Ich bin ein Hongkonger

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The genesis of this post lies in the following newspaper headline:

"Ich Bin Ein Hong Konger:  How Hong Kong is turning into the West Berlin of the quasi-cold war between the West and China", by Melinda Liu, Foreign Policy (7/16/19)

Every historically literate person immediately recognizes the allusion to John F. Kennedy's famous speech in West Berlin on June 26, 1963:

Speaking from a platform erected on the steps of Rathaus Schöneberg for an audience of 450,000, Kennedy said,

Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum ["I am a Roman citizen"]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is "Ich bin ein Berliner!"… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner!"

Kennedy used the phrase twice in his speech, including at the end, pronouncing the sentence with his Boston accent and reading from his note "ish bin ein Bearleener", which he had written out using English orthography to approximate the German pronunciation. He also used classical Latin pronunciation of civis romanus sum, with the c pronounced [k] and the v as [w].

There is a widespread misconception (outside German-speaking countries) that the phrase was not used correctly and actually means "I'm a doughnut", referring to the Berliner doughnut. It has even been embellished into an urban legend, including equally incorrect claims about the audience laughing at this phrase.

Source

So, no, President Kennedy did not say "I am a doughnut".  The linguistics of that misconception is entertainingly and precisely laid out here — with powerful historical footage of the President speaking — by rewboss (Andrew Bossom):

Now is about the time for President Trump to travel to Hong Kong to make a similar declaration of unity with the people of Hong Kong.  From Bob Bauer:

How to say in Cantonese, I am a Hongkonger?

What a most interesting and timely question!

Just now my Google searches of three Cantonese sentences as candidates turned up the following findings ranked by their frequency of occurence:

1.我係香港人: 420,000 GH @ 17072019

ngo5 hai6 hoeng1 gong2 jan4 'I am (a) Hongkonger'.

2.我係一個香港人: 11,900 GH @ 17072019

ngo5 hai6 jat1 go3 hoeng1 gong2 jan4 'I am a/one Hongkonger'.

3.我都係香港人: 267,000 GH @ 17072019

ngo5 dou1 hai6 hoeng1 gong2 jan4 'I am also a Hongkonger'.

Here is some additional material relevant to the matter of Hongkongers' distinctive/separate sociopolitical, linguistic, and cultural identity:

我係香港人- Home | Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/I.am.a.Hongkonger/

‎我係香港人. 85811 likes · 14439 talking about this.

我係香港人!我講香港話!我寫正體字!

我哋係香港人,唔係中國人。

—–

Translation by  VHM:

"I am a Hongkonger!  I speak Hongkongese!  I write traditional characters!

We are Hongkongese, not Chinese."

On his way home, he could stop off in Taiwan to declare:  guá sī Tâi-oân-lâng ("I am Taiwanese").

[Thanks to Philip Clart, Grace Wu, Melvin Lee, Pui Ling Tang, Zeyao Wu, Ines Mair, Heidi Krohne, and Willem F P de Vogel]



26 Comments

  1. John Rohsenow said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 5:46 pm

    Some Germans I know gave points to JFK for pronouncing the initial
    first person pronoun as a soft "ish" rather than the hard "ich" (like "ik")
    which I am told is the way it is pronounced in Berlin.

  2. Monscampus said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 7:02 pm

    I wish I had read this post earlier. I recently asked an Asian looking couple on a train in English if they were Chinese. They seemed offended and replied, "Definitely not! We're from Hong Kong!" That was me told.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 7:14 pm

    From a native Berliner, grew up there many decades ago:

    Ik or icke is part of the Berlin jargon but always used by
    uneducated people. Americans have a problem with
    most German pronunciations of ch. The proper ch of
    "ich" sounds like when a goose is angry. "Ach" as used
    as an exclamation akin to "oh, my" or "really?" or when used
    in connection with "no", is the guttural cough-like sound.
    So after all this, Kennedy's "ish" is about as close as he could
    get to a hissing goose and as correct as an American tongue
    would manage.

  4. AntC said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 10:17 pm

    he could stop off in Taiwan to declare: guá sī Tâi-oân-lâng ("I am Taiwanese").

    I wish some Statesman who commands moral authority would do that. For example, the prior holder of the office of POTUS; definitely not the current holder.

    Taiwan is limbering up for Presidential elections next year. The most talked-about candidate is Han Kuo-yu, absentee Mayor of Kaohsiung — where he was elected barely half a year ago, and has allegedly worked wonders already on the city's tired infrastructure. (I feel like saying he's 'made the drains run on time'.)

