Saturday, 30 October 2010

comparative advantage

Ask almost any European about the history of their continent, and they will at the very least be able to tell you about some of the past rivalries between countries. The one between England and France has been ongoing for centuries. However, ask those same Europeans about rivalries, past and present, in Asia, and you are likely to draw a blank. The more knowledgeable will cite the rivalry, which often borders on outright hostility, between India and Pakistan, or that between China and Japan, but few if any will point to the understated rivalry between China and India. The 1962 border war that the two countries fought, over territorial claims with their roots in incompetent British surveying of the region in the nineteenth century, is largely forgotten.

They will be aware that both populations are of a similar size: these are, by a long way, the two most populous countries on Earth. They will know that both nations have rapidly expanding economies; and, if they are really switched on, they will tell you that both are ‘emerging superpowers’. But their powers of comparison will end there.

That this rivalry exists I infer from my own observations, two of which I present here. First, Hindu nationalists frequently claim that the whole of Chinese culture derives ultimately from Indian culture and traditions. It is true that Buddhism was a significant cultural export to China, and how it originally arrived in the country is the subject of a major Chinese literary classic, Journey to the West, but overall this claim is too obviously ridiculous to require further comment. And it is worth mentioning that Buddhism is now almost nonexistent in India, while, in typically Chinese fashion, this philosophy masquerading as a religion quickly acquired a local flavour in the form of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. And it should not be forgotten that Chinese ships visited India during the Han Dynasty, not vice versa.

Second, a few years ago I edited The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Eastern Philosophy, and I was amused to discover that several Chinese contributors referred to “the Chinese subcontinent”. If India is a subcontinent, the reasoning appeared to be, then surely China is too. An ex-geologist wasn’t going to let them get away with that.

However, the most interesting aspect of this rivalry is the way it pits ‘the world’s largest democracy’, with its fractious cliques vying for power, against a regime that is widely regarded as totalitarian, where dissent is not tolerated. And the question that this begs is which of the two will ascend to global hegemony in the twenty-first century as the United States inevitably declines. Or will each act as a counterbalance to the other?

Anyone who has played the proprietary board game Risk will be able to predict the likely outcome. This game quickly reaches a point where there are only three players, and at this point the two weaker players gang up on the strongest. And the US strategic alliance with India follows this pattern. However, in the game the strongest player quickly loses their superiority, at which point they join the weakest player against the new strongest player. So alliances are fluid and subject to change at very short notice, with each player having as their ultimate objective the utter defeat of the other two. Such cynicism is a factor in the alliance between India and the United States, although ‘defeat’ in the twenty-first century will be measured in economic rather than military terms.

Before moving on to a detailed comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of India and China, it may be instructive to examine how each country dealt with the irritation of a Portuguese enclave on its soil (both had been established in the early sixteenth century). Following demands that Portugal surrender Goa, which were rejected, the Indian army simply marched in and unilaterally annexed the enclave in 1961. Meanwhile, as it had done with Hong Kong, China negotiated a friendly handover of sovereignty regarding Macau.

The way in which China arranged the return of its territory reflects the legalistic Chinese mind and is straight out of the Sun Tzu playbook (The Art of War). By contrast, the way in which India reclaimed Goa probably had much to do with the entire country having been under colonial subjugation until quite recently, and the problem was tackled in the way it was for reasons of national pride. As a postscript, Goa is now the richest Indian state, although this may be a reflection of the reason for its seizure by the Portuguese in the first place. It is unlikely to be based on any legacy bequeathed by these former colonial masters, if Macau is anything to go by. It was allowed to develop as a seedy little town that relied on gambling for almost its entire income. And lax governance before the handover of sovereignty in 1999, in an echo of the control once exerted by the mafia in Las Vegas, allowed the casinos to be run (discreetly) by triad societies, and gang-related violence was commonplace. Unsurprisingly, this is now far less prevalent under Chinese rule.

Another point that suggests a fundamental difference between the two countries can be gleaned from the most recent ‘rich list’ published by Forbes magazine. There are two Indians in the top five, and a further six in the top hundred. There are no mainland Chinese in that hundred, although there are three Hong Kong Chinese. However, Hong Kong has always been a separate economic entity, and this has not changed since the resumption of Chinese sovereignty, so the contrast remains valid. Given that the Chinese economy is more than 2.5 times the size of the Indian, then inequality of wealth distribution is clearly more extreme in the latter. This seems to me to be a serious long-term disadvantage.

