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  • Oct 22, 2014
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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

If the schizophrenic parent refuses to get treatment or take his medication regularly, the children have the right to stay away from the parent. The parent is not at fault for having a mental illness and being different; however, the safety of the children must be taken into consideration when a parent suffers from schizophrenia.
Sometime I do pity.
Your questions clearly show you don't understand the makeup of young adults. Like any 18-year old, Ms. Yang was sensitive to peer reprobation and approbation. Such sensibilities often expose their vulnerability and knee-jerk subjugation to group bullying, hazing and other sadistic rituals.
Perhaps you are unaware; you have inadvertently exhibited a trace of herd behavior characteristic common to all lynch mobs.
When you brag about HK 3000-square-foot flat, you betray both ignorance and inferiority complex so typical of today's Hong Kongers. Many of our poor brethren live in caged homes and subdivided flats.
Hong Kong flats are small because of the misguided land policy inherited from the British. Generally, average flat size in Shanghai and Singapore is 2 or 3 times ours. Our store of wealth goes mostly into the roof over our head. Living in a 50-million dollar flat at Repulse Bay may mean less disposable income and less security in old age. It will take much time and overhead costs to sell property in a down market.
Disputations with mainlanders may make you feel good; reading Chinese classics to learn about the dignity of a human being – yes, I modify here the sexist “Man” – will make you a better person than mindless zombies led by clueless charlatans chanting Occupy Central and Hong Kong Core Values.
Ms. Yang demonstrated true grit and self-reliance. If this is all I have to judge her with, I would be extremely proud were she my daughter.
Do you call Joy or Angry? If you find yourself not happy living in HK, why don't you go back to mainland china to save the billion of poor people there? If you did not like the HKU tutor & student to search your bag, why did you allow them to do so? You mentioned that they 'asked if they could search it', right? Why did you not call the police or ask them to call police? In HK, we have a well established legal system and anti-discrimination laws. Is it only your perception of discriminating and insulting when someone asked you if there was karaoke in Shanghai and what was the living conditions there? What if your classmate was only curious about Shanghai and was thinking of visit the city and have karaoke? Who is actually talking about money here? Why did you talk about home size with the locals? Home in many parts of HK (Repulse Bay, South Bay, Shek O, the Peak, Sai Kung, etc) could be more than a thousand or even over 3000 square feet. It only depends on how much you can afford. And who works in the financial industry in HK to earn easy money but whining here?
Well written Joy and thanks for sharing your experience............everything in HK is about money and the local people here are just as bad as the criticisms they have about the mainland.........I can't wait till China continues to grow into a powerful and influential country and eventually "swallow up" this little piece of past colonial place called HK.
Good luck, economic growth is in decline in China and debt is ballooning. There is so much corruption in China that there is little hope for China to ever come near Hong Kong's level within our life time. Regardless of the righful criticism they recieve when they come here, they still come here to buy our things because they have confidence in our products. Even the Chinese leadership have told their people to behave when abroad.
Without a level playing field or a legal system that people can have confidence in in China, Hong Kong has little to worry about.
As for these students, much of the discrimination is on their behavior not based on the fact that they are Chinese (from China).
And as this Ms. Yang pointed out, if you want to come here, have the right attitude. Most people in Hong Kong do not embrace the communist party. Many of the Chinese associate patriotism to loving "The Party". The Party isn't China.
I agree with Joy, it is all about money with hong kong, always has been, always will be. I am from Australia but recently went back home in December and walking into many shops, i was surprised that many shop assistants thought i was from the mainland even though i've lived overseas for more than 20 years. I think the local impression is that mainlanders = money and americans/westerners = tourists. This became more evident once i started speaking english to them and or cantonese. Hong kong people should be proud of the fact that they have a much better social welfare and cultural society/freedom of expression than the mainland. China will learn from this one day and eventually when both societies are equal then this type of discrimination wont exist, after all competition only exists when resources are scarce or unobtainable. As Einstein said, current problems cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that existed when the original problems were first created. Mainland China still has a lot to learn and hong kong cannot give up teaching that or chinese people will suffer as a whole. Persistance, Perserverance and Piety.
The discrimination against Chinese mainlanders began a decade ago at least as told that took place in student dormitory at Hong Kong University. The mainland student must have lived there for at least more than a year and yet there was no action being taken by the university except sided with the offenders and performed an illegal search of one’s personal belongings in the dorm. If high civil behavior couldn’t be had even from the future pillars or the higher learning institution we shouldn’t be puzzled by the intolerance in the streets by the masses in Hong Kong towards the mainlanders.
slchoong: Just to temper your enthusiasm a bit. I wrote a rebuttal earlier to a Taiwanese elsewhere in this paper:
So you are just another Chen Shiubin diehard.

Three decades ago, Taiwan Chinese were impoverished. Be they mainlanders or Minan-speaking "locals," all they could dream about was emigrate to the US. As the satirist Bor Yang 柏楊 puts it, "to live out the rest of their pathetic lives in the US, 在美國了此殘生.”

One aberration developed by independence-minded Taiwanese is to disown their Chinese ethnicity as they become rich. But this is what Chinese people find most despicable. Among the Chinese, we seldom disown our parents because they are poor.

Aren’t Hong Kong Democracy believers just like this Taiwanese?
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.




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