Macau & Hong Kong: Exotic Lands and Languages

Stefan Magdalinski/Flickr

Stefan Magdalinski/Flickr

What are the differences between Macau and Hong Kong? The neighboring cities are just a one-hour ferry ride apart, but their histories and economies make them two very different places.

An investigation into these multicultural cities reveals the variety of ways people communicate and do business. In such diverse locales, different communities with different heritages interact vibrantly, with various levels of ease.  Macau and Hong Kong are the only two multicultural, Special Administrative Regions of the People’s Republic of China, which means they are autonomous territories that fall within the sovereignty of China.

There are numerous distinctions between the linguistic and business landscapes of the two areas, which stem from their individual colonial histories, economic patterns and relations with Mainland China.

What’s the Difference?

Situated 65km west of Hong Kong, Macau is a unique city in China. Though its Mediterranean style architecture and food reflect its Portuguese colonial history, the city has an underlying traditional, almost sacred style. As the only place in China where gambling is legal, the juxtaposition of its beauty with its identity as the ‘Vegas of the East’ make it a fascinating place to visit.

A former British colony on the southeast coast of China, Hong Kong has always been a thriving trading hub. Discover Hong Kong relays its colorful history. In the early 20th century, the arrival of large numbers of immigrants from Mainland China contributed to Hong Kong’s position as a world leader in manufacturing. In recent years, as the economy of Mainland China has begun to open up, Hong Kong has adopted a service-based economy and has become an important gateway to the world’s largest market in China.

Language in Macau

Victor Mair of Language Log reports on Macau and Hong Kong, describing Macau as an exceptionally multilingual city, where locals speak Cantonese, Portuguese, English and Mandarin.

Mair gives an example of the name of an island called Taipa, which is part of Macau. According to Wikipedia, Taipa has been known by many different names throughout history. However, the name Cantonese speakers call the place does not sound anything like “Taipa,” the European name that appears on signs and maps of the area.

Mair in fact suspects that Taipa has a Portuguese etymology, which would demonstrate the extent to which the native language has been influenced by the region’s colonial history.

Ingrid Pillar, also refers to multilingual Macau in Language on the Move. She says although the official languages are Chinese and Portuguese, English plays a very important role. It is the medium of instruction at the University of Macau and a number of secondary schools.

Pillar says that although Cantonese is the local Chinese dialect, use of Putonghua, or common Chinese, is in the rise. Due to the large number of tourists entering Macau each year especially from Mainland China, Putonghua is heard more commonly than Cantonese in many tourist places .

According to Pillar, written Chinese is always changing, and consists of at least three varieties: traditional characters, simplified characters and Pinyin, its Latin alphabet transcription system. Pinyin can also look different depending on whether the writer uses English or Portuguese language conventions.

Language in Hong Kong

Discover Hong Kong reports that, although the majority of people in Hong Kong speak Chinese, there is a range of other dialects that can be heard on the city streets. While Cantonese is spoken by 88% of the population of Hong Kong, other Chinese dialects include Hakka, Taishanese and Teochiu.

It’s no surprise to hear that Mandarin is common In Hong Kong, however Mandarin has become more widely spoken since the region was given back to China in 1997 after 155 years under British rule. As a major international city, English is widely spoken in Hong Kong. Nowadays it is the preferred language in government, business and tourism.

Tang Pui Ling, who has a Ph.D. in Chinese philology, teaches traditional language studies at the University of Hong Kong. After discussions with Ling, Mair discovered that the dialect in Hong Kong is changing significantly. Primarily, some Chinese words are being replaced with English ones. Instead of saying something like “zoǐgǐn” (再见; “goodbye”), people in Hong Kong are now saying “bye bye”.

Through various cultural exchanges and observations during his trip to Hong Kong, Mair began to see an interesting cross-pollination within the language. Conversations and written words consist of a mixture of Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, and the locals shift easily among the three.

In summary, Mair says “I believe that Hong Kong functions as a sort of language lab for the Sinosphere.  The trends that I witnessed there on this trip and during many previous visits to the city are a harbinger of things that are spreading throughout the Mainland.”

Doing Business

Export.gov describes the business environment of Macau, highlighting the differences between the city and its neighbor Hong Kong. Similar to Hong Kong, Macau enjoys a high degree of autonomy, notable exceptions being foreign affairs and defense.

Macau also has its own currency, laws, and border control systems. Instead of using the common law system used in Hong Kong, Macau uses code law modeled on the Portuguese style of governance.

The Gaming Sector

Macau has received various forms of foreign investment that have contributed to its strong economic growth, including a $9.0 billion investment from the US that experts have estimated to be the total sum resulting from the liberalization of the gaming industry in 2002.

Accordingly, Macau’s economic strength due to the gaming sector is expected to continue its growth over the next few years. In 2012, taxes on gaming sales accounted for 82% of government income.

Thanks to Portuguese colonization, the influx of tourists, and the area’s mixture of nationalities, the languages spoken in Macau are significantly varied and consist of a blend of different dialects. The British colonial harbor of Hong Kong being nearby has meant that English has become more widely spoken than before, even if the majority of the population still speaks Cantonese.

Hong Kong and Macau both have a free port with low taxation, which has contributed to their economic growth and international exposure. Although both cities have positions as autonomous states in China, their varied histories mean business and languages are distinctly diverse.

If you’re planning on doing work in or around these areas, the more languages you know, the better. Try our Chinese Character Test and, if you need to brush up, you’ll know where to go next.

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