A third point of difference is how the two countries have dealt with local foreign invaders in the past. The Mongol and Manchu invaders of China were eventually assimilated, becoming culturally if not ethnically Chinese, but the Mughals, descendants of the Mongol Timur Lang (Tamerlane), brought their own culture with them, and it is usually Mughal architecture such as the Taj Mahal that is thought of as quintessentially Indian. They also brought a new religion (Islam), always a bad move, in this case because it created a tension between indigenous Hindus and the Muslim newcomers that persists to this day. Although tensions have eased in recent decades, there are still sporadic outbreaks of inter-religious violence, the most recent major incident being in Gujarat in 2002.

This introduces the most significant difference between the two countries, which lies not in their systems of governance but in their levels of ethnic homogeneity. While India is a mosaic of different ethnic and religious groups, 98 percent of the Chinese population is Han Chinese. The relevance of this may not be obvious, but it must influence the ease with which it is possible to rouse nationalistic fervour: a large homogeneous population is more easily persuaded of a course of action because there are no competing loyalties; a heterogeneous population requires that compromises be made. However, whether this turns out to be a handicap depends on global events and trends in the next few decades: compromise can be a valuable tool in turbulent times.

India has the added disadvantage of its caste system: I assume that the situation has ameliorated in recent decades, but it cannot be a good idea to stifle talent at the low end of the social scale while promoting those with little or nothing to offer the wider community simply because of the family they were born into. There are echoes of the English class system here, although caste does seem to be a more pernicious discriminator. Of course, China does have its ethnic tensions, notably with its reluctant Tibetan citizens and with the Uighurs of Xinjiang, but these are peripheral areas that are not part of the Chinese heartland, and events in either place are unlikely to have a strategic impact on the rest of the country.

Having mentioned Risk earlier, it is appropriate that I point out two other board games that frame the most intriguing of all the contrasts between the countries: shaturanga and wei ch’i. The ancient Indian game of shaturanga is generally regarded as the forerunner of modern chess, while the Chinese game wei ch’i is now more widely played in Japan and is better known in the West as ‘go’. And while it is accurate to label chess a battle, go is a war and as such requires acute strategic vision in addition to tactical nous. It is in keeping with how the Chinese tackle any situation: they always play a long game, which is important to bear in mind when attempting to predict the aims, ambitions and future behaviour of their country. Chess, on the other hand, is a game with more short-term, limited objectives: as Francisco Pizarro discovered during his brutal conquest of the Inca empire in 1532, capture the leader and the game is won. There are no leaders in wei ch’i, making it impossible to achieve victory with a single stroke.

It is important to bear in mind that the Chinese have never, in their long history, had a say in the choice of their leader. In fact, it’s possible that, excluding a few much-publicized dissidents, they don’t even want such a choice: I recall a late-night conversation with a group of Chinese friends in which the consensus was that what the Chinese needed was another emperor! Indeed, it is likely that such an arrangement, with its roots in Confucian philosophy, is one reason for the ease with which the Chinese government has been able to secure the acquiescence of its population. They have an emperor, Hu Jintao, complete with his grand vizier, Wen Jiabao. But what sets this pair apart from the emperors of old is that in 2012 they will disappear from the scene. And I really do mean disappear. The era of the ‘paramount leader’ (Deng Xiaoping, who retained this pompous title even on his deathbed) is over. Jiang Zemin was a self-important imitation of his mentor Deng, but the blueprint for future leaders seems far more likely to be ex-prime minister Zhu Rongji, who retired in 2002 and promptly vanished from the radar. The West could learn a thing or two from this philosophy.

Meanwhile, although India is proud of its democratic traditions, this does come with disadvantages: the short-termism that is built into the capitalist system has repercussions, especially with respect to the speed and efficiency with which major infrastructure developments are planned and built. However, India has two significant advantages: it has a large pool of people who are completely fluent in English, which is likely to remain the world’s lingua franca for the foreseeable future; and it is a world leader in information and communications technology (ICT). Unsurprisingly, though, the Chinese are aware that this is the case and are already taking steps to remedy the situation. It is impossible to ride the Beijing subway, as an obvious foreigner, without someone coming up to you to practise their English. And thousands of Indian ICT professionals are currently working in China—teaching the locals the tricks of the trade. I’m irresistibly reminded of Lenin’s famous quote about the capitalist selling you the rope with which you eventually hang him.

