The year 2010 saw the death of Boa Senior, the last living speaker of Aka-Bo, a tribal language native to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. News coverage of Boa Senior’s death noted that she had survived the 2004 tsunami – an event that was reportedly foreseen by tribe elders – along with the Japanese occupation of 1942 and the barbaric policies of British colonisers. The linguist Anvita Abbi, who knew Boa Senior for many years, said: ‘After the death of her parents, Boa was the last Bo speaker for 30 to 40 years. She was often very lonely and had to learn an Andamanese version of Hindi in order to communicate with people.’
Tales of language extinction are invariably tragic. But why, exactly? Aka-Bo, like many other extinct languages, did not make a difference to the lives of the vast majority of people. Yet the sense that we lose something valuable when languages die is familiar. Just as familiar, though, is the view that preserving minority languages is a waste of time and resources. I want to attempt to make sense of these conflicting attitudes.
Though Queen’s Café is often associated with the “soy sauce Western” cuisine that emerged after World War II, it is actually a remnant of a time when many of Hong Kong’s most famous restaurants were run by Russian émigrés. “Borscht, beef stroganoff, chicken kiev” – Yu lists some of the classic dishes at Queen’s Café. His grandfather, Mischa Yu, trained in Russian restaurants in Shanghai, and when he came to Hong Kong, he made the dishes he knew best. “Back in the 50s there were a lot of Russians in Hong Kong,” says Yu. “At the time, Western food in Hong Kong was Russian food.”
Hong Kong was a transient place for much of its history, a stepping stone for Chinese migrants on their way to California or Australia, a layover for British colonials, and a temporary refuge for those caught up by the waves of history. Once powerful communities have vanished, like the Portuguese who dominated civic life for a century. The Russians came and went, too – but not without leaving a trace.
When I came to Paris from London twelve years ago, supposedly for an August weekend break, I never imagined that I would settle, marry, and have children here. Least of all, that I would become a writer. I was, then, a successful British lawyer for an international law firm. How could I have imagined that I would, in less than two years, be writing books?
But that was before Paris seeped into my head, by a slow and stealthy infiltration of the brain. When I walked out of the doors of the Gare du Nord that August summer day onto the busy Rue de Dunkerque, it was to meet a city so steeped in books that their long-dead authors seemed to haunt the streets with the easy nonchalance of the local flâneurs. Around the corner from one of my first rented homes was the tiny, fourth-floor apartment of Ernest Hemingway at 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine, back then an archaic, working-class district of the 5th arrondissement. It was in an office near here that Hemingway pounded out on his typewriter his ode to the Lost Generation, The Sun Also Rises.