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  • Oct 26, 2014
  • Updated: 12:45am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Why living in Hong Kong as mainland Chinese is no piece of cake

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 May, 2013, 12:38pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 10:38am

Joy Yang first wrote in Chinese about her experience as a person from the mainland living in Hong Kong. Her story was a hit on Weibo and sparked heated discussion. She has translated her article into English to share with SCMP readers.

We constantly hear Hong Kong locals complain about people who visit from the mainland and buy up milk powder or take up space in maternity wards, but rarely are the voices of those from the mainland heard.

My first impression of Hong Kong was not a good one. I was part of a batch of 28 undergraduates who had arrived from top universities on the mainland to study at the University of Hong Kong in 1999. I was 18 and excited about starting an adult life in the “Pearl of the Orient”, with its fancy shops, pop stars and legends of successful businessmen.

This excitement was soon replaced by anger and disappointment. A few days after arriving, a tutor at the hall of residence and a local female student came to my room and asked if they could search it. The girl said her mobile phone had been stolen. They rummaged through our bags then left with no apologies. But it was clearly written on their faces what they were thinking: “Where the hell are these two poor mainland girls hiding my mobile phone?”

I felt angry, but, sadly, it was not the last time this would happen. When something went missing in the hall of residence, the mainland students were always the first ones, and for most of the time the only ones, to be suspected. What was particularly insulting was that most of the suspected stolen items were insignificant - a slice of cheese or a bottle of milk. Yes, China’s per-capita GDP was low, but were we so poor in those locals’ eyes that even an orange was worth stealing?

After such bad experiences, I was always ready to strike back whenever I felt insulted or discriminated against. One time a local asked for my help on her class project comparing Hong Kong with Shanghai. Her first question was whether there was karaoke in Shanghai. Such an ignorant question offended my big Shanghainese ego. And when she asked about the living conditions there, I answered, with full arrogance: “My home in Shanghai was more than 1,000 square feet. How big is your home in Hong Kong?”

I did not make many good friends with local students at first, but I did not care. I don’t have to blend into the local culture, I told myself.

Sooner or later, those Hongkongers will recognise that mainland China is no longer a poor country, and we will influence the world with our growing economic and political power – more than Hong Kong does. So why should I care about blending into the local culture?

I could have kept “fighting” like that until one incident changed me.

After many conflicts I had with local students, the student union decided to kick me out of the hall of residence. The last straw, I believed, was when I defended a mainland tutor at a meeting and argued that her critics were discriminating against mainlanders. The mainlanders are my ally, and Hongkongers are our common enemy – I truly believed it at that time.

But when the student union labelled me as a troublemaker, not only did the tutor not speak out for me as I did for her, but she also turned her back on me.

“Who asked her to fight with the local students?” she told others behind my back. I felt betrayed.

I started losing hope that I would find a place to live until a Hong Kong tutor called me to say that the hall of residence had decided to give me another chance. She said some locals had argued that I was simply from a different culture and that the hall should welcome different views.

I was shocked when I heard that.

Betrayed by my ally only to be saved by my enemy - that completely changed my mentality. I became more receptive to local culture. More locals said they were eager to learn from me about the mainland, and I apologised to them, admitting that I had been too extreme in the past.

What I want to say is simple: blending into Hong Kong’s local culture is not that difficult, if we have the right attitude. That is what I learned 10 years ago. I left Hong Kong in 2002 for graduate school in the US, with full appreciation of what Hong Kong had taught me, both academically and non-academically.

But life is always more complicated than we think. I returned to Hong Kong in 2011, after studying and working in the US for nine years. Nowadays in Hong Kong, I find that blending into the local culture is not as simple as 10 years ago.

I started noticing the rapidly changing dynamics between locals and mainlanders from afar.

For example, HKU offers one-year exchange programmes for its undergraduates to study abroad. Students are selected based on academic performance and extra-curriculum activities. Each year we received about four to five HKU students in Los Angeles, and usually three or four of them were students originally from the mainland.