In fact, India has earmarked US$3.4 trillion for infrastructure projects over the next five years, but this is dwarfed by what is happening in China, which inter alia is in the process of building a countrywide high-speed rail network at a speed that is little short of astounding. China already has the longest such network in the world, but within the next two or three years its network will be longer than that of the rest of the world combined. Budgets, naturally, are not disclosed, but one can assume that China can afford it, given its massive trade surplus.

Ironically, Hong Kong will be almost the last major Chinese city to be connected to the network. It is scheduled to be online by 2016, part of the delay being the result of widespread nimbyism in the territory and claims for compensation by those affected. Neither is a problem in the rest of China, for obvious reasons.

Short-termism is not a problem in China either. Take a look at the country’s activities in Africa: securing resources, certainly, but also buying influence. Cash in the bank a couple of decades down the line. This is what most alarms the West, because unlike the way European colonists ravaged and plundered the continent in the nineteenth century and gave nothing in return, China is giving something in return for what it takes out, notably in the form of major construction projects. The shadow of colonialism still hovers over Africa, and with this in mind it is not difficult to predict the direction in which most African countries will lean if it ever becomes necessary to take sides.

So, what is China’s global strategy? Its leaders are surely aware that the country will become top dog in the international hierarchy by mid-century, and I’m sure that every one of them has read The Art of War. It should be required reading in every seat of political power from the White House to the Kremlin. However, the one mistake we should not make is to draw global conclusions from its relations with its immediate neighbours. The spat with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands should be seen as a renewal of the age-old hostility between these two countries, dangerous possibly, but not part of a larger plan by China, except perhaps to put pressure on Taiwan (the islands are closer to Taiwan, which has its own claim to these barren rocks, than they are to the mainland).

Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea are more sinister. To make it clear how outrageous these claims are, I’ve included a map:

It can be seen at a glance that these claims are utterly without merit: most of the area claimed by China is closer to at least two other countries, and most of the southern half of the area claimed is closer to no less than five. However, unless you happen to live in the region, there should be no grounds for concern. The frontiers of the Chinese empire have ebbed and flowed over the centuries in time with the strength or weakness of the centre. But Chinese muscle flexing, because that is what it is, begs a wider question: why play the bully? You can be sure that there is a reason, but it’s the long game again. As is the highway that will one day connect India and China. China has already driven a major road through Tibet and into Nepal, which could be interesting: a poor Hindu country, nominally a cultural client of India, may well believe that its future prosperity lies to the east, which will offer more reliable transportation of goods and people to and from the outside world. And as that highway edges closer to the Indian border, I leave you with one final image: a few years ago, the BBC’s satirical show Have I Got News for You featured an opening animation sequence that included a train à grande vitesse screaming across the French countryside and entering the Channel Tunnel, only to emerge on the English side as a rattling suburban boneshaker that would not have looked out of place in a provincial railway museum.

Friday, 29 October 2010

toodle pip!

How big are your vocabularies? No, that’s not a misprint. Each of us has at least two vocabularies: one of words that we actually use (disregarding, for now, the possibility that some of the words being used are not understood by their users), and one of words we don’t use but know the meaning of if someone else does use them. I leave aside the specialist vocabularies, more properly called jargon, in use between professional people such as accountants, lawyers and scientists, because I am looking for universal principles in the way we use our language, and bar the odd word that escapes from these rarefied confines, professional jargon is too restricted to be relevant. In passing, I might note that escapees are invariably misused in their new surroundings. A good example is the legal word ‘alibi’, which in general circulation is often mistakenly used as a synonym for ‘excuse’.

I was prompted to think about the subject that I’m about to discuss by my friend Barry, who invariably says “Toodle pip” when leaving. Now, I do know what he means, but I’d never dream of using the expression myself. I usually say “See you”, or simply “’Bye”. However, there are quite a few others that are part of my secondary vocabulary, none of which I’ve ever used as a valedictory, although I might write ‘he said farewell to…’. And if you’ve read French Letters, you’ll know why I don’t say adieu or au revoir. As for ciao, how did the Italians get in on the act?

