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  • Sep 22, 2014
  • Updated: 6:30am
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

Quote: "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."
“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.”
Comments: Many Hong Kong people doubt that the success of the mainland students comes from the background of their super parents or uncles instead of they are selected from a population of 1.4 billion. I am very interested to know more about the background of the author. It is good if the author can share some success stories of mainland students without a strong family background.
Many Hong Kong students have been fighting hard with mainland students for offers in investment banks or top tier financial institutions. Although we have a lot of Hong Kong students coming from middle-class family, but we doubt that the value is minimal compared with the power of mainland students' family background. I do want to remind mainland students not to underestimate the potential of Hong Kong students. Confronted with the challenges (no matter it is fair or not), Hong Kong students can only find their own ways to differentiate themselves in order to survive.
oh please, shake out your stereotypes and think. Yes, it is reasonable that you might suspect Ms. Yang has a strong family connection to get her into HKU and UCLA, but c'mon, she must be super strong academically and has superior presentation and interviews skills in order to land that IMF job in Washington DC. East cost companies don't recruit from west coast schools that much, and especially, after all, it is "only" UCLA.
You can't disregard her merit just like that. There are smart people coming from rich family and this calls genetics.
Many thanks for Ms Yang to voice her opinions on the issues between HKers and Mainlanders. It is very courageous of her to have done that. There are hidden prejudice and racism in HK, rather widespread but locals do not realize. The root of the problem is the media [may be i should be more specifc in saying it is the Chinese newspapers], and I can see the situation getting worse but not for the better. Fruity journalism is fueling hatred and bias every day, but nobody is doing anything about it. In Singapore, the Govt would have stepped in and sued these irresponsible journalists, but the GovHK is always hiding at the back.
To answer Ms. Yang's question, depends to whom & at where you're speaking. For example, if you're leisurely browsing in a posh luxury brand boutique in Central or Causeway Bay, you should make full use of that distinctive Shanghai (or even Wenzhou) accented Putonghua to receive better service & delivery. On the other hand, if you're just shopping for groceries & everyday household items at Park 'N Shop & Wellcome, use the local dialect & slang so they won't mumur about the shortage of milk powder etc.
When in Rome ... Get my drift ...?
I think mainlanders' reputation has been seriously damaged by the many incidents involving expectant mothers coming to HK hospitals, milk powder, the lady eating on the subway etc, National Education etc. These incidents will only worsen local attitudes to mainlanders and there will be no sympathy. I think the issue needs more than simply asking locals to be more tolerant and just 'get used to it'. Mutual respect. Respect for Hong Kong, its language and culture; and respect for those newcomers who arrive hoping for a better future.
"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."
Dear Joy, that's a good example of the sort of behaviour and attitude locals are 'pushing harder' against. As long as some Mainlanders think of themselves as coming from the 'motherland' to 'little' Hong Kong, or think that increased income and GDP of the PRC will change HKers' attitudes to mainlanders in general, the opposition to the mainland and everything it represents will continue and become more fervent. The arrogance of your Beijing friend is inexcusable and perhaps says a lot about his character. It would appear he thinks himself better than the locals just because he earns a higher income. Contempt is not just a one-way thing with poor mainlanders being discriminated against by small-minded locals. It absolutely cuts the other way and everything I have heard from the way mainlanders talk about the Hong Kong Chinese over here (in Shanghai) suggests the same arrogance of China being the new up-and-coming power and the gloating over the growing integration (or loss of independence) of Hong Kong and its culture, as well as the sense that they should 'get in line' with the mainstream.
In the end, it's a too way issue. Locals should be more open minded and incidents like the ones you experienced during your early days in HK are sad and regrettable, but
I am neither Chinese or Hkers, but wouldn't be fair to say that while Chinese visit the little Hong Kong, Hong Kong always think that they are visited by little rude Chinese? I think the real issue as mentionned in the article is that Hong Kong has much much better, hospital, universities and food safety and now has the pressure of 1,4 billion people who would like to get access to it. At some point Hong kong has to protect its resources for its residents.
Well, I don't know about 'always'. But certainly there is already a mainlander image problem in HK. Some badly behaved ones are ruining the reputation of the rest. Couple that with antipathy against the mainland's central government (Was CY Leung not suspected of being ordered by the central gov to put National Education into place in HK?) and I think that image of the 'little rude Chinese' you speak of is indeed there. But given everything that has happened, especially over the past year, is that not entirely reasonable? See 2nd post. I agree that better public facilities are a factor, but they are not the whole problem by a long, long way. I also agree that if HK's resources, e.g. hospitals, are already overstretched, then clamping down on mainland mothers would be a start...or even better: getting Guangdong and the rest of the mainland to improve hospital facilities.
It's not just a facilities issue, though. The National Education protests showed that. HKers are worried about loss of their culture and values. I think that the fear and defence of those values (e.g. independent judiciary, limited democracy, press freedom etc) is all the more justified given CY's apparent disregard for them.
Still, I'm not from HK/TW/China myself so I haven't been the victim of discrimination, at least not the sort the article talks about.
Living a life, in general in any place, is not a piece of cake. Not so though for those of the privileged. And often the cake is being taken away from you and me by the privileged. But being privileged was not why those earlier local HKU students had mistreated fellow students from the mainland. Rather the locals were ignorant and arrogant. Readers shouldn’t lost in the subtlety in writer’s claim that that arrogance was greatly subdued in silence in the presence of those not from the mainland but elsewhere. Here I can only conclude that prejudice against mainlanders was at work. I am so disappointed.
Joy Yang i fully support your idea.HKSAR is vvvvvvv Racist city.you hkgers dont forget that PRC is your mother land and mainland.sar depends every thing on Greater china.in short SAR dont have the future with out china




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