27 October 2016
It seems that mainland Chinese are everywhere in the streets of Hong Kong. Photo: HKEJ
It seems that mainland Chinese are everywhere in the streets of Hong Kong. Photo: HKEJ

How Hong Kong is gradually becoming just another Chinese city

I have been living in Hong Kong since 1980, witnessing all the ups and downs of the city in parallel with those in my own life, and experiencing firsthand how the city has coped with changes over time.

During the 1980s and ’90s, Hong Kong was much louder and more vibrant.

English was still a highly coveted language in a predominantly Chinese society, and the city had a substantial number of highly skilled foreigners loaded with perks that would put to shame emirs from the oil-rich Gulf nations.

When the British were the top dogs here and still running the show in Hong Kong, not many grievances were heard on political and social issues.

The streets were busy but quiet, and things were as normal and tidy as the British have always liked.

Hong Kong was still one of the most important financial hubs of the world.

It was still the main gateway to Greater China, and things were still pretty affordable for ordinary people like you and me.

All in all, it was still a cosmopolitan city with great diversity in people, professions and ways of life.

Although English commanded high respect and admiration, Cantonese (a variety of Chinese mainly spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and the provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi in southern China) was still the main language among the locals.

And we could hardly find a person who spoke Mandarin (the national language of China and of part of the Chinese diaspora) in the whole of Hong Kong.

When we heard someone speaking Mandarin in the office while trying to communicate with mainland Chinese, it sounded really weird and so foreign.

Eyebrows would have risen spontaneously among the colleagues, and it sounded pretty awful, too.

Then, fast forward 15 years.

There are no big or obvious changes in Hong Kong, at least not from the outside.

But if you look through the prism of society, people’s perspectives and ways of life, the changes are really huge and certainly affect peoples’ lives in the city.

Cantonese is still the main street language of Hong Kong, while Mandarin from the north is attacking on all fronts.

Needless to say, it is English that has been hit hardest, and as a result, the standard of English in Hong Kong has deteriorated to shameful levels.

The number of foreigners is declining, and so are their values and perks, and people from elsewhere, other than mainland Chinese, are becoming less significant by the days.

The streets of Hong Kong are also getting much more crowded and louder.

Almost everyone seems to have some grievance against the government, and a day hardly passes without a rally or demonstration on a main street.

Everything, including food, transportation and rent, is now very expensive in Hong Kong.

Owning a property has become an unreachable dream for most ordinary folks, and many young couples have almost given up hope on owning a property or raising a family.

Mandarin has already overtaken English as the preferred language of the city.

It feels like the city has been invaded by so many mainland Chinese that you can hardly find a place where you won’t meet or hear a Mandarin-speaking person.

All the shops, eateries, parks, hotels, public venues and many such places are always crowded and occupied by people from the mainland.

The locals hardly get a chance to use them without waiting in a queue for at least a few hours, and that has greatly affected the daily lifestyle of Hongkongers.

Hong Kong still greatly prides itself as an international city.

The tourism board repeatedly says that in its promotional ads and wants the world to believe that as well.

But the reality is something different now.

Hong Kong is becoming just another city of Greater China by the day.

If it is to save itself from total obscurity, it must start making the right decisions and necessary changes right now.

Hong Kong has played a very important role in smoothing China’s meteoric ascent to the world’s stage.

It still has a great role to play in supporting China in retaining its new position, and it can still do it without shedding its originality as a unique, free and remarkable place.

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EJ Insight contributor

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