    Han was asked recently his views on events in Hong Kong. He said he didn't really know what was going on. At the same time KMT policy seems to be to cosy up more to Xi Jinping. Meanwhile current President Tsai Ing-wen is working tirelessly (and rather under the radar of the Taiwanese public) to strengthen relations with any country that will help stand against the Mainland.

    The Taiwanese commentariat seems to be sleepwalking into Taiwan finding itself in the same position as Hong Kong 40 years hence. I plain don't understand why that isn't the major political issue in the country.

  5. Phillip Helbig said,

    July 19, 2019 @ 3:22 am

    "Some Germans I know gave points to JFK for pronouncing the initial
    first person pronoun as a soft "ish" rather than the hard "ich" (like "ik")
    which I am told is the way it is pronounced in Berlin."

    As noted above, it was probably the closest he could get. Actually, the sound exists in English, at least in some dialects: the initial consonant in "Houston" (though not in England, "Hooston", and not in Houston or in most of Texas ("Youston"). The "ik" is Berlin slang. Pronouncing it like "ish" in English is typical of the Cologne region.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2019 @ 7:23 am

    @Phillip Helbig:

    Your fine-grained explanation about the variant local pronunciations of "Houston" is very interesting and helps me understand better the Mandarin transcription of the name of the city as "Xiūsīdùn 休斯顿", which always used to bother me. I used to think that Mandarin speakers could have come up with a sound for the first syllable that more closely approximated "Hou-" (i.e., /ˈhju-/ than does "Xiu-". But when we look at the overall table of Mandarin syllables, there's no "*hü", though they could have gone for "xu" (Wade-Giles "hsü").

    So, either the person who came up with the transcription "Xiūsīdùn 休斯顿" for "Houston" was intimately familiar with one of the local variants you cite, or the name was first transcribed with Chinese characters on the basis of a non-Mandarin topolect, e.g.:

    Cantonese (Jyutping): jau1

    Hakka

    (Sixian, PFS): hiû
    (Meixian, Guangdong): hiu1

    Min Nan

    (Hokkien, POJ): hiu
    (Teochew, Peng'im): hiun1 / hiu1

    Also, note how the Mandarin transcription of the consonant cluster at the beginning the second syllable of the English word breaks up "st-" into two syllables: "sīdùn 斯顿", cf. the transcription of "Boston" as "Bōshìdùn 波士顿". But then one wonders, why do we have "sīdùn 斯顿" for the final syllable of "Houston" and "shìdùn 士顿" for the final syllable of "Boston", since, in General American pronunciation, they are both "/ˈstən/"?

  7. JJM said,

    July 19, 2019 @ 8:48 am

    "Ich Bin Ein Hong Konger: How Hong Kong is turning into the West Berlin of the quasi-cold war between the West and China"

    Sadly, Hong Kong is no West Berlin; its fate was sealed in 1997 when HM Government sailed off into the sunset.

    I have no doubt that there are contingency plans in the defence ministry in Beijing for an intervention in Hong Kong if political groups attempt to stray too far from the "One China" principle. Any such impetus for such an intervention is of course balanced by a desire not to upset the economic applecart but the PRC probably has only so much patience.

    And the West won't be coming to their rescue.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 19, 2019 @ 8:56 am

    I remember being taught as a teenager spending the summer in the then-West Germany way back when that the "ish" pronunciation (maybe w/ something going on with the vowel that pushed it in the direction of "eesh"?) was characteristic of Frankfurt-area dialect, but that might well be the same as Cologne-area dialect in that particular.

    And FWIW I had the same thought as JJM on the inaptness of the comparison. The parallel would be if at some point circa maybe 1970 the American, British, and French troops garrisoned in West Berlin had all been withdrawn (along with West German bureaucratic presence) in return for a paper promise from the Communists to allow West Berlin to maintain its own existing "system" with substantially more freedom than was on offer in the surrounding DDR. I can't imagine anyone having thought that was a sensible deal to make.

  9. Christian Weisgerber said,

    July 19, 2019 @ 3:26 pm

    In parts of West Central German, /ç/ has merged into /ʃ/. People have remarked, for example, on former chancellor Helmut Kohl's pronunciation of ich like isch.
    I'm from the same city, and one of my German teachers in Gymnasium also chastised me for this. (I felt this was somewhat unjust, since the teacher was an ethnic German who had migrated from Romania and her own accent sounded outright non-native to me.)

