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HK Profile: Dr Lisa Lim, founder of

Written by
Time Out Hong Kong

It’s quite a statement for a 20-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. 

Lim, who gained her PhD in phonetics and works in sociolinguistics, is the founder of Linguistic Minorities. “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 sh 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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