In straightforward descriptive language, we happily interchange ‘big’ and ‘large’ or ‘small’ and ‘little’, occasionally slipping in a more unusual alternative such as ‘colossal’ or ‘minuscule’. However, when it comes to naming everyday objects or institutions, we may know of quite a few different options, but (I’m speculating here) invariably we use only one. To test my theory, I’ll start in the toilet.

Actually, I only ever use the word ‘toilet’ when I feel that I’m in polite company. My preferred option is ‘the bogs’ and has been ever since I learned a word for ‘an installation designed to facilitate the comfortable and convenient performance of essential bodily functions’. English DJ John Peel championed a punk band called Bogshed in the mid-1980s, but perhaps the band made an error with its choice of name, because its fame was strictly ephemeral, like a fart.

There are many others: WC or water closet, lavatory and convenience are neutral words that can be used in any social situation, while ‘the gents’ and ‘the ladies’ are reflective of the once ubiquitous signs indicating a public convenience in the UK. On the other hand, if I were to find myself lost somewhere in an American city and ‘highly desirous of a snakes’, to quote Barry McKenzie, I think it would be prudent to enquire about the whereabouts of the nearest john, on the grounds that the more genteel alternatives may not be understood, and the risk of misunderstanding in such circumstances doesn’t bear thinking about. The same logic would impel me to ask whether a dunnee was suitably adjacent, should I ever find myself in a similar predicament down under.

The point to note here is that these are all euphemisms. It is as if we are ashamed. And the most egregious of all is that hideous genteelism ‘loo’. And if, as I suspect, it is a portmanteau word derived from ‘lavatory’ and ‘poo’, then I am even more scornful. And don’t mention ‘latrine’, unless you’re a military man and can use the word to describe a domestic privy while keeping a straight face.

Let us move on to something altogether more enticing: money. ‘Money’ may be the formal name for the stuff, but there are a surprising number of informal or slang terms with reasonably wide currency. Here’s a selection: bread, cash, dosh, dough, loot, lucre, moolah, the necessary, readies (banknotes, but mainly used as a generic word for money), simoleons, spondulicks, wad, the wherewithal. I use none of these; instead I would refer to ‘lure’, which is part of the local dialect in my home town, the point again being that I know many but use only one.

And what about the police? The definitive name for a law enforcement agency tends to be used mostly in formal contexts, otherwise its employees are variously bears, cops, coppers, the filth, the heat, pigs, rozzers or the Old Bill. Some of these are downright insulting, which obviously reflects the status of the police in some sections of society. Others, such as ‘bobby’ and ‘peeler’, are almost as dead as the man who inspired these terms, although the chairman of the Cumbria Police Authority when I was a member in the mid-1990s consistently used the first.

Me? I prefer ‘copper’, which doesn’t make any value judgements and has the clear advantage of being an agent noun (one who cops, or arrests), which makes it etymologically more dignified. On the other hand, if I want to be facetious, I’ve taken to referring to the local constabulary, collectively, as ‘Mr Plod’, after the policeman in the Noddy in Toytown books by Enid Blyton.

We move merrily on to the condition of being intoxicated by alcohol; there are several words for this that appear to be in use only around my home town, the current favourite being ‘gassed’. And it’s worth noting that some terms are clearly genteel euphemisms—merry, tiddly, tipsy—reflecting perhaps the strength of the temperance movement in Victorian Britain. There are even formal similes, such as ‘drunk as a lord’ (perhaps at one time only the aristocracy could afford to get really pissed), and poetic phrases such as ‘three sheets to the wind’, which will mean something to you only if you also know what it is to splice the mainbrace.

So these are my contentions: (1) we may know several slang terms for something, but we habitually use only one, or at most two; and (2) the number of slang terms for something is directly proportional to the importance we attach to that thing. As supporting evidence for the second claim, I present the following list of words, some of which betray a kind of naive arrogance when used self-referentially (with apologies to my female readers, who may not use any of them; I wouldn’t expect them to regard the object they describe as that important anyway): beef bayonet, cock, dick, dong, hampton, John Thomas, knob, mutton dagger, one-eyed trouser snake, pecker, Percy, prick, privy member, pork sword, sausage surprise, todger, wedding tackle, whang, wife’s best friend…. To quote Wellington: “Ipso fatso, my case rests.”

