• Fri
  • Oct 24, 2014
  • Updated: 2:32am
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

Real Estate. Proven that this is not true that the Mainlanders are the reason for the increase of property prices. What you are implying is an urban myth created by Mainland Basher to blame the Mainlanders for everything what is going wrong with HK. You are just trying to justify the reason you are here and why the HKners should still like you.
LOL. This is very familiar.
A few weeks after I came to HK as a young western man, the story of Jeffrey Dahmer broke in the news.
So, naturally, when the staircase in the high rise building smelled awfully one day after some decaying matter, the bell rung and I found a group of residents asking to search my apartment. I laughed at them and closed the door in their face.
A short time later there was police and asked to be let in (without a warrant). I let them in. There was no smell whatsoever, as one of the first things I did was making sure the stairwell smell of rotten rats and stinking tofu couldn't enter my flat.
Local people everywhere are suspicious about strangers. That's nothing new.
The worst are the upstarts and recent immigrants.
Wherever I move I do not pay attention to them. I see it like this: As a foreigner I can only find a job there legally, because the employer cannot find local talent.

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.
I think it is mainly the kids of the people who are in power in Mainland to steal the money to send the kids to schools abroad who express these silly views. They don't represent Chinese people. They benefit from the kleptocracy that their parents are a part of. If they truly believe in their system, why did this writer not settle back in Shanghai in effort to be part of bringing China out of the mess it is in today? Because she has benefited greatly from the kleptocracy, but she knows that her life and that of her kids will be better in the US.
Her actions belie her words.
Where she gets lost in her argument is that we watch Mainlanders go abroad and study...they go to places where freedom of speech, free thinking, academic freedom, inelleectual discourse and the free flow of information and ideas play such a big role in those country's sucess, incluidng Hong Kong.
Yet, mainlanders have been so brainwashed, and do not even realize it that despite this foriegn education they will continue to buck these ideas in support of what the CCP has been telling them for decades. Your average Mainland student is more linkely to look at my previous sentence and argue Hong Kong is part of China and not a country, than to agreee with me.
The fact of the matter is, over the years, Hong Kong has thrived because of the system the CCP labels as foreign, imperialist and not appropriate for China. Yes, there are nearly 1.4 billion people in China, who have all been taught that Hong Kong's ways, its freedoms and its rule of laws are unacceptabel and not appropriate for China, which makes them believe that as part of China, Hong Kong should conform to Mainland ways. The presence of more and more Mainlanders puts fear in the minds of Hong Kongers that they way of life is thus threatend and will eventually return to the unacceptable way things are accomplished in the Mainland.
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.
I am very appreciated from the sharing of Ms. Yang. I am a local university student now. To be honest, one of the reasons that we don't like mainlanders is that they "steals" our As in many courses. However, I don't think it is the main reason. The main reason that we dislike mainlanders is that we hear different news about mainlanders did in HK everyday. For example, they excrete on the main street in HK and they always speak loudly on the MTR on in a resturant. It is their behaviour that we HKers dislike. Are these the culture of Mainland China?
Speaking loudly in the restaurant?
Ever went to a restaurant populated by HK people speaking Cantonese?
The first time I did, I thought they are going to kill each other soon, such heated was their argument.
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
I speak from the point of view of someone who is of Hong Kong Chinese background, but has lived in Australia almost all my life and only just recently returned to HK for work. Although the majority are tolerant, few migrants in Aus would not have experienced some form of racism and bigotry at an overt or covert level. A study showed that ethnic minorities need to apply for about 60% more jobs to be successful compared to local white 'aussies'. Now that I am living in HK, it is a peculiar experience for me to be now part of the majority and and not be made to feel like i don't belong here. I fully understand what Joy has experienced, and it is a real shame. It obviously has seriously negatively affected her attitude and outlook. A certain famous speech reminded us of the obvious- that is to treat each other by the content of character rather than by the colour of their skin. In this case, it is even more ludicrous because we are all chinese, and the only real difference is which dialect we speak! Sure, there are tourists who misbehave etc, but don't generalise! I get Aussies who act hostile towards me because they think I'm Japanese! Our actions are not dictated by our appearance, more so by situation. To those who want to blast mainlanders, why don't you spend time getting to know some on a personal level? You will find that in the end, we are all not really that different. We, as human beings have similar wants, desires and aspirations.




SCMP.com Account