Back when I was studying Mandarin in Hong Kong, it was difficult, if not almost impossible, to practice speaking the language outside the classroom.
People in Hong Kong speak Cantonese; in those days few spoke China’s official language, Putonghua or Mandarin.
After my Mandarin teachers thought my class was ready to engage in a simple conversation (we’d all been studying Mandarin for two years at that point), they pointed us toward Hollywood Road on Hong Kong Island and the antique shops there.
“Look for the Mao statues in the windows,” my teachers said. “The owners of those shops speak Mandarin.”
I often roamed those streets, passing tiny storefronts piled high with porcelain tea pots and cups (the kind of which you see in Chinese restaurants). Others sold bamboo steamers, metal tiffin trays, or plumbing accessories.
So one day I ventured to the antique shops on Hollywood Road. I passed a window with a haphazard display of Mao watches, clocks, and a small plaster bust or two. I entered the store and pretended to look around. Most of the items for sale resembled those in this photo.
An older woman with a graying pageboy haircut sat behind a counter, engrossed in her Chinese newspaper. She didn’t look up and being the shy student I was back then, I didn’t have the heart to disturb her. So I left the store without so much a word of Mandarin spoken.
That was then and this is now.
Mandarin has become so prevalent in Hong Kong that it’s surpassed English as the second language in the territory.