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  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 3:39am
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

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.
I too lived in the residence halls at HKU as a foreign exchange student. All I have to say is, my experience there was not pleasant, and neither were the experiences of many other foreign students I knew. The halls have an extremely conformist and close-minded (or maybe it's defensive) culture that makes adaptation to a new city even more difficult than it already is for non-locals. I am absolutely not surprised that Joy Yang had so much conflict there.
I found Hong Kongers outside of those halls much easier to talk to and get along with. People should understand that the restrictive hall culture at HKU is more akin to fraternities in the West than typical dormitories. Actually I know other HK universities are much more open and welcoming to foreigners in their dorms than HKU.
Be fair, Ms Yang's view is largely shared with "non-local" HKers, meaning those spending substantial times in the western world. Local HKers have many problems themselves that are ignored, and "sea turtles" are having trouble to adjust life in HK and assimilate with the locals too.
Through years of propaganda and comparisons with the mainland, HKers developed an unrealistic ego, thinking they are the best people living in the best city on earth. However, in reality, we HKers are arrogant, ignorant, short-sighted, and most importantly, living in our past glory. No one dare to point out our economic prosperity is only built on a shallow ground, ignore the facts that our financial system is very primitive and has an "don't-fix-since-ain't-broke" mentality to deter innovations.
In addition, local HKers might be very smart, but they are only smart at creating shortcuts. They have a lot of ideas, talk about them and complain about what are wrong loudly, but only anonymously or behind the back, which are not useful to any companies. They, in general, are afraid and super unwilling to take responsibilities, like the "Black Rain" yesterday, we all see how many took the full 2-hour advantages to show up to work and then left for lunch immediately.
At the end, to all the mainlanders, all the HK haters are merely those struggled with life and didn't know the survival rules in a financial center, and I am sure Ms. Yang and others know many HKers who respect them.
To answer Ms. Yang's question, depends to whom & at where you're speaking. For example, if you're leisurely browsing in a posh luxury brand boutique in Central or Causeway Bay, you should make full use of that distinctive Shanghai (or even Wenzhou) accented Putonghua to receive better service & delivery. On the other hand, if you're just shopping for groceries & everyday household items at Park 'N Shop & Wellcome, use the local dialect & slang so they won't mumur about the shortage of milk powder etc.
When in Rome ... Get my drift ...?
I think mainlanders' reputation has been seriously damaged by the many incidents involving expectant mothers coming to HK hospitals, milk powder, the lady eating on the subway etc, National Education etc. These incidents will only worsen local attitudes to mainlanders and there will be no sympathy. I think the issue needs more than simply asking locals to be more tolerant and just 'get used to it'. Mutual respect. Respect for Hong Kong, its language and culture; and respect for those newcomers who arrive hoping for a better future.
Joy Yang I am a Indian and call HK my home.Paid taxes all the time .Yet your country people comes here have a baby and apply for social welfares. This is the most sad part and we never know that there is the social welfare money for single mums or marrying an old man .When he dies the woman form china ask for one and everything form the HK govt. We the HK people use to say 'if you work hard there is always a job for you' WHICH now the people form china have taken form us .The pay is say 3000 but the mainland woman will do it for 2000 dollars. Think how we feel .These are just a few of them .We have to wait for years to get a govt pulbic house but your mainlanders just come and have it within months ..How will the HK people like it .Same if we go to your country and we have all this before those who have been there and calling it they home and country . Take two hands to clap. Lucky girl you are ....thanks
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.
The writer demonstrated average mainlanders cocky attitude. They can never identify their shortcomings. Not only HKer resent them, they have successfully anger Singaporean and even Thai. Being humble is just not in PRC Chinese genes.
All in all, judging now the comments, HKners, particulary the youth and younger Generation of HK are spoiled, have lack of vision and do not know what hard work is. All what they care about is - well, the trend and fun they get from entertainment and society and no will to give something back.
They get angry when people appear, from the same kind but from somewhere else, from former poor place where they used to look down upon them, showing that they achieved more and are better educated than them. Showing them what a failure they are. Yes, that hurts.



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