    Here's a map with the various pronunciations of ich:
    http://www.atlas-alltagssprache.de/runde-2/f25c/

  10. Alex said,

    July 19, 2019 @ 6:52 pm

    @Phillip Helbig:
    > Actually, the sound exists in English, at least in some dialects: the initial consonant in "Houston" (though not in England, "Hooston"…

    Yorkshire (where I'm from) and most of the North would probably say "Youston", whilst the South would certainly say it with the "ch" (as in Loch) sound. With a non-Yorkshire, generic accent, I do it the second way. So "Hooston" is definitely not the only or even most popular way to pronounce it!

    July 19, 2019 @ 7:23 am

  11. Alan Lee said,

    July 19, 2019 @ 9:43 pm

    The Berlin Wall analogy is painfully simplistic, creates false dichotomies and reflects a very Eurocentric nationalistic idea of state and identity not to mention a poor understanding of the nuanced relationship that overseas Chinese have to "China". "China" is more than a political entity, it is a cultural homeland. The Cantonese and Fujianese dialects do not belong to one side of the imagined divide or the other, neither does Mandarin as the language of home, pop culture, education, etc. for that matter. Whoever we may be – Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, Singaporeans, Malaysian, whatever – overseas Chinese are fiercely protective of our autonomy, of our current citizenships (hard fought in many cases), of identities shaped by immigrant experiences, etc. but that does not mean we stopped being "Chinese" as some would simplistically believe. No one went up to the West Berliner and said to that person "You are not German", did they? And many overseas Chinese would most likely not take too kindly either to any American president, let alone the horror that is Trump, showing up and speaking in some ridiculous sing-song Chinese of any dialect, you can just imagine the yellowface caricatures that would ensue from this. Protests and resistance against Beijing does not mean allegiance to Washington. That logic is silly. This is Chinese history being played out, with all the ramifications and nuances of what it meaans to be Chinese for both overseas Chinese and mainlanders.

  12. Thomas Rees said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 12:37 am

    @Alex:
    I reckon Phillip Helbig meant "not in Britain". "Hooston" /huːstən/ is a village in Renfrewshire, some 10 miles west of Glasgow.
    The Texan city is pronounced /hjuːstən/, most commonly realised as /çuːstən/. I don't know what you mean by the "ch" (as in Loch) sound. To me, that's /x/, the Ach-Laut.
    Nobody has mentioned Houston /haʊstən/ Street in Manhattan.

  13. dainichi said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 3:18 am

    I wonder what explains the non-correspondence between spelling and pronunciation of Houston the city. It seems to have been named after Sam Houston, so I assume his name was pronounced that way too. Assuming the etymology of Houston is "Hugh's town", why not Huston or Hueston?

  14. Lasius said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 4:51 am

    @ John Rohsenow

    As others have noted and from a native Berliner, the Berlin dialectal pronunciation of "Ich" would actually be very close to the stereotypical English accented "ick" /ɪk/. However, "ish" /ɪʃ/ is a common realization in the Turkish sociolect "Kanak Sprak" of Berlin.

  15. Jonathan Smith said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 1:52 pm

    @JJM "Sadly, Hong Kong is no West Berlin; its fate was sealed in 1997 when HM Government sailed off into the sunset."
    fatalism
    @Alan Lee "Protests and resistance against Beijing does not mean allegiance to Washington."
    廢話 'goes without saying'
    Outsiders' 局外人的 feelings or analysis or support or denunciation are irrelevant; all that matters is whether the people of Hong Kong make a sufficiently universal determination that this is the hill.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 3:32 pm

    Using analogies from one area or historical era for another is always fraught with difficulty, but Melinda Liu is herself not an outsider to the complexities of identity in the Chinese diaspora (and/or, if you like, those parts of "China" currently fortunate enough not to be under PRC rule). Perhaps her fuller analysis is more nuanced than the headline her editors attached to her piece.

    A more interesting analogy to "Germanness" might be Taiwan-as-Austria, where political and historical circumstances in Europe eventually led to the evolution of an "Austrian" identity that was understood as non-German, i.e. being Austrian contrasted with being German despite the linguistic and cultural similarities, rather than being, as it had earlier been, merely a subset of a broader ethnic-German identity the way a Bavarian identity would be. But different folks on Taiwan are currently in rather different places in how they see their Taiwanese identity as relating to a broader Chinese identity, which is one factor (certainly not the only one) in driving the Blue v. Green political divide there.

