26 November 2008

Stop the Madness! 我受夠了!

If you haven’t noticed it, then either you are hard of hearing or you are one of them. I am referring to those in Hong Kong who say “may I help’choo?”

Earlier tonight I called a restaurant in Central to make a dinner reservation. The operator answered in English, “thank you for calling XXX Restaurant, how may I help’choo?” I almost dropped my phone, not because it was my first time hearing the mispronunciation, but because I was fed up with the fact that such a glaring mistake can go uncorrected for so long.

Over the centuries, many have attempted to butcher the English language but no attempt is as offensive or nearly as successful as this one. Uptight Englishmen are known to cringe whenever they hear Singaporeans speak Singlish, injecting their local flavors into the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Bizarre as the hybrid language may sound, Singlish is by and large just an accent, and so long as everyone still respects the basic rules of grammar and phonics, accents are simply a matter of taste. Who is to say, for instance, that the Australian accent is any less pleasant than the Jamaican? The problem with saying “may I help’choo, on the other hand, goes far beyond taste. It is just plain wrong.

Another reason I take such offense with the mispronounced phrase is that those who say it are often people who think they speak very good English. From the concierge at the Four Seasons to the senior bank manager at HSBC, these presumably Western-educated, self-assured professionals repeat the phrase day-in and day-out with complete nonchalance, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It makes me wonder: is that what they teach our kids at school these days? How did this grotesque phenomenon get started and why hasn’t anyone done something about it? No wonder so many parents here send their kids to international schools these days.

Worse still, there are disturbing signs that the disease has gone from a domestic outbreak to an all-out pandemic across Asia. In my recent trips to Bangkok, Taipei, Shanghai and even Singapore, I noticed that some of the men and women in the service industry were starting to make the same mistake. Many countries in the region look to wealthier and worldlier Hong Kong for best practices in business management. What these countries need to realize is that Hong Kong may be a lot of things, but English teacher it is not.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I will go over a basic rule of pronunciation for those who dont already know it. The only time a “y” sound becomes a “ch” sound is when the word preceding it ends with a “t” or its phonetic equivalent, such as the past tense of a verb ending with a “k” (like “kicked”) or a “p” (like “helped”). In other words, while it is correct to say “nice to meet’choo” and “I helped’choo yesterday,” it is completely, utterly and hopelessly wrong to say “may I help’choo.”

So there you have it. I hope you will join me on my one-man crusade to stop the madness.


  1. It's more "how may I helped you"...

    I find it interesting whenever I hear that phrase and have the urge to say, "how could YOU have already helped ME??"

  2. I can't agree more with 'choo. (ah-ha!)
    I pointed this out to my frd (who listens). But I don't think I'll do the same to the Receptionists of my co.

    - Kat (local girl growing up in HK)

  3. I've been enjoying reading past entries in your blog having come across it again, this time via FB. (Can't remember when I first saw it.) After reading this post, I'll have to listen for the 'choo.' Lately I've been amused by all the sales calls to my mobile by people who won't speak English if I ask them to since I don't speak Cantonese. I can understand they're asking for me, but after I say yes, this is she, can you speak English, they inadvertently say, "wrong number" and hang up! Ah, life in HK...

  4. Another scaring one is "how'ra you?"

    And in many TV programs I heard the actor/ress, MC, etc... pronouncing a word starts with "o" as "ngo"!!!!!

    I don't mind people having strange accents, but I definitely hate those who apply "self-created" phonics!