Does race matter in bad behaviour?

Peter Kammerer wonders why Hongkongers seem indifferent to loutish Westerners but outraged over the conduct of mainlanders here

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 3:29am

I am partial to sharing off-colour humour with my colleague, Alex Lo. So when he told me recently that he had witnessed a Caucasian man wearing a rugby jersey urinating in the gutter near a bus stop in Causeway Bay during the Rugby Sevens, I steeled myself for the mirth-inducing punch line. None came. Instead, he related that the act of al fresco relief had taken place in front of a line of commuters who, although shocked, did not become outraged as they may have done had it been someone of another ethnic persuasion. Alex has his take; here is mine.

YouTube is awash with videos of mainland Chinese and their children relieving themselves in public. It is not so easy to find any clips starring Caucasians. Yet, as anyone from a Western football-loving culture knows, drunken fans are apt to not think twice about where they make room for more alcohol. With the influx each year for the Sevens tournament, you would expect the phenomenon to have long ago made a big splash on our streets.

It has - but it is in places astute citizens know to avoid. Our city is no different from others that have a cultural aversion to the performance of bodily functions in the open air. It is one of the reasons those videos of mainland parents letting their children use our streets as toilets have caused outrage. Yet, when it is a Caucasian involved during Sevens week, it seems that there is merely a shake of the head and a muttered, "Oh, those crazy foreigners".

But there is something more at play, a matter that seems engrained in the average Hong Kong psyche. It is about history, culture and language. The historical part is related to a century and a half of British colonial rule and our city's status as a port and stopover point. Westerners are often assumed to be tourists and even if they are residents, the perception is that they will not be staying long; they are usually cut a measure of slack that is not always deserved.

Hong Kong people are also largely familiar with Western culture. They equate the West with freedom, abiding by the law and civility. That obviously gets vaporised when a drunken Westerner decides that a busy street is as good a place as any to urinate, but there is a degree of tolerance that is not afforded those from closer to home. Mainland China is not perceived in such a way, no matter how wealthy it gets; the differences make it still seem far away.

I put the language part to the test in a restaurant in Mong Kok the other week. Sitting with a mainland friend, I suggested that a Westerner was more likely to get better service. My friend asked the waiter in Putonghua for a glass of water; it never arrived. I asked and it came instantly. This experiment was less proof of a lack of respect for mainlanders than staff worried about being out of their linguistic depth.

I have no science or research to back my claims - just observation and a gut feeling. There are good and bad tourists, no matter where they are from. Perhaps foreign governments should follow the mainland's example and provide information to citizens travelling overseas to respect laws and culture. Hong Kong people should also be more even-handed towards visitors. It's about time out-of-line Westerners got featured in YouTube nasties.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post