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It’s been a fascinating experience, immersing myself in Hong Kong life. Prior to arriving on the shores of the SAR in 2008, I had spent four years in the mainland, three of them in the dusty capital.  Sure, I learned a lot about hot pot and local customs and eating mooncakes on Mid-Autumn Festival and dealing with the bureaucracy. And yeah, I joined the tens of thousands of others in the capital studying Putonghua.  So I thought I had China pretty well figured out.  Even though I knew Hong Kong was different, my own confidence led me to believe I could anticipate what it was like and it would be no big deal.

Well, I should’ve known better.

Perhaps the people in the real Zhongnanhai won’t appreciate this, even if they know it to be true, but Hong Kong is practically another country.  When you look at it objectively, you see a city (state) that has been ruled by the British for 150 years.  It has an entirely different history than the mainland, although they are intertwined from time to time.  People here, for the most part, speak English.  There are political traditions here of a free press, democratically-elected legislators and freedom of speech. Thanks to the ICAC, there is zero tolerance for corruption (seriously).  Nobody watches the CCTV Spring Festival Gala (in fact, nobody even calls it “Spring Festival”… it’s just simply Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year).  There is an independent judiciary.  There are pillars of a free-standing and successful society all around.  And to top it off, there is an endearing sense of right and wrong, routinely played out in protests and other forms of political activism. Oh, and if you come across a Hong Konger speaking Putonghua, you probably wouldn’t understand it.

I find myself rooting for this city quite a bit, mainly because it’s such an underdog.  Hong Kong is small — very small — and is now part of a massive behemoth of a country that it doesn’ t have a lot in common with.  Even nearby cultural sister Guangzhou is being overrun, in language and culture, by the Central Government in Beijing.

It might not be common knowledge in Mainland China about how adversarial Hong Kongers have become to mainlanders.  Not all mainlanders, of course, but a lot of them.  Sure, Hong Kongers have opened their stores, and attempted to open the boundary even wider, to make a few extra bucks.  But that has brought unintended consequences: several YouTube videos showing mainland visitors acting repugnantly have begun circulating and are drawing attention in online forums (such as HK Discuss, HK Golden, etc) and in local media. Unfortunately, some of the comments are almost racist in nature.  However, as my good friend told me:

We were taught to say please and thank you.  We sit up straight in school.  We wear shiny shoes and a tie to work. We treat each other with respect.

Maybe that happens in the mainland, too, but it’s just…. well, different.

Hong Kong may be a part of China now, and while there are some challenges to political integration, it will be the cultural integration process that will be the biggest chasm to cross.  In sum, the biggest difference between Hong Kong and mainland China is their respective value systems. And that could take many generations to overcome.



  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cam MacMurchy, Danny Rebecca. Danny Rebecca said: RT @zhongnanhai: New post: Bridging the cultural gap between Hong Kong and Mainland China: http://bit.ly/aiHDdi [...]

  2. Well put! There’s a huge difference between HK and the mainland. Everyone who has visited both extensively will know. My wife is from Guangzhou (now living in the Netherlands) and she also feels at ease in HK. people just behave better in HK. There’s less noise in shops and restaurants etc. This apart of course from a different set of values.

  3. Ralph Thompson says:

    great post thanks

  4. fancia says:

    uhmm, I think HK people speak cantonese. If you can’t speak cantonese, yes, they will speak to you in english or putonghua but when they are conversing between themselves, they speak cantonese.