An Estranged Hong Kong

Each year I visit Hong Kong, the place seems a little more distant than the last. In Causeway Bay, streets are packed to the point that it’s easy to feel claustrophobic. Mainland shoppers towing big and small suitcases jostling with locals. Self-important, curtained Guangdong-licensed cars competing for roadways with local cars. Strange faces. Unfamiliar Putonghua. Forever changing shop facades in the vicinity of Time Square.

Sum Kee, which has been around for twenty years, is the last victim of crazy shop rents. The next is predicted to be another old-timer: snack shop Yiu Fung (么鳳). Replacing Sum Kee will be a luxury watch shop that is the love of mainlanders. Of course, their love takes precedence over mine and that of other Hong Kongers, because in the eyes of big businesses and developer landlords, these outsiders are the much coveted big spenders. They can afford anything that ranges from obscenely expensive luxury apartments, ludicrously overpriced European luxury brand-name clothes and shoes, to private hospital baby-delivery services, university places reserved for mainland students and everyday necessities like baby formula milk powder and sundries. It is probably an understatement that these people are the cause of greedy shop rent hikes that lead to the surmise of many small old-time businesses and of consumer price inflation in Hong Kong.

The D & G protest that has ultimately forced a belated apology out of the shop is only one detonator that ignited Hong Kong people’s long repressed fury over the dire consequences of Hong Kong’s too laxly managed border. Wealthy mainland tourists have spoiled the big businesses so much that they don’t even realize they are stepping over the line by discriminating against locals.

It is certainly no coincidence that a recent survey finds that more Hong Kong people choose to identify themselves first as Hong Kongers. It is becoming clear that the basic divide between Hong Kongers and mainlanders is one of civic values, as this latest incident shows:-

[Some mainlanders were eating cup noodles and made a mess on the seats of an MTR train. A Hong Konger told them it’s against the rules to eat in the train and immediately got angry and vociferous rebuttals. A couple of other Hong Kongers joined the fray. Security was called in. The mainlanders insisted they had done nothing wrong.]

Such kind of rude behavior is already less obnoxious than that of some who unashamedly use public space inside shopping malls as toilets.

On a deeper level, the unbridgeable gap seems to be between (Hong Kongers’) acceptance and (most mainlanders’) rejection of or aversion to universal values like rule of law, democracy, equality and liberty. It is not through the latter’s fault that they find these values alien; it’s just because they have been living under a political system that has infiltrated them with the idea that those are not Chinese values and therefore no good for them. The system has taught people that all they need worry about is the economy and how to make money and practically nothing else. Morals aren’t important. Corruption can be tolerated. There is of course no lack of intellectuals in China who have refused to be brainwashed and who truly embrace universal values, but most of them unfortunately are rewarded with either political exile or incarceration.

It goes without saying that the only Hong Kong people who welcome mainland tourists, immigrants and shoppers are developers and their cronies (real estate agents, contractors etc.), especially those who are large shopping mall landlords. Even for retailers, whether or not they can benefit from the influx depends on whether the products they sell are mainlanders’ favorites. As for the rest of Hong Kongers, all they can feel towards the swamping inflow is resentment.

At the end of the day, Hong Kong society has its own unique cultural characteristics, which are different from those of other mainland cities or regions. It should be every Hong Konger’s duty to try to preserve those characteristics for posterity. And it would be dead wrong to try to supplant or dilute Hong Kong core values which coincide with universal values.

I only visit once a year. Yet I can feel how dispossessed many Hong Kongers must feel. It’s time to act now to protect that border, before the city becomes a totally alien place.