Monday, 25 October 2010

of tablecloths and maiden aunts

If, like me, you grew up in postwar Britain, you probably had at least one formidably severe, intimidating maiden aunt by whom you were occasionally invited to tea. I had several, all great aunts and all incredibly ancient (from the perspective of a five-year-old). And only too ready to administer a sharp slap across the side of the head if you were foolish enough, cocky enough, to transgress any of her rules of polite conduct. Even if you couldn’t help it.

Take a simple situation such as spilling tea on your aunt’s (starched white linen) tablecloth. Ouch! To paraphrase George Orwell (Such, Such Were the Joys, in which he relates how being flogged for wetting the bed at his prep school ‘cured’ the problem), it is a mistake to assume that this kind of treatment doesn’t work. It does. I’m sure that there is a whole generation out there who wince inwardly every time they see someone spill tea (or anything else) on a tablecloth.

That’s how I felt on my first visit to a Chinese restaurant, soon after I arrived, wide-eyed, in Hong Kong in 1974. What’s all this? People spilling tea all over the tablecloth. I was shocked. Horrified. But then I noticed that everyone else simply ignored these flagrant violations of what I’d been conditioned to believe was polite behaviour and carried on with whatever else they had been doing. Well, I thought, if no one else is bothered, why should I be?

In any case, trying to avoid spilling tea on the tablecloth in a Chinese restaurant turns out to be almost as difficult as attempting to empty the Pacific Ocean armed only with a plastic bucket (and an infinite amount of patience). The problem is the teapots and their design. This does vary, but only within narrow limits; the fundamental form and function are always the same. And something else that is always the same: it is impossible to adequately control the rate at which the tea issues from the spout. Tip the pot so far and all you get is a trickle; only slightly further and out it comes in a torrent, overshooting the cup and saturating the immediate hinterland. This gives rise to the golden rule for tea drinking in a Chinese restaurant: never hold onto your cup when the teamaster is about to top it up.

However, some Chinese use the tablecloth for less acceptable purposes, such as a place to spit out bones. This is a by-product of the Chinese method of preparing meat: individual pieces may have quite a few bones, and the meaty bits of such pieces aren’t easily extracted with a knife and fork. The best place to separate the edible from the inedible is the mouth, from whence the unwanted pieces need to be removed periodically. I was relieved to discover that most Chinese also find the spitting method uncouth, except, possibly, in the privacy of their own homes. The polite alternative, and considerate if within sight of other diners, is to use your chopsticks to transfer the bones from your mouth to the side of the small dish upon which your rice bowl stands.

Both standards of behaviour can still be seen in Hong Kong, but nowadays what you see is heavily context-dependent. If you’re eating at a street stall, you will be sitting at a folding table with a laminated top, so it’s natural to spit any bones straight onto the tabletop. When you’ve finished, the proprietor simply wipes the table with a cloth, although it has to be said that in many establishments most of the debris ends up on the ground.

And it is possible to delineate a hierarchy of restaurants based on their tablecloth policy. In the more upmarket restaurants, you get a freshly laundered tablecloth every time, and you will never be required to share a table. Moving downmarket, you will still get a clean tablecloth, but if the restaurant is busy you may have to share a table. This presents an interesting logistical problem. Take the situation where two couples sit at a table for four. They start with a clean tablecloth, but when one couple leaves, the tablecloth is rolled up to expose half the table. A clean tablecloth is then spread across the exposed half of the table. When the second couple leaves, the old tablecloth is removed and the unused half of the new tablecloth is rolled out across the rest of the table. This process continues for as long as there are new customers.

At the bottom of the scale are restaurants where the tablecloth is changed only when it is visibly soiled. Our local restaurant, which I described in slow food, falls into this category. It even has tan-coloured tablecloths, which don’t show the tea stains, although I have to confess that this takes the fun out of it. You see, in what might be seen as retrospective rebellion, spilling tea on the tablecloth, which I don’t do deliberately (I didn’t then either), has become something of a guilty pleasure. Auntie Ginny would have been mortified.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

french letters

English is a mongrel language. Around an original framework of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse has accumulated a vast, higgledy-piggledy superstructure of words and phrases appropriated at various times from French, Italian, Latin and Greek, liberally sprinkled with odd words from at least twenty other languages, many of which would have been seen as quite exotic when first used.

