26 October 2016
A Mong Kok street jam-packed with commuters and tourists. Government figures show mainlanders still flock to Hong Kong despite bitter bickering in recent years. Photo:
A Mong Kok street jam-packed with commuters and tourists. Government figures show mainlanders still flock to Hong Kong despite bitter bickering in recent years. Photo:

HK-mainlander parallel universe: Can it be bridged?

As tensions continue to simmer between Hongkongers and mainlanders, many young people from across the border now refuse to admit that they would have liked to make Hong Kong their home.

The reason for mutual antagonism is so complicated that merely blaming prejudice or miscommunication doesn’t tell the whole story.

The individual visit scheme rolled out in 2003 had a sweeping impact on common perceptions on both sides of the border.

Many mainland tourists saw the Chinese special administrative region as a place to stock up electronic gadgets or cosmetics. The visitors hardly cared to acquaint themselves with aspects of vintage and authentic Hong Kong.

With the renminbi’s increased might, mainlanders who in the earlier days used to be big fans of Hong Kong now began viewing the city as just a venue to flaunt their consumption power, without paying much heed to the issue of courtesy to the locals.

Hongkongers, in turn, raged against the mainlanders, blaming them for all sorts of ills including traffic congestion and unclean surroundings.

Then, a shift in the shopping patterns made things even worse.

As wealthy Chinese began opting for other overseas destinations like Seoul, Paris or New York for luxury shopping, mainland visitor consumption in Hong Kong turned more down-market.

Instead of snapping up Chanel handbags and Hermès scarves, the visitors now focus on grabbing every-day items at stores such as Watson’s, Mannings and other supermarkets and pharmacies.

This led to shortages of some daily necessities in some districts.

Anti-mainlander protests and campaigns against the so-called parallel goods traders have failed to bring about any improvement in the situation, nor stemmed the flow of visitors, say locals. 

According to Commerce Bureau data, total visitor arrivals from the mainland were up 13.4 percent in the six months ended March, compared to previous corresponding period.

In hotspots like Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui, Mong Kok and Admiralty that are jam-packed with people, we can easily tell mainlanders from locals as the visitors talk in loud voices, carry suitcases and like to walk in disorderly groups.

The still-robust visitor inflow notwithstanding, mainlanders and locals mostly ignore each other, even on narrow pavements, as if they move in separate parallel universes that have no intersection.

A young couple from Beijing recently told this reporter that they can never interact with locals as most of them, especially shop assistants and commuters on the MTR, stay poker-faced with no intention to greet or talk.

“Except asking the expiry date when buying heat rubs, telling cashiers to use UnionPay channel and ordering dishes in restaurants, we had no more conversation with locals… They don’t like us and we have exactly the same feelings toward them,” the mainlanders said.

The mutual animosity is evident in comments posted on social media.

Hongkongers vent their anger on Facebook while their mainland cousins take WeChat to complain about and share falsified or exaggerated stories about the ill-treatment they got in Hong Kong.

As WeChat is not so widely used in Hong Kong and Facebook is still blocked in China, a lot of the mutual recriminations and messages fail to reach the intended targets.

Another thing that may be compounding the matters is that mainlanders may only be receiving censored and one-sided information from the media, especially from state-controlled mouthpieces.

Against this backdrop, some people have been trying to diffuse the situation and help both sides gain a better understanding of each other.

In Hong Kong, scholars are reminding separatists and advocates of localism of the danger of racism and xenophobia.

When discussing the Hong Kong spirit and defending local values, emphasis must be given to inclusiveness, rather than anecdotes that support entrenched prejudices.

The scholars are urging the youth not to use grievances on larger issues — such as Beijing’s political interference and manipulation – to target tourists from north of the border or mainlanders living in the territory.

On the mainland side, there have been some posts circulating on major online forums calling on the Chinese to abandon loutish behavior when traveling overseas.

Meanwhile, popular travel websites there also point out that Hong Kong has much more to offer beyond shopping centers.

Visitors are being encouraged to take in the many other delights, including the roadside eateries in Sham Shui Po, boutique buildings at HKU and the MacLehose Trail.

Then there are also other streets and locations that have been the settings of many popular movies and TV dramas.

Along with the travel recommendations, there are gentle but direct reminders of the etiquette that is expected of the tourists, including simple things such as covering your mouth while coughing, keep your voice down in public and standing on the right side when taking an escalator.

Will all these efforts make any difference in people’s attitudes and behavior on both sides?

Well, as they say, only time will tell! 

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Pro-democracy lawmakers Claudia Mo (wearing a scarf), Gary Fan (to Mo’s right) and their supporters mock mainland tourists carrying suitcases in a March protest in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo:

A mainland couple was besieged by angry Hong Kong activists in a protest against mainland parallel traders earlier this year. Photo: Internet

EJ Insight writer

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