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OnWords: Hong Kong People


I was intrigued immediately by the way the people of Hong Kong describe themselves.

Through all the coverage of the Umbrella Movement of 2014 to the more recent protests against interference by mainland China, to concerns over the coronavirus, they have used one term to describe themselves: Hong Kong people.

Why not “the people of Hong Kong,” I wondered? It’s only a bit more clunky. Or why not “Hong Kongers,” or “Hong Kongese?”

But no, it was always “Hong Kong people.”

So I did some research.

Hong Kongers and Hong Kongese are older ways of talking about the people of Hong Kong, and so maybe these terms are no longer used since they might be associated with British colonial rule. I could find no evidence of this one way or the other, though.

But what I did find at first slightly disappointed me: “Hong Kong people” is simply a direct translation from Cantonese into English.

I was disappointed because I guess I wanted some mystery to be solved or some deeper significance. But I was delighted at the simplicity and directness of it, the ability of language to do its job reliably and well.

And maybe it’s a good reflection of what the people of Hong Kong really want: simple self-determination without being both in and out of China’s influence.

Maybe the deeper message actually is that our language reflects what we want, whether we realize it or not. 

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.