This had to do with the rising population of mainland students in Hong Kong. Back in my day, the economics department only had three to four mainland students. We got As most of the time, but plenty of As were left for local students. Today the economics department has about 20 to 30 mainland students, and when they get most of the As, as I heard from a HKU professor, a B is the best that a local student can hope for.

It’s not about who is smarter. After all, one is selected from a population of 1.4 billion and the other is from a population of seven million. Even though universities are supposed to be a place for fair competition, it is understandable why many Hong Kong students dislike their mainland peers. Ten years ago we “stole” apples and milk; today we “steal” As in class.

The younger generation from the mainland constantly outperforms locals in other aspects too. They score high in exams, participate in social activities and even speak better English than many local students. “We invited investment bankers to give seminars on campus,” an HKU professor said, “and after, all the mainland students rushed to socialise with the speaker, handed in their resumes and asked for internship opportunities, while many local students just hid themselves in the back rows.”

My speculation that Hongkongers felt threatened by mainlanders was confirmed when I returned in 2011. Yes, there are more mainlanders in Hong Kong than ever, and Hong Kong has never been this close to its motherland. But if you think that made my life here easier, you are wrong. Locals are rejecting mainland people and culture harder than before.

That’s why I realise that having a happy life in Hong Kong is no longer as simple as having the right attitude. It is harder to blend into the local culture than 10 years ago because the pushback from local people is harder than ever. This view is probably not shared by some of my mainland peers living in Hong Kong. Some of them do not think it necessary to blend into the local culture. “I earn more money than most of the Hongkongers” and “I always ask them to speak Putonghua to me”, one of my Beijing friends said with pride.

Resistance from locals is particularly obvious in two areas – the financial sector and the working class. The lack of transparency and the unique Chinese culture are often challenging for foreigners working in the Chinese market. Top investment banks and hedge funds prefer to hire mainlanders – over Hongkongers, ABCs and Westerners – for their China business knowledge. In Central, Putonghua is becoming a popular language, not only in shopping malls, but also in offices.

Working-class people are probably the ones who are mostly affected and, to some extent, squeezed. They face shortages of milk powder and of hospital beds, and a crowded Ocean Park - I would complain too if I were a local.

The problem is not unique to Hong Kong. Beijingers and Shanghainese complain about new migrants in their cities too. It’s all about competition for limited social welfare. In some aspects, Hong Kong is worse off. At least for a baby born in Shanghai or Beijing, she is not qualified for a hukou [residency permit] in the city if neither parent has one. But in Hong Kong, any child born here would automatically get access to the social welfare system – even if their parents are not permanent Hong Kong residents.

So who should be blamed for the rising tension between Hong Kong and the mainland? In my view, some Hong Kong media could take more responsibility. They could be fairer and stop reporting biased stories for the sake of boosting sales. The central government should also take more decisive actions to solve its food safety problem, so that mainland mums do not have to travel to Hong Kong for milk powder. Joint efforts by Hong Kong people, mainlanders, media and government will make the city a friendlier place to study, work and live.


I’d like to ask a question to end my story: nowadays in Hong Kong, should I speak Putonghua or Cantonese when I go shopping? I tried once to speak Cantonese in the Harbour City shopping mall, but the saleswoman turned away and greeted other mainland shoppers with her fluent Putonghua. I then tried to speak Putonghua at another store in Causeway Bay and received good service. But when I decided to leave without buying any shoes, the salesperson’s face went dark. She asked angrily: “Why you don’t buy? They are so cheap! And it’s another 20 per cent off if you pay with RMB!” I realised finally that it’s not about language; it’s all about your wallet.

Joy Yang is from Shanghai. She studied at the University of Hong Kong and at the University of California, Los Angeles in the US. She worked in Washington DC as an economist for the International Monetary Fund and now works in the financial industry in Hong Kong.


