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  • Sep 24, 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

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.
Very true and well said.
Some readers demonstrating limited language skills in these pages criticized the author's usage of English should reread what they wrote - and I don't mean just simple typos or spelling. But English is hardly the point. Most readers here write passable English.
I don't know why someone brought up the subject of spoken English. George W. Bush, Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin were respectively president, vice president and VP candidate. None of them could speak logically, although Palin could talk claptrap at a mile a minute. Need I remind you they are all native English speakers?
The high and the mighty in democracies that folks look up to often possess meager functioning vocabularies and are often incapable of writing a decent college level essay. Faithful of Democracy religion please take note. Charlatans and nitwits often win in populist elections.
Many of the anecdotes, observations and opinions expressed here are both interesting and challenging. But they come with prepackaged provincialism, nuanced racism, self-destructive envious resentment and ideological hate. A commentator is easily deluded into thinking that he is preaching to a choir which answers every high point in the sermon with an Amen.
Here is the caveat emptor. For those here finding another writer speaking your mind, including yours truly, the person you agree with so readily may be doing all the thinking for you.
In that case, get yourself dressed up for Benny Tai’s Occupy Central and July 1 hate fest.
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.
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.
There is no right or wrong. I used to live in Beijing. People will give way to me because I am the Mrs. The outsiders (like us), knowing they behave more gracefully, know in no time that they're special. But maids would criticize me over my face saying: 'She's from Hong Kong and she doesn't know Chinese" when they chat with friends (at the playroom). They also look down on me because I raised my own children (since well to do Mrs. has ayis to handle everything and the teaching/ coaching part will be left to tutors). Locals will laugh when I say I am Chinese. When I buy vegetables in wet market and I have to pay even more than I paid in upscale grocery store (because they know I am different from my apparel). And I know if I were raped by a Caucasian someone will tell me to go home and close the case.
This is what I've found out: if one can't adapt to a foreign place, leave. I've lived in 4 major cities in my life with 3 of them more than 5 years. I can't say Beijing has brought me no fortune, but also to the expense of other qualities of life. But the least I can do is not to make a fool out of myself. So I don't whine.
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?
That was under the UK administration though. Now we have a Communist Chinese government on the mainland who chooses the government in Hong Kong and who expects Hong Kong citizens to show for their country by blindly following the mainland leaders off a cliff. When immigrants came from Chian in the 1960 and long before that, they left everything behind and came to Hong Kong to assimilate. To mainlanders now, Hong Kong is just a palace to pack ill gotten wealth, or shop. There resist conforming as the generations of the past have done. Your comments are short sighted.
There are many things wrong both sides of the border.
Shall we start with HK?
All industry is moved to the mainland because it is easier there to bribe local government to circumvent environmental law. As a result all the air pollution created by HK-owned factories in the pearl delta is blown to Hong Kong, when there is a typhoon or low-pressure system into the mainland east of Hong Kong (the winds move counter-clockwise).
Hong Kong business people do not care about Hong Kong at all. They only care about money. If they had their way there wouldn't be any country parks, mountains or water falls in Hong Kong, just residential buildings, office buildings and shopping malls. It was HK business people who razed all the hills in Shenzhen to build, build, build.
The first CEO oof Hong Kong after the handover was Tung Chee Hwa, a Taiwanese-HongKong businessman with good connections to Shanghai businessmen and the Chinese governmeent which at that time was recruited from Shanghai. They do not care about HK people at all.
Their opinion about expats: do not mess with us, make your money and go home.
The current real estate bubble in HK is an extension of the 1994 bubble and the 1997 crash.
1994 mainlanders came over to launder their bribes. A boyfriend told me his parents suddenly got rich, mainlanders paid luggage full of cash forr their properties. The prices rose and HK people joined and created a bubble. 1997 the foreigners and g a y s left and the market chrashed.
After the property crash many people had more debts than their property was worth. They could live in it, but they couldn't sell it. If they had property in which they didn't live themselves, they lost money daily, because the rent was lower than the interest they had to pay.
So, their aim was to raise the property price to such a level where they can get out safely.
That's where we are now. With some peeople at least. Make no mistake, there are always people willing to create a new bubble, forgetting the last crash. Dreaming of getting rich and getting out in time.
The Hong Kong government is pretty useless.
Whereas governors on the mainland put the interest of their province before the interest of Beijing, the HK government always puts Beijing's interests before HK's interest. It's an endless kowtow. And naturally, Beijing only approves yes sayers for the top HK post.
Instead of getting manufacturing back into Hong Kong, focussing on renewable energy, harnessing the sun and the wind, recycling the sewage and other waste into resources, HK is turned into a giant theme park and retail center, with poor people swept aside, their dai pai dangs in the city center closed because they are unsightly.
Kowtow before the mainlanders to get money.
The restaurants, bars, coffee shops, convenience stores in Canton Road (TST) have been replaced by banks, jewellery shops and brand name fashion shops most frequented by mainlanders.




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