For example, coffee and kiosk were borrowed from Turkish, while caravan came from Persian, bungalow and verandah from Hindustani, bamboo from Malay, ketchup and typhoon from Chinese, tattoo from Polynesian, boomerang from Aboriginal Australian, safari from Swahili, kayak * and parka from Inuit, and chocolate and tomato from Aztec (via Spanish). You will notice that the object defined by these words didn’t exist in mediaeval England, and one may assume that when that object did arrive, whether literally or in the reports of travellers, it came accompanied by its ‘name’, forestalling any possibility that a native word might be coined to describe the new arrival.

A couple of languages have been the source of more than the odd word, but these contributions have tended to be focused in specific fields. For example, Arabic provides many words related to science and mathematics, including algebra, algorithm, azimuth, cipher, elixir, nadir and zenith. This reflects the history of these subjects, in particular how the science and mathematics of the ancient Greeks eventually found its way into Renaissance Europe, via the Islamic Empire in border cities such as Toledo in al-Andalus (Spain).

Many of the technical terms in art and architecture come from the country that spearheaded the Renaissance: Italy. Examples include chiaroscuro and tempera in art and cupola, piazza and portico in architecture. The technical language of music is almost exclusively Italian, but a few terms have escaped into general circulation; examples include crescendo, maestro, tempo and virtuoso.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the heyday of Latin and Greek. Many words were imported directly from these two ancient languages, such as alibi, acumen, basis, censor, dictum, formula and terminus from Latin, and chaos, criterion, hubris, hyperbole, mentor and stigma from Greek. Not content with mere borrowings, however, writers of this period also began to assemble new words by adding random Latin or Greek prefixes and suffixes to existing Latin or Greek words, with the result that the vocabulary of English expanded hugely. Word coiners of the twentieth century were not quite so discriminating: instead of marrying Latin with Latin and Greek with Greek, they came up with such hybrids as television, which has a Greek prefix tacked onto a Latin root and Latin suffix.

At this point, you may well be wondering about the point of this essay. Ah, but now we come to French. There are probably more words in common usage in English that come originally from French than from any other foreign language. But this simple fact obscures a real problem: pronunciation. Why do most native English speakers try to pronounce these words as if they are speaking French? Is it to demonstrate their self-defined erudition?

I wince each time I hear someone say something close to “doobl ontondre” in the middle of an English sentence, doubly so if the speaker tries to include the two nasal vowels from the original French. Another egregious example is homage, often pronounced to rhyme with the ‘Taj’ in Taj Mahal. One wonders what is wrong with pronouncing it to rhyme with ‘damage’, as most people tend to do. In fact, I believe that the pronunciation of all French words should be anglicized. Words that came over with the Normans in 1066, such as beef, mutton and pork, have been around long enough to have been anglicized in both pronunciation and spelling, but a host of more recent imports retain the original pronunciation, for no very good reason.

The stumbling block would appear to be speakers of what is rather pretentiously called ‘received pronunciation’ (aka ‘BBC English’, although this phrase becomes more of an oxymoron with each passing year). Most such speakers hail from the south of England and probably look down on those of us who pronounce garage to rhyme with ‘carriage’. But cafe is already pronounced to rhyme with ‘safe’ in working-class districts of London and with ‘coffee’ in the north of England, clique is pronounced to rhyme with ‘shriek’ by some and to sound like ‘click’ by others, and most people with limited pretensions regard a poseur as a ‘poser’.

We can hurry along this process by deliberately setting out to pronounce ballet to rhyme with ‘mallet’, cachet and sachet with ‘hatchet’, debris with ‘hubris’, debut with ‘rebut’ and promenade with ‘lemonade’. Unfortunately, there is a particular problem with words that in the original contain a nasal vowel. It isn’t as if we’re consistent either. Words like cordon and coupon sound as native as beacon and season, although this could be because the nasal and oral versions of ‘o’ are quite similar. The nasal and oral ‘a’ and ‘i’ differ much more significantly, which tends to cause confusion, with the educated among the population endeavouring to get as close to the original French as they can, and those who never learned French at school simply doing their best to follow. Imagine how much easier it would be if the first four letters of impasse were to be pronounced identically to the same four in ‘impact’, in other words, as it reads.

Another problem lies with diacritical marks, which have no place in English but are retained by many writers: café, débâcle, fête and rôle can function perfectly well without the accents. However, words like blasé, cliché, communiqué, façade and protégé do present a problem, although façade is often pronounced by those who know no French to rhyme with ‘arcade’, and this may be the way forward: to pronounce as it appears to read if you’re unfamiliar with French.

