.

  18. K. Chang said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:03 pm

    Found this list of ancient Chinese law enforcement terms across multiple dynasties, good stuff…

  19. Jacob said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:04 pm

    Would 阿Sir upset the anti-English mainland crowd?

  20. K. Chang said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:05 pm

    (Oops, that should have read "titles of all various government posts in Ancient China")

  21. K. Chang said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:06 pm

    @Julie lee — while possible, rather unlikely, IMHO. No policeman would choose to modify their helmet that way that I can think of.

    @Jacob — too informal?

  22. K. Chang said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:09 pm

    @Victor Mair — your ref to American Heritage dict def of "tooth" lead me to this definition of 牙旗 (yaqi / tooth flag) and that's very illustrative.

  23. K. Chang said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:38 pm

    Took me several searched to locate what a NORMAL motorbike police helmet *should* look like in the back, and it's kinda grainy:

    But it definitely does NOT say "jing cha". I can make out the Chinese characters, but I don't see English "Police".

  24. K. Chang said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:56 pm

    Okay me stupid. I found the full size version and it says POLICE in the middle. So somebody swapped out POLICE for JING CHA on the controversial helmet. Very interesting.

    What's interesting is that this photo above, the "correct" one, has a unit number, E15, whereas that other controversial helmet does not have one.

    Wonder if someone played a practical joke on the poor guy?

  25. K. Chang said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 10:57 pm

    Argh, forgot to post the URL to the pix:

    This is the CORRECT version of the HKPD Motorcycle Unit Helmet

  26. Calvin said,

    May 21, 2015 @ 11:38 pm

    @K. Chang, here is a better one:
    (Click to view the full-size image and you can clearly see "POLICE" beneath “警察”).

    Bonus: Their counterparts across Shenzhen river:

  27. galthran said,

    May 22, 2015 @ 10:13 am

    The old movie term "royal wind" is always understood (but chuckled at) when I use it in HK. I think it must be a criminal term? I'm illiterate but "wong hei" perhaps captures it?

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