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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 you felt like a foreigner it was because you chose to. I am a Hong Konger and have lived in three countries outside of Hong Kong, including North America and China, I have never felt like a foreigner or outsider.
If you had lived here, in Hong Kong during the years following 2003, since the Chinese have gained the right to travel here as individual travellers, then you would have something to say about their behavior too. As I already mentioned the Chinese government has asked the Chinese people to behave while abroad.
All the infighting are caused by the media who posts actions of one rude person and then label a billion other people as the same. The education system in HK no longer teaches people to think and evaluate each situation on its own but to be lazy and use generalization and stereotypes. The conspiracy theorist in me is that these actions by the media are controlled by local politicians who are always trying to push for elections so they can get into power; they are no different than power hungry dictators, only they use brain washing through the media rather than bullets.
Reader tajinderkaur, it's hard to find a Malaysian racist. Perhaps you're an exception.
You say Chinese students are lazy. For your information, the ratio of Chinese student body to Chinese population in elite US high schools and universities is vastly out of proportion compared to other ethnic groups. Mainland graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are welcomed by Princeton, Berkeley and MIT because they are some of the world's best researchers.
Malaysia has Bumiputra policy favoring their own kind. Malaysian Chinese have no political power. Tell me, which ethnic group contributes the overwhelming majority to the professional and educated class in your country?
Ms. Yang hails from Shanghai. Are you aware that of all OECD countries participating in PISA test, Shanghai 15-year olds come out head and shoulders above every country in every subject: reading comprehension, math and science? A scientific selected sample out of 20 million must mean something. Do you think you can measure up? This year all China, including the rural areas, will participate in this international test. So stay tuned. That's why I say Ms. Yang is an asset to Hong Kong.
Before you criticize Chinese people's English, I suggest you reread what you wrote. Someone might conclude my Hong Kong grandnephew at 6th grade could write better English than an SCMP reader with a college degree from Timbuktu University.
"HK has always been a wide open, anything goes, every man for himself, survival of the fittest, do it to him before he does it to you, better him than me, kind of society. The worst of the west and east without the good from either side. You may blame it on too many people chasing after too few resources, snobbish mercenary worship, extortionist, expropriatory, colonial conditioning or whatever. But the sad thing is people totally wallow in it, without realizing it's insane, and peremptorily reject any redeeming national education."
Tell it what exactly it is even good intention is misunderstood and unwelcomed.
An old schoolmate resettled in Hong Kong after studying and working in the US for decades. He disagrees with me on US discrimination and praises mainlanders. Eat your heart out, China haters!
"I have to rebut on 2 points. In my undergrad days, in summers, when the dorms closed, I could not rent a room in Boston/Cambridge. I would call and agree to a price. My accent was not identifiably 'alien'. When I showed up in person, it's always " we've just rented it out! " or " you heard me wrong. It's $30 a week, not $13 !". So we ended up staying every summer in a prof's house, doing maintenance work in exchange for rent, while his family is away in the cottage. Even when we moved to San Jose in 1969 to work for IBM, the Chinese old lady real estate agent told us we cannot buy a house in many neighborhoods. When we bought in Los Altos in 1980, we were the first and only Asian family in the area. Was South Bay / Silicon Valley more provincial or prejudiced than NJ /NY ?
China is not a mess. It is extremely orderly, harmonious and safe. People, especially the younger generation, are very well cultivated in Chinese values. In a few dozen visits to Shenzhen, we've personally experienced kindnesses and considerate respect we never dreamt of in 70+ years in HK. Ask me and I'll describe some cases to you!
People by their own device will always be prejudice. Without law or even revolution we would be wallowing in our prejudice self. US comes a long way to do what it preaches by implementing laws against discrimination. Sermon or lecture proven to be ineffective.
When you go to another country, you need to be humble and sadly this is not in the case of China people. Not only Hkers despise them, but there also many people from other countries despise them. I have met many rude China people during my visit to Hong Kong, but the Hkers were quite friendly to us. When we encountered problems at MTR stations, they tried to help us. I am not talking about MTR staffs but local citizens. When we couldn't find a eatery place, there was a couple who offered us to sit beside their table which earlier when we asked China people, they refused to give us the seats although they just placed their handbags on them. I hardly understand why Hkers agreed to be under China since there is a rising tension between Hkers and mainlanders. Please excuse on my ignorance. Another reason is because Hong Kong is a very small country just like Singapore where land is scarce. While China has a population of more than 1 billion. Singaporeans also feel threatened when 20% of their population is made up of foreign immigrants of China. Let's assume that 10% of China people are coming down to Hong Kong to buy milk powder, well that equals to 100 million people whereas Hong Kong has a population of 7 million. So of courThis is because in a society where resources are limited, people are afraid that their basic rights will be deprived.
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.
I call on the Hong Kong University here again to apologize to all students especially to those from mainland for being delinquent on caring their wellbeing while being bullied by its local students. Tell us what policy is or will be in place that such oversight wouldn’t be repeated. The silence by the Hong Kong University is a further disgrace as a place for higher learning.




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