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This article is now closed to comments

A whistle blower seldom would get sympathy. As days go by, more and more of the comments are against Yang’s revelation about her bad treatment at HKU. As I had pointed out earlier, she is at risk for whistle blow on HKU. In a place until most recently where no one tell tale on others and holding HKU as the elitist, Yang is seen as an outsider for breaking the unspoken rules. At such she should either skip town or persevere till she can beat the culture in Hong Kong. I still think she is making a sacrifice as most whistle blowers do to tangle with the truth or the wolves.
Whymak: 'the World Bank pegs China's homeless at 29.27 million in 2001, a miraculous decline from 250 million in 1978.'
How valid was the poverty assessment in China? By extracting a few words from the report means nothing.
According to the World Bank report, the international standard is somewhat less severe than China's official poverty line, it indicates greater numbers of poor in all years, and that by end-1998 a much larger share of the rural population - about 11.5 percent or some 106 million people -remained in poverty in China, especially the western provinces. The poverty rate is still around 10% in China now. The World Bank has suggested to adopt the international standard for a more appropriate measure of poverty to guide the government's poverty reduction program in the next century. But of course, the target to eradicate US$1.75/day poverty by 2030 as promised by world bank YK Jim would be great. But a piece of bread that already cost more than US$2 could not really help much, not to mention the cost of a shelter.
Dear Joy,
First of all, welcome to HK! I enjoyed reading your article very much.
I can see that now you have become a real international citizen being much more well-travelled and well-exposed, you have more civility than most Mainland Chinese. Hence, you will adapt more easily and welcome by other cultures as well.
Perhaps, you will be a great ambassador to go back to China to enhance the general population on social etiquette and civil public behavior. Currently, most Mainland Chinese believe having money allows them being uncivilized, aloof and arrogant. For example: never like to queue; spitting in public (especially in swimming pools in hotels), squatting, speak loudly in public, places they graced upon turned dirty instantly........Yes so what if one has money!
Imagine if Mainland Chinese people behave with more civility than today, with such a huge talent pool there, the nation will achieve even more than today and with more respect worldwide! The whole world is hoping China will flourish and flourish well. Today there is still a wide gap with etiquette and civility in China and HK is loosing its grip as well due to the cross-border influence. I am doing my share here in HK to exemplify good etiquette and civility in public to students and the corporate world.
Joy, you have the right ingredient to be influential in this area. Make use of it!
That's correct Joy. Why don't you move back to China and set a good example for your compatriots. Every journey starts with one step. You need to take this first step!
Hong Kong University began long ago to train local Chinese in English ability in order to assist the colonial government ruling Hong Kong. Ever since it is looked upon as an elite while no others which only came along much later to be allowed as equal. With big salary remuneration, Hong Kong University has had drawn good teachers and raised its profile internationally. The unfortunate aspect of its development has been the unequal improvement in its student body which had been for years reported in the news. English proficiency of its new incoming students or instructors was less than desirable. While we not lament that HKU has become more accessible the revelation of poor treatments of fellow mainland students is most regrettable. The fund raising for an ad calling to stop ‘mainlandization’ by some of its students perhaps is more in telling the world than just to the mainlanders that HKU doesn’t deserve the international reputation it has enjoyed. HKU is as provincial as its beginning with it administration just standing by in silence.
Ms. Yang pointed out rightly that the local media have been fanning the prejudicial fire! I don't know whether the low quality of the populace is the cause or the effect of such a low standard of journalism. BTW, welcome to HK, Ms. Yang!
Joy Yang's article certainly demonstrates her arrogance and does a very good job telling us that because a few of her Hong Kong dorm mates humiliated her 24 years ago she despises all Hong Kongers and now it's pay back time. It's precisely this arrogant and imperialistic mentality that has created animosity between born and raised Hong Kongers and Mainlanders. There's an old Chinese saying that runs to the like of, "When in Rome, do as the Roman's do". What surprises me is that these are Chinese people from China that refuse to abide by the very same saying that they themselves created. Is that not a shame?
