• Thu
  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 5:51pm
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 point is to treat each other for what they do and who they are, not to prejudge based on stereotypes. If you meet a mainlander, don't assume they all have no manners and use Causeway Bay as their bathroom. At my workplace, I know 3 mainland chinese who are incredibly intelligent, doing medical research that is going to be presented at international conferences that may one day save your life. Get to know them, see what kind of a person they are like. Awful people come in all sorts of races and creeds. This is self evident, but easily forgotten
Dailoh, you are waaaay missing the point! Leave aside your display of ignorance about the wave of (temporary) migration to Canada, Australia and elsewhere that followed the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Which part of "one country" and the significance of July 1, 2047 are you not clear on? Unless you are nearing retirement or planning on leaving yourself it may be worth your while to take a different attitude because you are not the one driving the bus here.
This is Hong Kong... :D $$$$$ :p
aammyy.w needs to reread the article before criticizing on the author's writing skills. I doubt she'd ever been to the US or left Hong Kong. Her comments are not insightful nor grammatically correct.
"the salesperson’s face went dark. She asked angrily: “Why you don’t buy?" and this girl comes from UCLA and even lived in the US.
- The author was referring to the customer service representative and how she was treated by the aforesaid person.
i've got nothing to say about the way the HK students react in seminars but is it the truth that "even speak better English than many local students."? Posters have never been written in Simplified Chinese years ago across the universities and myself would wonder if this article is come from a secondary school student if i didnt notice the writer's background, based on the vocab and the writing style used.
- What the author is somewhat true. I'm from New York and have know many people originally from the mainland. Students from the mainland usually strive to blend into the culture of the host nation they are in to learn and and gain knowledge. Their determination to master the English language, verbally and in written form, is often higher than many others originally from Hong Kong.
The issue of intercultural acceptance is not a well established concept in the Chinese and Hong Kong culture. The Hukou system in Chinese makes it even worse. Afer the Mainland takeover, the English standard and education declined substainally. Schools have to cater to teach Putonghua. Young kids are having trouble managing Putonghoua, English and Cantonese at the same time. They mastered none and turned inward. They studied just to passed examinations and few are train to think and ask questions. As for the adults, most of them feel like they are living under occupation by a corrupt Communist regime. if they are not borned into a connected family, their lives are doomed. When the gap between the rich and the poor are expanding, one will see the more conflicts.
"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."
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!
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.
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..)
Judging the comment below I must say. You still do not understand. Sad but true.
Jealousy leads to hate and hate leads to discrimination. And to explain their obvious discrimination, even they know that this is wrong, they accuse all the Mainland Chinese of being member of a corrupt family - or just communist - so no need to think about 'wrong or right how to treat them. That is much more easier for them to live with and keep their mind in peace. Otherwise they would see that they are actually the bad guys here. For me as an old Hongkonese i can only explain this with inherit "discrimination". The Brits and Foreigners had discrimininated them before. Now they do the same to the Mainlanders. And most of them are too young to know how the Colonial Lords treated the HKnese in "good old times". Otherwise, they would be ashamed of themselve.



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