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  • Apr 16, 2014
  • Updated: 10:11pm
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.



This article is now closed to comments

"“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.
I think she’s telling the truth and the dilemma of HK ppl (at least the businessman) – we want the money and business from the mainland and at the same time we don’t want them to come and destroy our economy. The bad image of the mainland Chinese, being rude, impolite, uneducated, and upstart, has already deeply embedded into the local HK ppl’s mind (it’s not the fault of the media as they are reporting the truth).
I can sense her pride, as seeing herself and other mainland Chinese being the elite in the HK society, between the lines. I can’t agree with that as HK ppl is still very competitive in the work place and school.
The influx of the mainlander Chinese proves that our society is still attractive to them (at least I don’t want to move back and live in the mainland China) and is a preferable place to live and work. HK is, afterall, a city of immigrants in the past and also in the future. We always welcome those who are contributive to our society, but we don’t like those who destroy our city’s social order (no matter they are from mainland China, or those from Africa or South Asia).
They feel they are being discriminated by the local HK ppl. Then please do something that makes us feel that they will bring benefit to our society (not necessarily pecuniary). For example, I am sure the “Mother of Tiananmen” will receive the warmest welcome if they can come to HK.
I arrived in Hong Kong in 1963, when thousands of mainland Chinese were escaping from China and settling in Hong Kong to escape persecution – using the touch base policy to gain residence.
At that time the established Chinese Hong Kong population already settled in Hong Kong during and after the war. . complained about the “ignorant Chinese from the mainland”
Over the next twenty or so years the newly arrived immigrants of the 1960’s and 70’s became established as acclimatized Hong Kongers to the point that in the 1980’s and 90’s they in turn began to complain about the new uncouth arrives from the mainland working as cheap labor and taking their jobs and their ill-mannered attitudes.
Now we have another influx of mainland Chinese – many from much different backgrounds, better educated, and many far better off financially (that in fact display the great strides China has made over the past two decades) But human nature being what it is, the now well established Chinese immigrants of Hong Kong that arrived from China over the past half century are busy complaining . . . that their newly arrived “brothers and sisters” from the mainland are not really one of them . .
And it now seems that the new Chinese arrivals are educated to the point that they are now able to argue back. It just goes to show how fickle we all are as we envy and agitate situations - as we are in fact finding fault with ourselves. Will things never change?
I think it is mainly the kids of the people who are in power in Mainland to steal the money to send the kids to schools abroad who express these silly views. They don't represent Chinese people. They benefit from the kleptocracy that their parents are a part of. If they truly believe in their system, why did this writer not settle back in Shanghai in effort to be part of bringing China out of the mess it is in today? Because she has benefited greatly from the kleptocracy, but she knows that her life and that of her kids will be better in the US.
Her actions belie her words.
I speak from the point of view of someone who is of Hong Kong Chinese background, but has lived in Australia almost all my life and only just recently returned to HK for work. Although the majority are tolerant, few migrants in Aus would not have experienced some form of racism and bigotry at an overt or covert level. A study showed that ethnic minorities need to apply for about 60% more jobs to be successful compared to local white 'aussies'. Now that I am living in HK, it is a peculiar experience for me to be now part of the majority and and not be made to feel like i don't belong here. I fully understand what Joy has experienced, and it is a real shame. It obviously has seriously negatively affected her attitude and outlook. A certain famous speech reminded us of the obvious- that is to treat each other by the content of character rather than by the colour of their skin. In this case, it is even more ludicrous because we are all chinese, and the only real difference is which dialect we speak! Sure, there are tourists who misbehave etc, but don't generalise! I get Aussies who act hostile towards me because they think I'm Japanese! Our actions are not dictated by our appearance, more so by situation. To those who want to blast mainlanders, why don't you spend time getting to know some on a personal level? You will find that in the end, we are all not really that different. We, as human beings have similar wants, desires and aspirations.
and china doesn't have a future without the rest of the world... what a daft thing to say
Why does the author insist on referring to the mainland as Hong Kong's "motherland?" Why do mainlanders hold this fervent neocolonialist obsession?
I do not discriminate against Chinese but this attitude is one thing that really irks me about my mainland friends.
While heading off on a trip to Taipei one guy actually didn't bring his passport to the airport, so obviously there is also an element of massive ignorance.
Miss Yang is an asset to both Hong Kong and People’s Republic of China regardless of what is the reason for her move back to Hong Kong when she could have lived in a developed country like the United States. China will only prosper with many exemplary individuals such as herself.
As an overseas Chinese who was born in Malaysia our family were forced to immigrate to New Zealand for better life. I grew up and spent much of my life in a sleepy country like New Zealand. I now live and work in the United Kingdom so I have first-hand experience living in all these countries as a foreigner and overseas Chinese. I will say that I have felt like a foreigner in all these countries I have lived in.
I have travelled countless number of times to especially Hong Kong, mainland, Macao, and Taiwan. It wasn’t until I have travelled to Republic of China on Taiwan where I felt like home for the very first time in my life. Our founding father and his revolutionaries has fought hard to found Republic of China for us. Our compatriots regardless of whether they are in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao should be helping mainland Chinese to modernise herself in order to create and build a prosperous Chinese Republic. It makes me sad to see the infighting between Hong Kongers and mainlanders or Taiwanese and mainlanders for that matter. We have a choice either we can continue the infighting or work together to create and build a stronger Chinese Republic.
I am a Malaysian Indian. I have traveled to Hong Kong last month so let me share with you my experience of interacting with both Hong Kongers and mainland people. I don't think mainlanders have excellent English skills. I have talked in English to both Hkers and mainland people, I would say Hkers speak better English and their accent is more understandable by others from Southeast Asia countries. In fact, some countries that communicate mainly in English like Singapore and Malaysia, we will find that most of the mainlanders in our countries could barely speak English. This is also judging from my own experience when I was in my undergraduate degree. We didn't like to form a group with China students,mainly because they were lazy and hardly contribute to group assignments. Most of the China students in Malaysia are here just to spend lavishly on their parents' money. They are not so keen in studying. There are many other reasons why people from other countries don't like China people. This primarily has to do with the ill attitudes they brought over with them when they travel to other countries. I can list down all sorts of bad attitudes they show in public. Asian people don't like someone to talk loudly in public. We don't like people to cut the queue and we can't bare to see people eating like animals throwing their food's flesh and bones on the table. Whereas I didn't see any Hkers did this while I was there for 5 nights.
Honestly I do not see any fundamental difference between a mainlander's experience in HK and that of an non-Beijinger in Beijing. The discrimination by the locals is bound to exist in both scenarios.



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