I recently spent four days in Hong Kong as the final stop of a brief Southeast Asian trip, and as usual I found the language situation there somewhat mystifying. Hong Kong, as we know, has three official languages: Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. Because I don’t speak the former, I was reliant on the latter two to guide me through interactions with locals.
I was well aware that in the past ten years the prevalence of 普通话 has spread in Hong Kong, yet people tell me that the average native still feels more comfortable conversing in English. Feeling lazy, I used English exclusively during the first two days and communicated without undue difficulty.
I found the Hong Kongers to be neither polite nor rude, rather on par with people from any major metropolis. On the third day, however, I found myself in northern Kowloon looking around for a dim sum restaurant. I approached two people standing outside of a shop and asked in English if they could recommend someplace that was authentic and nice but reasonably inexpensive. They stood inert, neither ignoring nor adressing me, and feeling frustrated (and hungry) I repeated my question in Mandarin. Suddenly, their expressions changed and they smiled broadly, not only recommending a place nearby but even escorting me there.
From that point forward, I used Mandarin as my default language in the city. At once, I noticed that people were far more friendly and polite than before, and my opinion of the infamously proud Cantonese changed for the better. Even at immigration at the airport, a location not known for its effervescent employees, I was praised for my Mandarin and for scrawling my Kunming address in barely legible 简体字.
Now, those of you with extensive travel experience are surely nodding and saying, “Of course. It’s always better to try the local tongue overseas.” This is true, and even irascible Parisian waiters will smile if you order your breakfast in French. Being somewhat ignorant about Hong Kong in general, I wasn’t sure what the linguistic dynamic was there. Perhaps Hong Kongers preferred English both to show off their competency in the tongue (in comparison to their mainland cousins) or as a gentle rebuke against Beijing rule.
Yet as I discovered, knowing a bit of Mandarin actually smoothed things over, and those of you heading there in the future would be wise to wield your language skills even if you don’t necessarily have to.