More than 600 young people eagerly practised saying “jóusàhn” and introducing themselves to their neighbours as the newly arrived students at City University of Hong Kong started their first session of Cantonese 101.
Unlike most language programmes in the city, the Cantonese class, taught by Christian volunteers from the university and local churches, is completely free.
A variety of free activities is also offered by local churches to welcome thousands of newcomers to the city each year: hiking trips, activities with host families and Mandarin language fellowships.
“Our fellowship welcomes all newcomers to Hong Kong,” said Stella Chu, assistant pastor at the Evangelical Free Church of China Yan Fook Church, one of Hong Kong’s largest Christian congregations based in Lai Chi Kok.
Yet Christian volunteers have denied criticism that free activities are offered to “lure” newcomers to church.
“We don’t invite students to fellowships or worship unless they are interested in learning about the religion and take the initiative to approach us,” Chu said. “We are willing to help new friends regardless of their religious affiliation.”
Stephen Yao, a 28-year-old PhD student at City University of Hong Kong, was among those taking part in church activities. Born and raised in China’s central Hubei province, he has come to Hong Kong to study Chinese literature.
Yao said he started attending gospel talks offered by Yan Fook Church last year after seeing its posters on campus.
“I realised that only God can be relied on and only God can give people a peaceful heart,” Yao said as he recalled the moment he decided to follow Christ after attending to a talk. Yao started regularly attending Mandarin fellowships and worship and was baptised in August at Yan Fook Church.
The number of local churches that offer Mandarin worship and Mandarin fellowships has spiked in the last 10 years, said Chen Xiangfu, executive secretary of the Hong Kong Chinese Christian Churches Union.
Local churches agree with Chen’s observations, with many seeing a surge in the number of its Mandarin-speaking believers.
Yan Fook Church launched its Mandarin worship in 2003 and Mandarin fellowship in 2004. The number of regular attendees to its Mandarin fellowships has reached 300, according to its website
Mandarin worship is offered at Kowloon City Baptist Church, which opened in 1931. It draws 100 regular attendees, said staff pastor Lam Siuking.
In North Point, Hong Kong Mandarin Bible Church offers a Mandarin fellowship now attended by approximately 200 people and a Mandarin worship with over 400 regularly attendees, said a staff member.
A vast majority of the nearly 50 people who get baptised in the church every year come to Hong Kong from the mainland, said the staff member, who asked to remain anonymous.
Even though a majority of mainland Chinese are brought up as atheists, they may open up to religion after moving to a new city such as Hong Kong, said Ji Li, research assistant professor at Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences in the University of Hong Kong.
“As lonely strangers in a new place, people are more likely to lower their guards and accept a new religion,” Li said.
Yet new believers often have to deal with pressures from families back home in the mainland.
“My parents think my faith is a result of brainwashing by the church,” said 25-year-old financial industry professional named “Amy”, who asked to be identified by her first name.
Amy grew up in China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province and moved to Hong Kong a few years ago to pursue a graduate degree.
“Fighting with my parents is useless,” she said, “I am going to prove my decision right by living a fruitful life.”
Yihan Chen is a Hong Kong-based writer. She graduated from Hong Kong Baptist University in 2013 with a master's degree in journalism.