22 March 2019
Law Society president Lam San-keung refuses to answer a question in English. Photo: ATV
Law Society president Lam San-keung refuses to answer a question in English. Photo: ATV

The sound of English on the wane in Asia’s world city

Law Society president Lam San-keung is used to making a point but now he’s making headlines for something he refuses to say — at least in English.

It is an unwritten rule at Hong Kong press conferences that reporters leave at least one question to English-language journalists and that respondents, especially those with a higher education, answer in English, no matter what their ability. In some cases, the answer is given after the press conference to ensure fluent delivery.

But at a media briefing Tuesday, Lam clammed up when asked by an ATV reporter to comment on requirements that candidates for the chief executive election “love the country and love Hong Kong”. Lam said he had already answered in Cantonese and refused to repeat it in English.

“You can translate into English,” Lam said, according to footage on ATV’s website Wednesday.

ATV in turn refused to report on the Law Society’s reform proposal in the station’s evening news and broadcast a clip of Lam’s refusal.

“Because of the attitude on display during the press conference … we want to make a point here, and show you how increasingly difficult it is these days for English news gathering in Hong Kong, our so-called world city,” the anchor said.

Lam’s refusal reflects a broader shift in the city that is making Hong Kong less open as a press information hub. English has become a minority language in media briefings over the last decade because most senior officials and key businesspeople prefer to speak either Cantonese or Putonghua. Without live translation, English reporters who don’t understand the two languages will struggle to construct a story from a press conference. 

That is why it’s so important to leave at least one question to the English-language media.

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EJ Insight reporter

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