  17. Chris said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 6:37 pm

    @Alan Lee said,

    "The Berlin Wall analogy is painfully simplistic, creates false dichotomies and reflects a very Eurocentric nationalistic idea of state and identity…."

    May I point out that

    1). It was a Chinese, Melinda Liu, who came up with the comparison of Hongkongers to Berliners.

    2) The "I am a Hongkonger!" Facebook page features this declaration: "We are Hongkongese, not Chinese."我們係香港人,唔係中國人。

    3) A very popular sentiment among Taiwanese is that they are not Chinese 不是中國人。

  18. Alex said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 8:19 pm

    @ alan lee

    You mentioned Overseas Chinese, I think there are large differences in feelings between First Generation overseas and 2nd, 3rd, etc toward the "mother land"

    What is reasonably clear is that the author of the article is ethnically Chinese. Her name is Melinda Liu. I googled her photo to try to further confirm this just in case she was non Chinese marrying and taking the name of a husband who had that last name.

    I don't know if she is first or further generation overseas Chinese but she chose to make that analogy.

    My personal analogy is generations of Jewish people and their feelings toward Israel.
    As both Israel and the People Republic of China are newly created around the same time. And prior to that it really wasn't modern Country considering vast amounts of time it was under "foreign" rule.

  19. Alex said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 8:47 pm

    @ alan lee

    "showing up and speaking in some ridiculous sing-song Chinese of any dialect, "

    I am trying to understand this sentence. Was it your intent to say other languages such as Cantonese are ridiculous? or did you mean his action of coming to HK and speaking be ridiculous?

    Perhaps I parse it wrong, hope you can clarify.

    On a purely theoretical level, Id say it would have massive impact if he came and and even more massive impact if he spoke in HK using Cantonese.

    I actually think given what I see in the news with HK people using English signs they welcome foreign help much the way the West Berliners were very appreciative of foreign help against the SU.

    Of course there is no way he would ever do this as the most important red line would be crossed.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 8:36 am

    From Jonathan Chaves:

    I've just been reading in The Columbia Sourcebook of Literary Taiwan, ed. by Michelle Yeh et al. This is essentially an anthology of essays about literature and literary manifestos chronologically arranged, covering late Qing, Japanese Occupation, up to the present. A range of opinions is offered but one thing that runs through all of them post-1949 and increasingly from say the 70's and on is, we don't want to be ruled by the CCP. The Nationalists of course saw themselves as the legit rulers of all of China, but their opponents developed the concept of being "Taiwanese" rather than "Chinese"; ironically the more recent Nationalists, still feeling "Chinese" have gotten closer to the mainland but I can't imagine this developing into a willingness to merge. So both sides would utterly resist a take-over by the mainland. If the CCP moved in militarily they'd pay a huge price. Taiwan's military, with first-rate American aircraft and other equipment, would inflict a lot of damage, and if the US and others came to Taiwan's aid it would precipitate a huge war.

  21. Alan Lee said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 10:20 pm

    Chris said,
    1). It was a Chinese, Melinda Liu, who came up with the comparison of Hongkongers to Berliners.
    2) The "I am a Hongkonger!" Facebook page features this declaration: "We are Hongkongese, not Chinese."我們係香港人,唔係中國人。
    3) A very popular sentiment among Taiwanese is that they are not Chinese 不是中國人。

    Just want to say a couple of quick things – Melinda Liu is American, grew up in Minnesota I believe, let's not make assumptions things based on last names. Though I disagree with her Berlin Wall analogy, I do respect her perspective on US-China relations. That said, it is from and for a Western/American perspective, it is her job as a foreign correspondent after all.

    Secondly, 中國人is not generally a term an ethnic Chinese person not from the mainland or not a citizen of the PRC might generally use anyway to describe their Chinese ethnicity – those quotes are not surprising, they are statements about political identity, not ethnicity. The single imprecise English word "Chinese" is not a fair translation – a lot of nuances are lost in the process. There are many other terms in use that translate just as accurately to "Chinese" in English, in the other dialects as much as in the Mandarin dialect – in southern Chinese varieties like Cantonese, or Taiwanese for example, something like 'tong yan' or 'tng lang' (唐人 / 唐儂) are quite common and do not link one to being from the mainland. Here in sleepy Penang, Malaysia, one can happily say – wa mm si tiong kok lang, wa si tng lang!! which might be rendered rather bizarrely into English as "I am not Chinese, I am Chinese!!"

