HK Profile: Dr Lisa Lim – founder of LinguisticMinorities.HK


Originally appeared in ejinsight.


It’s quite a statement for a twenty-something Hongkonger to ‘not have ever engaged with anyone from an ethnic minority background’. But that’s exactly what associate professor of English and coordinator of the Language and Communication Programme at HKU, Dr Lisa Lim, says is true of many students she encounters. We may be living in ‘Asia’s World City’, but there are persistent fears that Hong Kong’s language and culture continues to homogenise – alienating and denigrating the very thing that gives us our national identity. [See our article The Death of Cantonese? for more.]

Lim, who gained her PhD in phonetics and works in sociolinguistics, is the founder of “It’s a consolidated linguistic minorities website,” explains Lim of her project, which was first launched in 2013. “Hopefully it will become a platform for putting Hong Kong’s cultural and linguistic diversity on the map, by sharing university research with the public [in an accessible manner],” she adds.

After leaving her home country of Singapore for stints in universities in England and Amsterdam, Lim began living and teaching in Hong Kong in 2009. “I grew up in a climate of diversity, discourse and discussion about heritage and Singapore’s position in the region,” explains Lim. “Singapore’s language policies are infamous for campaigns promoting its four official languages – reducing and discouraging the use of ethnic minority languages in the process,” she explains. “It made me very attuned to [language] and passionate about it.” 

Ethnic languages in Hong Kong are similarly dying out. According to the most recent Hong Kong population census in 2011, 7.5 percent of people spoke languages other than the dominant Cantonese (which 89 percent of us speak at home) and English (3.5 percent of us speak at home). This includes the ethnic minority Chinese, such as the Hakka, Chiu Chow, and Hokkien – people who came from various parts of China during periods such as the Civil War and Cultural Revolution. Between the 2001 and 2011 census, the number of people speaking minority Chinese dialects declined from 352,562 people to 274,000.

Aside from Chinese dialects, Hong Kong is also home to languages spoken by those from South Asia who came during the colonial British period, like the Nepalese, who arrived as Gurkhas and the Indians and Pakistanis who came as civil servants and traders. The largest wave of migrants in recent years has seen hundreds of thousands of Indonesians and Filipinos arriving to work as domestic helpers, who speak a wide variety of dialects and languages. “Without them, Hong Kong would collapse,” Lim says, simply.

Indeed, Hong Kong thrives on cultural variety with the city’s very fabric depending on the ethnic minority population throughout many industries. And with Unesco now recognising language as a vehicle of intangible cultural heritage, how far should Hong Kong be conscious of losing this part of its identity? “The more we know about the diversity of languages and what they can do in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and so on, the more we understand about ourselves, language acquisition and development,” explains Lim.

The Tanka people, for example, were traditional boat dwellers who used to live in Tai O and Aberdeen. “They live in really close proximity to their environment and ecology. They have a lot to do with the sea, so a lot of their language encompasses their traditional ecological knowledge,” says Lim. This is illustrated in the Seawater Song, sung at Tanka weddings and festivities, describing the different kinds of fish species, their behaviours, practices and habitats. But, as Lim points out, as the younger Tanka generations have no real need for the language and are completely assimilated into speaking Cantonese, it is likely that ‘all this specific knowledge about particular ecologies will be lost’.

Not many would dispute the sad fact that many ethnic minority groups in Hong Kong are victims of discrimination and expectations from the state and community that aren’t only to do with language, but also skin colour. “They might be Hongkongers through and through but [Hongkongers] often don’t want to sit next to them on the MTR, or give them jobs, or let them look around an apartment just because they are not Chinese,” explains Lim. “The site is about validating and legitimising all this diversity, all these communities in Hong Kong and possibly giving them a platform and a voice.”
Emma Russell

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Let’s build a Nepal town in Hong Kong

Let’s build a Nepal town in Hong Kong

Let’s build a Nepal town in Hong Kong

Originally appeared in ejinsight.

Nepali girls (left) perform a dance number as part of a volunteer activity. A Nepali designer (right) fits a traditional dress on a reporter. Photos:, RTHK

Nepali girls (left) perform a dance number as part of a volunteer activity. A Nepali designer (right) fits a traditional dress on a reporter. Photos:, RTHK


How many languages can you speak? 90pc of Hong Kong under 30s speak Cantonese, Putonghua and English


Originally appeared in South China Morning Post

A growing number of Hongkongers have become trilingual, with more than 90 per cent of residents under 30 now speaking English and Putonghua, according to a study, although English standards lag behind Chinese.

This compares to the 2011 census, which found only about 70 per cent in the same age group could speak the two languages.

The increasing use of Putonghua has also raised concerns, as almost half of the survey respondents believed Cantonese had been at least moderately threatened as the city’s main language.

READ MORE: INFOGRAPHIC: A world of languages – and how many speak them

Researchers believed the study showed the government’s “biliterate and trilingual” policy had been effective. They said they could not see Cantonese losing its dominance unless there were deliberate policy changes.

Take our poll: How many languages can you speak fluently?

“For Hong Kong people in the 1980s, it was all about learning English, but in the 1990s it was all about Putonghua,” said Professor Kingsley Bolton, one of the researchers at the University of Hong Kong’s Social Sciences Research Centre. “Now we have a younger generation who are, increasingly, trilingual. The future for Hong Kong appears to be a trilingual society.”

The research showed that Cantonese continued to be dominant, with almost all people in all age groups able to speak it.

The survey, commissioned by the government’s Central Policy Unit, was conducted by the centre between August 2013 and January this year. Researchers interviewed 2,049 residents aged 15 and above by telephone in Cantonese, English and Putonghua.

They tested respondents’ proficiency in English and Putonghua by asking them questions with different difficulty levels. In an online test, they also checked their ability to write in English and in simplified Chinese characters as used on the mainland.

The survey found that up to 93 per cent of respondents under 30 could speak Putonghua and up to 97 per cent English. But only 27 per cent could speak English at least “quite well”, compared with 68 per cent for Putonghua.

About 24 per cent could write English at least “quite well”, compared with 30 per cent for simplified Chinese characters.

Researchers said as Hongkongers increasingly needed to use oral and written English and Putonghua and simplified Chinese at work, the government should consider how “high-level proficiency in both oral and written English and simplified written Chinese might be more effectively promoted through Hong Kong’s education system”.

But Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching said there was no need to brush up on simplified Chinese as anyone who knew “proper Chinese would not have too much problem with the mainland version”.

She said English could be seen as “not in line with the development of Chinese as desired by Beijing”, which could partly explain falling English standards.

The study showed that 45 per cent of the respondents believed Cantonese was at least “moderately” threatened by Putonghua as the main language. About 83 per cent also said it would not be acceptable if the next chief executive spoke Putonghua instead of Cantonese.


Tongue Tired: Hong Kong’s Disappearing Dialects

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Minority Report

Think Hong Kong is nothing but Cantonese culture? Not so. We learn about the other Chinese minorities—and their cuisines—that have helped to shape our city.


Read more at HK magazine