A second concept that is alien to the English language is gender. However, many French words have come into English with their gender distinctions intact, including blond(e), debutant(e) and doyen(ne). It would be a big improvement if the feminine forms were to be dropped.

Finally, there are a large number of French phrases that have been imported into English unchanged. Cul de sac may be a splendid metaphor in the original (‘arse of bag’), but English already has two equivalent phrases that have the advantage of meanings that are clearly understood: blind alley and dead-end street. Why do we need another? Other French phrases that could usefully be pruned from English include à propos, bon voyage, coup de grâce, de rigueur, en masse and vis-à-vis (the full list runs into dozens).

At this point, you will probably detect a whiff of hypocrisy. I may not make a regular habit of it, but I do use the occasional French phrase myself, probably because I can’t think immediately of a native English synonym. I use Latin words and phrases more frequently, but that’s another story (I studied the language for four years at school, so this habit is deeply ingrained). In any case, as you may also have spotted, this tirade against French imports is at least slightly tongue in cheek. I’m not optimistic of success, but for those of you who would like to see the English language defrenchified, the campaign starts here.

*This reminds me of a story I heard once about an Inuit hunter out in his kayak. It was so cold that he decided to light a fire—on the deck of his little craft. The inevitable happened: the fire burned through the deck, followed by the bottom of the boat, which sank, unfortunately, thus proving beyond reasonable doubt that you can’t have your kayak and heat it.

Saturday, 16 October 2010


It is now more than thirteen years since the British relinquished control of Hong Kong, but it was always a Chinese city in any case, so nothing has really changed. British influence was superficial, although Hong Kong wouldn’t have such a high proportion of its population speaking English as a second language fluently had the British never come here. Perhaps surprisingly, however, beyond the linguistic footprint, there are quite a few other permanent reminders of the former British presence.

This idea first occurred to me during the nasty illness that struck me down back in March (Sick Note). I’d been coughing badly all night, and Paula was so worried that she insisted on driving me to the A&E department of our local hospital: the Prince of Wales Hospital. Then I remembered Queen Mary Hospital on Hong Kong Island, Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kowloon and Princess Margaret Hospital in the New Territories. There is also Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Wanchai, and Prince Edward Road and Princess Margaret Road in Kowloon (both major thoroughfares, naturally). The Prince of Wales Building in Wanchai might have retained its name, except that it was a British military installation, and one can assume that the People’s Liberation Army was none too pleased to have the name of such a symbol of imperialism on one of its buildings.

Other references to British royalty also failed to survive the handover. For obvious reasons, the Royal Hong Kong Police became simply the Hong Kong Police, while the Royal Observatory restyled itself as the Hong Kong Observatory (I have to confess that I still forget quite frequently and use the old name, in much the same way as I still refer to as Calcutta one of the Indian cities that has changed its name in recent years; old habits are hard to break). The Jockey Club, which controls all legal gambling in Hong Kong, also dropped the ‘Royal’ appellation. However, the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club did not change its name—whether or not to do so was decided by a ballot of its members.

You would need to be familiar with the whole of Hong Kong’s colonial history to spot other examples. For instance, almost every nineteenth-century governor of the colony is commemorated in the name of a road. The majority of these roads are in the highly sought-after residential area of Hong Kong Island known as the Mid-Levels, which overlooks the harbour, or the even more exclusive Peak, with a few down at sea level in Central or Wanchai. I’ve no idea whether these roads were named while the nominee was still in post, but if it is the case, as seems likely, it should be possible to correlate a list of past governors with a map of the relevant roads to track Hong Kong’s urban development in the nineteenth century.

This naming practice continued into the 1920s, but only one past governor has his name on a street in Kowloon. Nathan Road (aka the Golden Mile) has a fair claim to be Kowloon High Street, running as it does three miles due north from the most southerly point on the Kowloon peninsula to the edge of the New Territories (technically ‘New Kowloon’, although the phrase is never used) at, where else, Boundary Street. Yes, I’m aware that the cognomen is misleading, but calling it the Golden League would have confused the punters.

Since the Second World War, governors have lent their names to less grandiose but more practical projects, from the highly regarded Grantham College of Education to the hugely popular Maclehose Trail, a hiking trail from east to west across the New Territories that attracts the kind of puerile ticker who walks the Pennine Way or cycles the Coast to Coast back in the UK, merely to say they’ve done it.

