Abrasive, loveable Hong Kong

Kelly Yang says while life here can be difficult, not least for someone born on the mainland trying to fit in, the city is also loveable in its own way

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 10:35am

I'd like to applaud Joy Yang for her courage in penning her recent op-ed on the discrimination she has experienced in Hong Kong. I, too, was born on the mainland and there have been times when I've got the evil eye for speaking my Beijing-accented native Putonghua here. At such times, I experienced the pain of feeling like I did not belong. But I can count on two hands the number of times that happened. Meanwhile, my positive experiences with Hongkongers have ballooned and I've come to have a deep respect for our city.

When I arrived in Hong Kong seven years ago, I did not expect to love it, especially the lack of space. Yet it has a way of pleasantly surprising you; and that has a lot to do with the people who make up this city.

Hong Kong people are unique. They can't be lumped together with the rest of the Chinese people. In order to integrate, you have to respect that. You have to take it upon yourself to really understand the locals. I don't claim to understand completely, but there are a few things I've come to understand.

First, yes, it's all about the money. That's obvious the minute you step off the plane. But this commerce mentality isn't necessarily bad. It's one reason why Hongkongers fundamentally like new products, ideas and people. They are open-minded and far more accepting of change than so many other populations.

Second, Hong Kong people always leave money on the table. I've been doing business here for years and I see it all the time, from the guy at the dai pai dong to the swanky real estate agent handling million-dollar deals. Hong Kong people leave money on the table because they believe in the next time. This mentality is not just great for business, it's also great for life.

Yang says life in Hong Kong as a mainlander is not a piece of cake. Part of the problem, though, is the fact that life in Hong Kong isn't a piece of cake for anyone - it's a sink-or-swim kind of place; you stay and toil hard or you pack up and go home.

While Hongkongers should absolutely be more respectful towards their mainland counterparts, the treatment of mainlanders here is also a far cry from outright bigotry. Ask any Filipino who lives here and they'll tell you about outright bigotry. Better yet, ask an African-American living in the US.

I'll never forget what my law school professor, Charles Ogletree, once told me. He is one of Harvard's leading law professors - and a close friend of US President Barack Obama - yet he said that when he walks around the Harvard campus late at night, he always wears his university ID over his jacket because "I don't want to get stopped by the campus police". He says the first thing people still think when they see a black person on the Harvard campus late at night is, what's he going to steal?

The good news is that when a mainlander walks around Central, locals don't see mainland or Cantonese, they just see another Chinese person. And it gives me hope that, in time, with increased understanding and mutual respect, we'll come to realise that we're not all that different.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. kelly@kellyyang.com