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Hong Kong is still a world away from mainland China for many

A photo from August 2011 shows an aerial view of Central District in Hong Kong, China.

Hong Kong means “fragrant harbor” in Cantonese, but to me as a young girl in the 1980s it meant “mysterious dream.”  

My family, like millions of others in mainland China, didn’t own a television at the time. But the most enjoyable after-school activity for me and my friends was to go to the home of our one neighbor who actually had a TV to watch Hong Kong kung-fu series.

He had a black-and-white TV, but managed to make it look like a colored one by gluing a few translucent colored plastic straps on the screen. We were happy enough with a fake colored TV. We were also all fascinated by the Hong Kong soap operas. None of us could speak a word of Cantonese (the dialect spoken in Hong Kong), but we all could sing a few songs in perfect Cantonese; the shows’ themes songs played repeatedly on TV.

People talked about Hong Kong like it was a paradise of milk and honey: “Mr. Li got a new watch from his relative in Hong Kong! Look at him!”

We also heard stories of mainlanders swimming across the sea between neighboring Guangdong province to sneak into Hong Kong, seeking asylum or a free life.   

In those old days, Hong Kong was a land of “capitalist” treasure, closed off to mainlanders like me, but open to the rest of world. Hong Kong was a lofty faraway dream that none of us thought would ever come true for us.
Just a few years later, every family in my hometown could afford to buy a TV, a refrigerator, and a telephone. Some richer ones even got themselves video cassette players.  

Then on July 1, 1997, we were told that Hong Kong was finally handed back to China after 100 years of British colonial rule. We were told to be proud of the return of the lost land cut off from its mother ship for a century.

It’s true that since Hong Kong’s handover it is no longer such a mystery – but in many ways it is still a world away for many mainland Chinese.

Not so open for mainlanders
For instance, on a recent trip, I left Beijing one hour earlier than my American colleague – but she arrived in Hong Kong several hours before me. She was able to hop a flight directly from Beijing to Hong Kong, but because I’m from a small city in mainland China, I was denied that privilege.

Not every mainlander can go to Hong Kong anytime they wish. For starters, they need a special blue pass that is issued only for trips to Hong Kong and nearby Macau. Like a regular China passport, this special pass is only given out by local police in the person’s hometown.

Take me, for example. Even though I have been living in Beijing for many years, I have to fly back to my hometown to apply for that blue pass. (I could apply for one in Beijing if I had Beijing residency, but I don’t and it is extremely hard to obtain.)
And – unlike my American colleague or most visitors other countries – I need a visa to go to Hong Kong.

Someone like me, who doesn’t have relatives or a business in Hong Kong, can only get a seven-day group tourist visa to visit. Individual tourist visas are only available to residents of many Guangdong province cities, such as nearby Shenzhen, and big cities in other provinces.

So to get there for our recent assignment, I had to fly to Shenzhen, known for its cheap labor and numerous factories. From there I took a bus from Shenzhen airport to the Shenzhen side of the Hong Kong border, where I met a travel agent.

The agent filled out a form to show the company had organized a “tour group” for me. Then he took me to the border inspection, where the officer stamped the form and my blue pass.

The border officer, the agent and I all knew I wasn’t joining any “tour group.” Everyone knew I was going to Hong Kong on my own. But I had to detour first through Shenzhen, with its population of 15 million, because I’m from a smaller faraway city (population of 3 million), not Beijing or Shanghai or Guangzhou.

Anchor baby battle: Hong Kong vs. China

Biggest surprise: bookstores
Hong Kong didn’t strike me as anything special when I first saw it in person. I had seen the city so many times on TV.

But certain things did surprise me. I was stunned by its bookstores: biographies of Chinese politicians, memoirs of dissidents, books about corruption and power struggles between Chinese officials were openly available. I could find any of the books normally banned in China.

I also noticed Hong Kong has the fastest escalators I’ve ever seen. There, everyone walks fast. Nobody would stop for me and my colleague when we tried to interview people on the street. In fact they didn’t even look at us. They were always rushing as if they had very important business to take care of.
The variety of food and drink in Hong Kong is also amazing, but it’s much more expensive than in Beijing and Shanghai. That doesn’t stop tons of mainlanders from buying it though. They come here to buy iPhones, computers, high-end cosmetics and expensive clothes.  The mainland might have been Hong Kong’s poor cousin for decades, but with mainlanders’ new-found wealth things have completely changed – almost.

There is still an impression in Hong Kong that their nouveau riche cousins have a bit of impolite country bumpkin in them.

Once when I entered Hong Kong I was struck by a sign on the wall: “Please cover your mouth when you sneeze.”  This is a sign I have never seen in the mainland.

In fact, during all my 16 years of mainland education, not a single teacher or parent ever told students, “don’t spit in public” or “wait in line.” There was no such thing as etiquette education back then.

I don’t know what’s going on in schools now, but I certainly hope the children in kindergarten these days are told to cover their mouths when they sneeze. (And I find it funny when I hear that Hong Kongers criticize mainlanders for being “loud.” I have the impression that the Cantonese are the loudest people in the world.)

Some friends tell me the recent tension between Hong Kong people and mainlanders – over issues like birth rights – is exaggerated by the media. Some other mainland friends say they clearly feel the hostility expressed by the locals. Some scholars say it is actually a conflict between Western and Eastern cultures, due to Hong Kong’s colonial past and international flavor.

Exaggerated or not, I sure don’t want to be called a “locust,” an insult currently being hurled at mainlanders by their Hong Kong brethren.  

Many mainlanders yearn to have the same lifestyle as Hong Kong people have –just like the one Hong Kongers pursued all those decades when they left mainland China.