As far as I can tell, only one past governor has left no trace of his having been here. He is also the only past governor not to have been a knight of the realm. He probably had less understanding of how Chinese people think when he arrived in 1992 than any previous new appointee, and he probably didn’t know much more when he left. And if you expect the reputation of Chris ‘Fei Pang’ Patton with the Chinese government to be rehabilitated, to the extent that he might be considered for post hoc recognition in the manner of his predecessors, you might want to consider finding something else to do while you wait, like constructing a life-size replica of a mediaeval cathedral entirely from matchsticks.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

one picture

I recently set myself the task of selecting just one photograph from the thousands that I've taken over the years that would sum up Hong Kong for someone who has never been here. And here it is (the explanation follows):

The first thing you will notice is that there is nothing in this picture that tells the viewer it was taken in Hong Kong. This is deliberate. Although it has one of the finest natural harbours in the world—which explains why it was seized by the British in 1841—it is not its location, landscape or natural features that makes Hong Kong special but its people. And this picture points to three abiding characteristics of the local Chinese population (always bearing in mind the caveat that there will be exceptions to any attempt to generalize).

First, most locals are not merely security conscious; fear of crime is much higher than is justified by the figures. Consequently, this gate in a fence, which is located alongside a frequently walked country path, is topped by barbed wire, when the locked gate would deter most people (and the barbed wire would not put off a determined intruder).

Second, as the sign proclaims, this is a ‘store’ (‘Lai Kee Store’), which means, in local terminology, that it’s a cafe. It relies entirely on passing trade, and as you can see it has a very limited menu: soft drinks, instant noodles, and very basic fried rice and rice noodles. It is less than a mile from the road that most people walking past will have started from, yet it is popular, which reflects the Chinese obsession with food, which put simply is a paranoia about not having any.

Given how basic the food being offered is, and the fact that it is almost certainly prepared by an amateur, it is a mystery to me why anyone would stop here when a mere mile and a half further along the track you reach our friend tom’s store, where the variety offered is much wider, and the food is prepared by a professional. And you don’t have to sit in a cage while eating!

Finally, I’ve always admired the ingenuity and inventiveness of the Chinese, which is exemplified here by the gate itself. You will observe that it is not a gate but a bed frame. Quod erat demonstrandum.

return to exile

For the past few years, I’ve returned to my home town in the UK to escape the summer heat in Hong Kong. However, this summer has been different, and for a very simple reason: I started a blog last year.

I got rid of my television after the 9/11 attacks and don’t miss it. News coverage on the BBC’s Radio 4 is superior to that on the corporation’s television channels, and the pictures are better too. I haven’t had an internet connection back home since 2005, because service providers insist on lengthy minimum contracts and offer no flexibility. This was also something that I’d been able to accept, until this year.

I’ve never worried about not being ‘in touch’; in fact, I’ve always rather liked the idea of being ‘out of touch’. However, having started this blog last autumn, I wanted to be able to continue and thought that I’d be able to work around this difficulty. Unfortunately, relying on a slow connection in my local library (costing £2 per hour) turned out to be impractical, because most of my posts require at least some online research, and also because without instant access it is impossible to comment usefully on current events.

The other factor militating against my blogging efforts has been the change in lifestyle that inevitably takes place every time I go back home. Most of my friends are quite heavy drinkers, and I would also place myself in this category, although no dependency is involved — I drink very little while in Hong Kong. In the end, I spent most of the summer either cycling, enjoying local delicacies or joining my friends in the pub, although I have also been working sporadically on four essays that I now expect to post before Christmas: (1) An analysis of democracy as a social concept, which is likely to be much longer than I’d originally envisaged; (2) a comparison of the prospects of India and China in the twenty-first century, which I’ve almost completed; (3) a (hostile) critique of drug control laws in the West; and (4) an analysis of the prevalence of child pornography and paedophilia, which is likely to make disturbing reading but which I believe to be important.

Finally, I’ve also been trawling through the thousands of photographs that I’ve taken in Hong Kong over the years to select one that most appropriately sums up the spirit of Hong Kong (a phrase that you might struggle to understand if you’ve never lived here). The selected photo, together with a justification for its selection, will follow this post almost immediately.