To her last question, perhaps regular customers usually speak either Mandarin or Cantonese without an accent. Since she spoke neither at first, this prompt the clerk to ignore her. Also, I've found store clerks in major cities around the world including New York and London to be like that. Many store clerks in luxury brand stores work on commission and if they spent time serving you and you didn't buy anything, it's lost revenue for them because they could have been serving somebody else who could have made a purchase. I'm surprised Joy Yang actually got upset at the store clerk considering she works in finance. She would probably feel the same way the store clerk did if someone shopped a deal she was working on. In fact she might even have a meltdown in front of the client.
"“I earn more money than most of the Hongkongers” and “I always ask them to speak Putonghua to me”, one of my Beijing friends said with pride."
The second part I can understand; if both parties know Putonghua and only one party knows Cantonese then of course you would use the language that's common. But to use Putonghua because you make more money than the other people??? How different is that from the arrogant discrimination you first faced in 1999 Ms Yang? I understand that it's your friend who is doing this but the article seem to portray you as condoning this type of thinking.
About your closing question. I face similar situations if I am pulled over by the police while driving or on my motorcycle (especially on my motorcycle since my face is covered by a helmet and people can't tell if I am Chinese); do I use English which a lot of my friends say will get me out of trouble since some constables don't want the hassle of dealing with a foreigner or do I use Chinese? I speak all 3 fluently but in my set of value system, I choose to speak Cantonese to the officer. Why? Because this is Hong Kong and the local language is Cantonese; I don't go to Canada and speak Chinese to the police officers to try to get out of trouble, so why should people do that in Hong Kong? I would rather get a ticket by speaking Cantonese than to be one of those people who try to abuse their language abilities.
So one should judge the usage of language NOT on money but on principle.
18-year old is legal adult age and should be smart enough to make good decisions. Would an 18-year old not able to say no when a senior authority asked you to take off your pants?
The average size of flats in HK is 45 sq.m. Average new public apartment 60 sq.m. Average new private 70 sq.m. It's not spacious but not badly cramped, especially if you travel most of the time and stay late outdoor in HK. In comparable to a hotel room, a small apartment is much cheaper. Considering the lifestyle in HK, most people use the apartment to sleep, prepare simple meals and shower. Family and friends gatherings usually take place in restaurants, gardens, countryside and private clubs.
Over 200 million people (1.5% of total population) living in China are homeless. In HK, over 1000 (0.01%) are homeless. Only 1.4% (100000 out of 7m) people in HK live in coffin, cage homes and rooftops.
Talking about reflection and positive means to see the world from another perspectives do not equal to 'disputations with mainlanders'. Using the nasty words 'lynch mob', 'mindless zombies' to attack freedom of expression did not proof you have any dignity or integrity.
Evelynhoyl: "Would an 18-year old not able to say no when a senior authority asked you to take off your pants?"
I taught elements of symbolic logic in my freshman physical science course. Such irrelevancy in a college debate would have earned you an F.
You are fast and loose with facts. Apparently, you read only newspapers, which are written at 8th grade reading level. HKU researchers estimate 171,000 HKer's live in subdivided flats but not 100,000 bandied about in the media. Moreover, the World Bank pegs China's homeless at 29.27 million in 2001, a miraculous decline from 250 million in 1978.
As recently as late 1980's, China was poorer than India. In the 50s when I grew up, HK was as poor as Sri Lanka – formerly Ceylon. We Chinese have come a long way.
I love HK warts and all. I would never trade our city for New York, San Francisco or Paris. Denying our ethnicity is a Hong Kong shame. You don’t disown your parents because they are poor or different.
Some teachers at SJC where I studied called us all kinds of names when we performed poorly. Such verbal abuses were doled out in metered dosages of insult and exhortation. Many of us have become world class professionals with no damage to self esteem. I don’t approve this old practice.
Mindless bananas trashed our fellow Chinese. They ought to be dressed down.
四海之內皆兄弟也. Alle Menschen werden Brueder. How come so many poorly English speaking Chinese Democracy believers are so clueless?




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