    All that being said, I think you misunderstand me. I fully support the fight for autonomy in HK and Taiwan, it is in the same vein as the struggle for regional identity that other overseas Chinese in Asia face amidst the overpowering influence of Beijing (e.g. Mandarin is supplanting the other Chinese dialects in Singapore, Malaysia, etc. at an alarming rate). But in drawing a divide between what is "Chinese" and what is not using imprecise English translations and western analogies, I feel that the fight for autonomy is short-changed because in my mind, this is a struggle by non-mainlanders for the right to define for ourselves what it means to be "Chinese" culturally, politically, democratically without being told how to by, threatened by, or renditioned to the CCP. I feel the word "Chinese" have been co-opted by the western media and well-meaning Western activists into something pejorative, associated with communist China, this is done in ignorance of the many nuances of "Chinese" as expressed in the many Chinese languages themselves and shortchanges the rest of us "Chinese".

  22. Alan Lee said,

    July 22, 2019 @ 10:33 pm

    Alex said,
    "showing up and speaking in some ridiculous sing-song Chinese of any dialect, "
    I am trying to understand this sentence. Was it your intent to say other languages such as Cantonese are ridiculous? or did you mean his action of coming to HK and speaking be ridiculous?

    I actually find it interesting, and I say this in all earnestness because it actually didn't cross my mind earlier that when I say "Chinese of any dialect", it could be misconstrued as excluding the Mandarin dialect. In the mind of this old fogey, Mandarin is as much a Chinese dialect as any other. So what I meant was that I find the idea of an American president coming over and trying to say things in a Chinese language – Cantonese, Taiwanese, Mandarin, whichever – a bit disturbing. There's a bit of that whole white saviour complex in that, but that aside, I can just imagine the kind of ching chong ching chang chong parodies that would ensue on youtube and elsewhere following such a proclamation.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 8:03 am

    "I find the idea of an American president coming over and trying to say things in a Chinese language – Cantonese, Taiwanese, Mandarin, whichever – a bit disturbing. There's a bit of that whole white saviour complex in that …"

    The present incumbent aside, I do not find the idea "disturbing" at all. Rather, I see it as a mark of respect, just as if such a President (or Prime Minister, or Chancellor, or whatever) were to attempt French in France, German in Germany or Arabic in the UAE. I see nothing of "the white saviour" whatsoever. If done well (with adequate preparation and coaching) I do not think there is any reason why it it should lead to Youtube parodies, but rather to expressions of genuine admiration for what is undoubtedly a less-than-easy task.

  24. BZ said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 12:09 pm

    I think the analogy is backwards. Presumably, Kennedy wanted to convey that there is really only one Berlin and one Germany, and to express condemnation of USSR's occupation of parts of Germany. But with Hong Kong, also presumably, we are meant to feel that Hong Kong should be separate from China, or at least retain the autonomy it enjoyed in the past, not that there is one China and Hong Kong should fully embrace it.

  25. Alex said,

    July 23, 2019 @ 10:58 pm

    @alan Lee

    Thanks for your clarification.

    From what I see in videos and photos it seems the people would welcome help given what I read on the signs and flags being used. Help with WW2 seemed welcome and there are still monuments to things like the flying tigers. Also I think "if "there is a complex when help is needed its mianzi. Not white vs other race. I wonder if obama came over to speak would it be perceived differently?

  26. Eidolon said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 6:33 pm

    "Presumably, Kennedy wanted to convey that there is really only one Berlin and one Germany, and to express condemnation of USSR's occupation of parts of Germany."

    I don't think Kennedy was conveying a sentiment of unity, but Kennedy definitely didn't imply that Berlin wasn't German. The semantic context of his use of "Berliner" should be compared to "New Yorker" rather than "Hong Konger," insofar as the latter is represented by a phrase like "我哋係香港人,唔係中國人。" There was no sentiment, in Kennedy's time, that the whole Germany was Communist and therefore German identity itself had to be opposed for Berlin to be free. The situation in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China is much more complicated, and is deeply associated with competing national identities. The heart of the matter is that 中國人 and "Chinese" today are becoming synonymous with the definition pushed forth by the PRC, such that people who do not want to be ruled by the PRC feel the need to distance themselves from it.

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