Packed. Stifling. Noisy.
My sister and I were being squeezed on a metro train in Guangzhou, my home city, which is a two hour drive from Hong Kong.
“Excuse me, please don’t shove, OK?” My sister said in Cantonese, the local language, to a middle-aged woman next to her.
“What? Speak Putonghua,” the woman squeaked, referring to the national language Mandarin.
The train, packed like sardines, was cacophonous with passengers chatting in Mandarin with diverse accents, making my sister and I feel alienated in the city where we were born and grew up.
It happened in 2009, when the number of migrant workers almost equalled that of locals, driving up the city’s population to more than 10 million.
Now Hong Kong is in the same boat, with the influx of mainland Chinese threatening to dilute local culture and exerting great pressure on its public transport and resources ranging from milk powder to school places.
Thanks to the city’s freedom of speech, Hong Kongers did not hesitate to air their grievances, so much so that it has stoked tensions with mainlanders to a level of name-calling.
However, taking aim at their compatriots will by no means stem the tide of the influx, but only aggravate the pain in the integration of the people who were separated by British colonisation for 156 years.
“We’re very concerned that some protesters’ disparaging and slanderous remarks will exacerbate social conflicts, and tarnish Hong Kong’s image as a diversified and friendly city,” Dr York Chow, the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, told media on Feb 20.
“They are damaging to the inclusive society and basic social values,” the chief of the anti-discrimination body added, saying that an amendment to law would be considered to protect mainland Chinese from being abused.
His comments came four days after a raucous protest, in which more than 200 demonstrators took to the street to disturb Chinese tourists, waving placards with inflammatory slogans and urging the “locusts” and “Shina pigs” to return to China, according to local broadcaster TVB.
Shina was a derogatory term used by Japanese to describe China during the World War II.
The recurrent spike in tensions indicates that the former British colony has yet to come to terms with Beijing’s governance, though it has been 16 years after the city’s sovereignty transfer.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, not giving in to the clamour for curbing Chinese tourists, lashed out at the protesters.
“Activities targeting tourists, from mainland or abroad, shall be condemned. The government will follow up on this matter if any infraction of laws is found,” he said, echoing the denunciation by four other top officials.
He also shrugged off a lawmaker’s proposal to place a cap on the annual intake of tourists.
Mainland tourists to Hong Kong shot up from 8.5 million to 40.7 million in 10 years starting from 2003, according to official statistics, not counting those who studied in or migrated to the southern Chinese city.
While tourism has given Hong Kong’s economy a shot in the arm, it raised some residents’ hackles when it began to affect their daily life.
The tourism boom took place against the backdrop of China’s rapid urbanisation and economic development. Hundreds of millions of workers have migrated to wealthy coastal cities, while a burgeoning middle class, which numbered up to 300 million, is poised to change the world’s landscape of consumption, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
Long before Hong Kong started to embrace mainland tourists with open arms, major Chinese cities, particularly Bejing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, had already come under mounting pressure from the surge in migrant workers.
A host of problems, which were brought on by the influx of outsiders and irked Hong Kong residents, had also cropped up in those cities. They were made even more glaring by the fact that migrant workers, unlike tourists, tend to settle down.
Every two in five residents in Beijing and Shanghai were not locals in 2013, said Chinese media, adding that the population was more than 20 million each in both cities.
“Mainland tourists just stay in Hong Kong for a few days. They’re not here for investment, employment or migration,” said a commentary published by Hong Kong’s Ta Kung Pao newspaper on Feb 20. “They’re here for consumption, which will bring hope to Hong Kong’s economy.”
Still, the cultural gap between Hong Kong and the mainland is too striking to overlook.
Some mainlanders’ social habits are out of keeping with the country’s rising status in the world. They spit, speak loudly, and jump queues, which raise the eyebrows of Hong Kongers with little exposure to such behaviour under British rule.
In view of the criticism, media and Web users have called for a campaign of “civilised tourism” to rein in tourists’ worst behaviour, but it may take years to reap the results.
Despite all the differences, Hong Kongers’ perception of their mainland compatriots could improve with increased contact, a survey conducted by The Chinese University of Hong Kong showed.
More than three out of 10 people were left with a better impression on mainlanders after travelling to China over the last three years, whereas only one experienced the opposite. Scepticism about outsiders and worries over their threat to social cohesion are not exclusive to Hong Kong. They also exist in other Chinese cities, but grievances in these places can’t be openly expressed.
“Guangzhou has fallen to the Laau Lous,” my sister grumbled after getting off the train, using an unflattering term to refer to northern Chinese.