Simplified characters for Hong Kong? No thanks!

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On July 1, the government is sponsoring a spectacular fireworks display that will light up the sky over Victoria Harbor to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from British colonial control to the People's Republic of China.  Trouble is, the show will begin with the words "China" and "Hong Kong", but the form in which they will be written has made local residents unhappy:

"Hong Kong fireworks display for 20th handover anniversary sparks controversy over use of simplified Chinese characters:  City’s most expensive fireworks event since 1997 to run 23 minutes over Victoria Harbour at cost of HK$12 million" (Jane Li, SCMP, 6/12/17)

The is what people will see:

中国    HK

This is what the display would look like if all four syllables were written in traditional Chinese characters:

中國    香港

The overwhelming majority of the people of Hong Kong have a visceral dislike of the simplified characters; they believe that the reduced forms are an abomination, a desecration of the traditional script.

Last year, a local TVB newscast generated 10,000 complaints after it used simplified characters.

“This clearly shows that this display is only for entertaining mainlanders instead of Hongkongers,” an internet user wrote. Another asked: “What is the point of arranging this display as it will both pollute the environment and burn taxpayers’ money?”

A representative of the fireworks company explained why they chose the orthography they did in this case:

Fiona Cheung of Million Production and Promotion Company, which oversees part of the display arrangements, said technical concerns were behind the plan to use simplified Chinese.

“It would be difficult for the traditional ‘gwok’ [the second character for China] to be presented well in the sky,” she said. “We used the simplified ‘guo’ during the city’s 15th anniversary for this reason.”

I leave it to Language Log readers to decide for themselves whether they think Ms. Cheung was being candid when she said that they chose the simplified character 国 instead of the traditional character 國.  I suppose that the same reasoning would hold for using the Roman letters HK instead of 香港.


  1. hanmeng said,

    June 14, 2017 @ 8:51 pm

    Aren't you going to suggest pinyin?

  2. Adrian said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 6:04 pm

    Intentionally or not, your statement suggests that you think Ms Cheung was not being candid.

    Her argument seems reasonable, although I suppose designs of any complexity are possible if the display is large enough.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 7:49 pm


    You're a very poor mind reader.

    In any event, what I was thinking is irrelevant to the question I put to Language Log readers. I wanted to know what they thought about Ms. Cheung's explanation. I already knew what I thought (and it might surprise you greatly to learn what it really is).

    It seems as though hanmeng was also eager to put words in my mouth.

  4. B.Ma said,

    June 15, 2017 @ 8:33 pm

    It's a valid explanation, but either they are very naive not to foresee that it would be controversial, or they decided to do it this way first and then came up with the reasoning second.

  5. flow said,

    June 18, 2017 @ 3:45 pm

    I guess you could construe the planned display the other way round, too. I mean, the country's name, China, is written as 中国, i.e. 'Peking Style', not 'Hong Kong Style', which would be 中國. I mean, each to their own, right?

    OTOH, Hong Kong is represented as HK, not as 香港 or Xianggang or XG (?is that even a thing?), so the reading is Cantonese, and the writing is English, both official languages in the SAR, but not in the PRC (although—Cantonese? does it have any official status in the PRC?).

    Seen this way, a display of 中国HK may be seen as a statement for an independent or more autonomous Hong Kong. Needless to say that it would be …er… unwise … for an official / person who just was paid by the government to bluntly say, yeah, you see, China's written in simplified characters but Hong Kong as an English-Cantonese acronym, just so to show we totally support independence from Peking. Much better to weasel whatwith characters too complex whatever.

    There's the story of that guy who gave the Empress Dowager, Cixi, a gift that was a small sculpture showing a peach (blossom? fruit?) on a lotus leaf. Beautiful, but dangerous, as the Empress suspected that instead of the obvious—蓮葉托桃—what was meant was really a humiliation for her flight to Xi'an—連夜脫逃 during the battle of Beijing (August 1900). Not sure what became of the craftsman, but I guess it didn't end well for him. So you see, doing 中國香港 much too difficult for fireworks, 中国HK much simpler, everyone happy.

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