• Wed
  • Sep 17, 2014
  • Updated: 6:40am
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.


For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

There are so many issues and animositiees, left over from the past.
There is the Great Leap Forward they parents of HK people had to flee from, or where their grandparents died.
There are the privileged mainlanders.
Overseas Chinese who are the most fervent nationalists but have no desire to live on their beloved mainland.
There is June 4, 1989, commemorated in Hong Kong, unknown on the mainland.
Young mainlanders of today who are as proud of their motherland as the young red guards of mao, who returned China to the stone age.
There is that 5000 year old culture of retching and spitting everywhere.
Have you ever seen mainlanders spitting bones onto plush carpets of restaurants in 5 star hotels and wondered why they do that? Whether they'd do that at their own home, too?
If you are Chinese, have you ever wondered why a westerner would find something wrong with that?
Shall I mention the racism in China and Hong Kong alike?
Their worship of the white skin and their disdain for the dark skin?
Chinese in general are hostile towards anyone outside of their clan. They clean their house up to the door, but the street in front of their house looks like a rubbish dump. You have rats running in high rise buildings in the mainland. I have seen rats in restaurants and discos. And cockroaches everywhere.
The airport at Chek Lap Kok swarmed with rats and was so dirty at it's opening day, that the photosensors didn't work, creating chaos for the luggage handling.
I studied at CUHK (as an exchange student) at the same time Ms Yang was at HKU. I found myself hanging out largely with friends drawn from the small batch of students from the mainland.
There was definitely a degree of discrimination, though as an outsider I could hardly understand why. The students from the mainland seemed to me more polite, intelligent and interesting. Even back then, their English language skills were often superior to Hong Kong students (which definitely made our friendships easier). I never witnessed discrimination as blatant as what Ms Yang describes, but there was a lot of talking behind peoples' backs. After nine months of living together my roommate confided to me that he was originally from the mainland -- as if this was some kind of scandal to be ashamed of.
Many of these students remained in HK after graduation. Many more talented mainlanders have since joined them. This is undoubtedly a good thing for Hong Kong.
Nonetheless nowadays I understand and sympathize with HKers' antipathy towards the mainland and mainlanders. At the time of the handover everyone (including the central government) understood that mainlanders' access to Hong Kong would have to be severely restricted in order to avoid a stampede that would render the city unlivable. Now the stampede has come and HK has been reduced to a polluted, overcrowded shopping mall, with little chance of change thanks to entrenched business interests and an unaccountable government.
Mainlanders tend to be more focused in showing grit to achieve their goals... it's just the means to get to the ends rub some people up the wrong way. Still it's a quality I admire.
Compared to the lackadaisical Hong Kong youth of today, who are addicted to their smartphones, mesmerised by Facebook, taking incessant shots of their food and glued to the latest game "Candy Rush" everywhere, it makes one wonder whether they have the attention span to concentrate and get things done to succeed in life. They should not whine the mainland youth are out-competing them when called to "step-up" to the plate.
They should reflect on their parents and grandparents values which catapulted Hong Kong into the world's paramount "can do" economy.
After a decade, horrid experiences at Hong Kong University by mainland students finally are out in the open. The public is waiting for the university to respond. What follow up should it take?
Ms Yang may have sacrificed her own well-being while living and working in Hong Kong to become a ‘whistle-blower’. Hong Kong’s mostly movers and shakers are connected with that institute.
Big chip.
Ms. Yang, I enjoy reading your piece.
I started college in the US in 1958. The campus had an international atmosphere. I experienced no discrimination. Occasional condescension, yes.
I am ashamed of Hong Kong youths treated you so shabbily. We don't deserve the World City moniker when our behavior is no better than the US backwaters, the Confederate states in the 60s.
Of course, you are a compatriot. Your talents and perseverance are now in short supply in HK. Yes, you are an asset.
As for youthful "misbehavior" and abrasiveness grown out of a defense mechanism instinct against ostracism, I can understand.
I grew up with Romance of Three Kingdoms, Analects, Dreams of red Chamber, etc. Our HK children don't read that stuff any more. That's why they don't have a Chinese soul or identity.
Worse, our town is replete with incompetent academics 流口水博士 and pseudo intellectuals who are Democracy missionaries. Their shallowness in Western and Chinese culture is at the root of HK inferiority complex. Democracy has become a religion. HK believers are totally ignorant of enlightenment ideas of Locke and Hume that midwifed American democracy. Their be-all-end-all deity is universal suffrage, which can be linked to just about every dysfunctional governance today.
Even worse than the West, HKers don't have the foggiest about normative economics essential for national survival.
China is still a mess. Everything takes time. But we have a due process in place that chooses good leaders.
Being a local Hongkonger, I dislike the mainlanders because they bully Hong Kong just because of their sizeable market and huge population (definitely our HK government has used some wrong ways to handle with China government). The mainlanders will oppress you once they know that you are not as wealthy as they are (or your house is not as large as theirs). And they don't know what is "Respect" and "Humbleness". I used to love China in the past (at least 10 years ago) because their people were simple and kind. But after miniority of their people became rich, other people become very desperate for money and power. I believe that China government has to make some efforts in educating their people and changing their system to gain others' respect but not merely because of their huge market and money.
You liked them coz you were superior to the mainlanders, then. You liked them because they looked up to you at that time and now you dislike them coz now you are FORCED to look up to them because somehow you are dependent on the mainland ( your work , your business, cheap products /services you can afford etc..)
the Chicken and the Egg. What was before?
And, disrespect for Mainlanders and bashig are not just now starting to happen. Before it was, because they were much more poor than the HKnese (that was 20 years ago) and now because they are much more rich than the HKnese.
Just last week when I was in a Mainland city for business, I had a talk with some people about HK. 2 of them have never been to HK and told me they do not want to go here because of the arrogance of the HKnese and how the HKnese look down or despise the Mainlanders.
Some possible reasons why HK people are very defensive towards "Mainlanders".
HK People travelling by bus from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, were robbed on the highway by friends of the bus driver. After that HK people always said, they want to go to Shenzhen.
In 1994 mainlanders came over to Hong Kong and paid millions in cash for HK properties. The price shot through the roof.
Now, more mainlanders come over and dump their cash into real estate. 30 year old HKers can't afford to live in their own home anymore and still stay with their parents.
In the mainland I meet a few guys in their 30s who owned two or more apartments.
Mainland businessmen employ poor people, usually foreign domestic helpers to carry mountains of cash from China to Hong Kong, so they can re-invest it into China as foreign direct investment, enjoying tax breaks. They don't run much risks. While the domestic helpers could lose their jobs and livelyhood if caught.
And well, the parents and grandparents of the HK youth were just the same as the recent mainland immigrants. They peed on the street and didn't know how to use escalators.




SCMP.com Account