But what about space? (by Casey Burkholder)

I am sitting in my office at the School of Creative Media at City University in Hong Kong. As I am writing, a colleague who sits behind me is editing and subtitling a documentary in Mandarin. Two colleagues sitting three cubicles over are speaking Cantonese. They are saying something about eating. My Chinese is getting better, but not enough to know the nuances about what and where and when these colleagues will be eating. I am sitting here writing in English. Each of these languages: Cantonese/English/Mandarin occupies space differently in the city. Minority languages, including (and certainly not limited to): Arabic, Hindi, Nepali, Tagalog, Thai, and Urdu occupy different spaces. As I live and work and research here in Hong Kong, I’ve been thinking more and more about spaces where languages are accorded privilege, and the spaces where languages and linguistic practices are bothered.

Figure 1. Sai Ying Pun Street Art
Figure 1. Sai Ying Pun Street Art

My thoughts have been influenced by my reading of a book by Paul O’Connor called Islam in Hong Kong: Muslims and Everyday Life in China’s World City. In it, he writes:

During the colonial period, English was the key language in the territory in terms of administration and law. Cantonese has always been an integral part of daily life in the city and has displaced English since the handover. Cantonese now functions as the official language while English occupies a secondary role as an alternative administrative and somewhat elite language. This change has been accompanied by the rising importance of Putonghua (or Mandarin) as a focus for integration and commerce with Mainland China…On top of these dynamics we have the reality that there are many other language important to the 5% of ethnic minorities that live in the territory. (O’Connor, 2012, p. 118)

Figure 2. Multiliteracies in Action
Figure 2. Multiliteracies in Action

In my life in this city, I use Cantonese to negotiate shopping, eating, and small talk. My goal is to be able to charm people and be perceived as charming in the Cantonese medium. I use English to communicate with loved ones in Canada in writing and over Skype, and I also employ English as the medium for my work and research.

My research participants are my former secondary school students, who are now grown adults. The project I am working on involves reflexive ethnographic revisiting (Burawoy, 2003), which asks the researcher to return to the site of a previous project and look around to make sense of the field. My research participants are part of the 5% of Hong Kong residents who are ethnic minorities, meaning that they are not ethnically Chinese. These ethnic minority young people use Cantonese, Arabic, English, Hindi, Nepali, Tagalog and Urdu to negotiate their days. Some study in English. Others study in Cantonese. Some use English and Cantonese at work. Others use Cantonese, English and Nepali. Still others use just English. At home, they also negotiate these languages, sometimes using multiple languages and for multiple purposes.

In Mathews’ (2011) book on Chungking Mansions, a famous building in Tsim Sha Tsui that is operated primarily by South Asian and African workers and shopkeepers, he discusses the way that the space is othered and perceived by ‘local’ Hong Kong Chinese people. In this discussion, Mathews touches on the ways that immigrants and ethnic minorities’ identities are formed in relation to space and to social inclusion and exclusion. Mathews offers the example of a young Pakistani boy:

who migrated to Hong Kong with his father when he was three and who now comes to his father’s shop [in Chungking Mansions] whenever he is not in school. Raised in Hong Kong, he speaks conversational Cantonese…but he has not been taught to write and read Chinese, but only English. This reflects the peculiarities of the Hong Kong educational system vis-à-vis South Asians. Education in Hong Kong for South Asians has typically involved instruction in English, with classes in Spoken Cantonese, but little emphasis on written Chinese. This boy seeks to be a medical doctor or a police officer when he grows up, but without written Chinese, that future will probably be denied him in a Hong Kong context. (p. 69)

My current doctoral project expands on this notion- how is learning or not learning Chinese affect a person’s sense of self, belonging and identity in this city and in its spaces. In my Master’s work, some of my participants suggested that they used English at home to speak with friends and siblings so their parents could not understand them. I guess what I’m getting at here is that language practices can be used for a variety of purposes: to get access to certain rights, privileges, and social services. Or to keep people from accessing rights, privileges, and social services.

Figure 3. Sheung Wan Street Art

Language is also used to show citizen discontent and dissent. Hong Kong is emerging from the Umbrella Revolution, and the movement is continuing to re-define itself in digital and physical spaces. Basically, young people took to the streets and occupied territory in Hong Kong to ask for political reform, as well as to assert Hong Kong identity as distinct from Mainland China. The Umbrella Movement has also taken up street art to disseminate ideas and promote citizen engagement. Word play in both Chinese and English permeated the occupations of Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok. The interaction between space and language and protest are pieces that are emerging in my current research. I think more about language practices, as well as the feelings and emotions that are linked to everyday interactions with space (Lefebvre, 1991). Throughout this inquiry, I continue to ask: how might ethnic minority young people use language practices to engage as citizens in Hong Kong? How might they show dissent through language and linguistic practices? How have they used language in their own activist practices? How do they use language across digital spaces and in social media in particular? I will keep my attention to the interactions between citizenship and language and linguistic practices as I continue my work in the field.


Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Mathews, G. (2011). Ghetto at the center of the world: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

O’Connor, T. (2012). Islam in Hong Kong: Muslims and everyday life in China’s world city. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.


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