For money, not love

English will continue to hold its influence in post-British Hong Kong, believes the British Council. Simon Tait on why it can afford to be so optimistic

Jet lag Hong Kong style is not like jet lag anywhere else. For days after you arrive you can't sleep, you can't face anything more than a snack and it's almost impossible to concentrate for more than a few minutes. The only sensible explanation for the intensity of your disorientation is that you're surrounded by a constant jangle of excitement in this overcrowded, overbuilt city.

"It's a different world you've come to. It's not like visiting a different city or a different country," says Rod Pryde, director of the British Council's new English Language Centre in the colony.

That world is about to change, and no one, Hong Kong Chinese or British, knows quite how. The tangible thrill in the atmosphere is a mixture of apprehension at what Chinese rule might bring, and anticipation of being able to create a national identity liberated from British control.

Will Hong Kong be the shining open gateway into China from June 30 this year, when Prince Charles signs the colony over to China, or the dying remnants of empire left outside the back door?

What is clear is that the British Council has no intention of letting its crucial influence here - and the potential of an ambitious China - go by default. "We have to raise the profile and impact of English in Hong Kong and Greater China," says Rod Pryde. The aim is to establish the British Council as the lead overseas partner in English language teaching.

History gives a headstart to the council which first opened for business in a Nissen hut in 1948. Tom Buchanan, director of the British Council in Hong Kong, says that 40,000 students of the English language and an annual turnover of Pounds 8 million in the colony "justifies us building on what we've achieved over the past 50 years. Teaching is our stock-in-trade. We've launched a new business in distance learning, for instance, so what we have now is a cradle-to-grave educational set-up."

Investment in English, the lingua franca of commerce in the Pacific Ring, is manifest in the new Pounds 11 million British Council building designed by Terry Farrell and opened this week by the Princess Royal. This striking building, with its prow of a balcony pointing down into the colony's banking community, has the largest English language centre in the British Council network. It offers not only modern language learning services in large purpose-built classrooms, but a full library, an information centre with enhanced IT, access to the Internet, and cable television. Six months ago, after a surprisingly tough competition with local consortia, the British Council won a Pounds 6.8 million contract from the Hong Kong administration's new education department for an intensive English language teaching programme.

Other British Council clients and partners include the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, the Hong Kong Jockey Club - the richest in the world, turning over more money in a week than the whole British racing calendar does in a year - and the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce.

Competition for an influential cultural place in new Hong Kong is fierce, not just from the anglophone Americans and Australians, but from Alliance Francaise and Germany's Goethe Institute. Behind the culture and the teaching is trade, and in that respect nothing has changed since Marco Polo's day.

So the operation is stretching into mainland China. British Council offices in Beijing and Shanghai have English teaching at their heart; a new one is opening in the summer in Hong Kong's neighbouring Chinese province of Guangdong (formerly Canton), China's boom region. Key corporate clients in China include the Overseas Development Agency, ICI, British Aerospace and British Airways.

English was the only official language in Hong Kong until l974 when Chinese was made the co-official language. But which Chinese? The official tongue of the People's Republic is Mandarin, but the natural Chinese tongue in Hong Kong is Cantonese, a different spoken language; the odd sight of two Chinese only able to communicate through English is not uncommon.

But in the past two decades the domestic use of English among the Hong Kong Chinese has declined, with Cantonese television and newspapers dominating their lives. There was an immediate decline in standards of English proficiency, and the British Council has spent the past 10 years slowly countering that trend.

Shirley Tong Shuk Yin, who has taught English in the Buddhist Kon Hul Primary School, Causeway Bay, for 10 years, has just started a new course in the British Council building to improve her own English, one of 120 new students who are primary school teachers. The standard among her pupils often depends, she says, on parental support.

"Pupils aren't willing to talk English because they don't use it daily, " she says. "In many cases both parents work and don't have time to help their children - often the standard of their English is not much better anyway. "

But why bother, when China is about to take over and Mandarin will be a priority? "Hong Kong is quite an important city and if Hong Kong wants to remain an important commercial centre we have to raise the standard of our English," says Shirley. "We are being encouraged to speak Mandarin more and more - I am learning Mandarin too - but it won't take over from English. You see, Hong Kong is the bridge between China and the world and we have to be the connection between the Mandarin speakers on the mainland and foreigners. The British Council is very important in this."

Xue Decheng is a postgraduate student at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou (Canton city) who earns some of his tuition fees as an interpreter. "English here (in China) is supposed to be taught in every primary school, but it isn't. To get into university, however, you have to pass an English exam and it is quite tough. So English is important here - and it is becoming more important. Many Chinese students are going to Hong Kong to learn it."

Patrick Cheng, the vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University, says the role of language learning in the colony will be enhanced rather than diminished. "We hope students will be at least bilingual if not bicultural. It's very important to continue to train leaders and to broaden our base.

"There is now huge expansion. English is no longer a middle-class preserve, and we need to help the working-class students to come up to international standards, and therefore to exchange. In return, overseas students should come here." Forty-five per cent of the staff at HKU are foreigners - "the key line is equalisation, not localisation, and we can teach the world how to deal with China."

`ENGLISH AND CHINESE ARE MUTUALLY COMPLEMENTARY' The highlight for school trips to the theatre during the handover period will be Chung Ying Theatre's latest production, Flight to Dragon Island, the story of a girl who travels from 19th century Britain to modern Hong Kong on the back of a WelshChinese dragon (it changes from red to gold and loses its wings on the journey as it changes nationality).

Chung Ying was founded in 1979 as a bicultural theatre-in-education group - its name means Chinese-English. It produces up to eight plays a year which are seen mostly in the plentiful theatres of the New Territories, and the new show will be performed over June and July. It has modest subsidies from the Arts Development Council of Hong Kong and from the British Council.

The latest play is written by an English lecturer at Hong Kong City University, Dino Mahoney, and directed by one of the founders of the company, British actor Michael Harley.

Ko Tin Lung, Chung Ying's artistic director, says he is keen to get local writers creating plays for the company which performs in both Mandarin and English with a mixed-race cast. "The bicultural nature of the company is very important, and I would like to think we can be bilingual too," he says.

"We think that kids are the audience of the future, but they are also an audience of now. They seldom have a chance to get in touch with theatre - we have a weak tradition in children's theatre in Hong Kong - so they often have no notion of what it is.

"By mixing traditional Chinese theatre and Western story-telling techniques in our repertoire, I think we are helping their belief that English and Chinese are mutually complementary."

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