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The China Challenge: Spurning Mandarin, Speaking English and Becoming a Hong Konger
In a tale of betrayal and belonging, a mainlander far from home wrestles with language and identity
By Chu Xin
It was a steamy afternoon when I first arrived in Hong Kong. I got into a cab and told the driver, in English, to take me to a friend’s place in Causeway Bay. “Hoi To Court, please,” I said, smiling at him through the rearview mirror while fighting the tiredness of a long flight from Europe. He looked confused, so I repeated the name in Mandarin.
“So you are a mainlander! Why pretend you are not?” he yelled at me in Cantonese, the language of Hong Kong. I did not understand much Cantonese, but I got that bit. I did not understand where his passive-aggressiveness came from, but the annoyance in his tone was deafening. I did not speak Cantonese, so I did not respond.
Encounters like that can influence a person in unknown ways. Working in Hong Kong as a journalist for the foreign press, I refused to speak Mandarin in public. I knew that speaking Mandarin would help some locals understand me better—since many do understand Mandarin—but still, what came out of my mouth was English.
Many of my expat friends were confused about why I spoke English, even at the expense of being misunderstood. My best friend in Hong Kong, who is from the U.K. and in his late 20s, once asked me why I would not “embrace my mainland identity” and speak Mandarin in shops and restaurants. I did not fully know why, but I felt hurt by his suggestion.
Perhaps for him, language is just a communication tool, but for many mainland people in Hong Kong, including myself, language carries so much more weight. It is a source of power and identity.
I slowly began to understand my aversion to speaking Mandarin in public. In choosing English, I could construct a third identity for myself—not just as a mainland Chinese, not just as an expat, but as a hybrid who was not limited by either. In choosing English, which I had studied at universities abroad, I could disown my mainland identity. I did this not because I resented Chinese culture, but because Hong Kong locals and some expats so often portrayed mainlanders in a negative light.
Their understanding of the mainland identity could be static. If people from the mainland were too Western in the way they thought or acted, they were not considered “mainland” enough. Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman dragging two suitcases of luxury goods, talking loudly to her husband on the phone, and taking selfies in a shopping mall was an “authentic” mainland Chinese.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong fascinated me. Bankers walking briskly on the footbridge connecting Exchange Square and the Landmark building with eyes fixed on their phones; barefooted and boisterous elderly chatting by the harborfront while chewing dried squid; young couples smoking shisha in Lan Kwai Fong, lost in their flirtatious endeavors with white smoke coming out of their nostrils—there was endless energy to this city.
There were many evenings when I gazed at Hong Kong from one of its rooftop bars and marveled at its miraculous, unintentional beauty. Every time I looked at the lights on those crowded, dirty streets, I was overwhelmed by a sensation of life being lived. There was a roughness, a realness to this city.
But then Hong Kong changed.
The months-long anti-mainland protests began in March 2019. As political conflicts heightened among ordinary people, language took on an even more powerful role in Hong Kong. Many mainland Chinese, including me, started fearing that if we spoke Mandarin in public, it would get us into trouble. Ironically, it was the same kind of fear that forces many mainland-born journalists to self-censor when reporting on any Communist Party-related stories. The danger is likely overstated, but the fear is real.
Most of my local friends laughed at my worries, claiming they were completely unnecessary. One of them joked: “If the locals turn against you, just shout in English that you are a journalist working for a foreign press. If the police come after you, just shout in Mandarin that you love China.”
During those long, hot months of protests, I supported neither the protesters nor the Hong Kong police. On one hand, I, too, yearned for democracy and a better system to govern the Chinese people. On the other, I was unable to join some of my Hong Kong friends, who were on the front line of every weekend’s protest. After all, a part of me has always been proud of my country.
China's Best Years
I am part of the generation that grew up during China’s best years under Communist rule and spent its formative years witnessing the country’s surging importance on the international stage. I am part of the generation that saw the Chinese economy grow more than ninefold, to US$12.3 trillion, from when I entered primary school to when I graduated from university a few years ago. I am part of the generation that felt immense pride in how the 2008 Olympics demonstrated China’s national strength and the unity among its people.
But I felt betrayed by both the mainland and Hong Kong. When I was in school, Hong Kong was always portrayed as a prodigal child, reuniting with her mother in 1997. We were told, time and again, in songs and in the arts, that Hong Kong people had been looking forward to reuniting with us, that we all belonged to the same, bigger Chinese family.
But we were also taught that the modern Chinese identity resembled that of a victim. We were the victims of waves of national shame brought on by the Nanjing Massacre, the Opium Wars and the Qing government’s cession of territories. We had suffered, but the suffering made us strong. However, with neither epic tales of anti-colonial struggles nor thousands of lives lost in building a new China, the people of Hong Kong had not “suffered” enough to qualify to be the modern Chinese. We, the Chinese, have a humiliating past that they, the Hong Kongers, can never understand.
There is also a degree of “impurity” in the Hong Kong identity, we learned. Since the “authentic” China has been fabricated by the government as anti-capitalist and anti-modern, the Western ways of life that Hong Kong adopted during colonial times tainted it.
For me, this sentiment peaked on June 30 of last year, when China passed the National Security Law amid increasingly violent street protests. On July 1, I went out for a hot pot dinner with a friend from Guangzhou. After dinner, we took a stroll along the seafront. Many locals were exercising, seemingly not registering the fact that a new chapter for Hong Kong had started. Both my friend and I usually speak English in public, but that night the two of us were chatting in Mandarin—quite loudly.
Frustrations Boil Over
“We [mainlanders] are not just subjects of an authoritarian government, but living, thinking human beings. I don’t know whether the protesters are willing to accept that,” I said to my friend in Mandarin.
“Just because they were able to get ahead of us on the road to democracy, it does not make them any smarter,” my friend said.
It was a strange but liberating feeling. There was some joy in it, even revenge. Of course, both of us knew that the National Security Law would limit Hong Kong’s freedoms tremendously. But that night, we channeled all our anger and frustrations accumulated during the many months of anti-mainland protests into those loud Mandarin conversations. For the first time, we felt that we were somehow protected by a law to speak in Mandarin. That law, which in true authoritarian fashion was passed without consulting the people it governs, offered us a sense of legitimacy in Hong Kong that we had not experienced until then.
But that night was an exception; my allegiance remained firmly with English. I had no hope of blending into Hong Kong, but I also wanted to disassociate myself from the mainland. Speaking English gave me a sense of safety and freedom that I had earned for myself, not inherited from others.
Then last month, the Hong Kong government effectively shut down Apple Daily. The government ordered banks to freeze the publisher’s assets and instructed them not to process any payments related to the newspaper. Some 500 police officers raided the newsroom, arresting three top editors and two executives. At 11:59 p.m. on June 23, one of the most-read newspapers in the city ceased operations, just like that.
The next morning I went to every convenience store in my neighborhood to buy the last edition. All the shelves were empty. Finally, I approached an old woman at a newsstand.
“Do you still have Apple Daily?” I asked in English.
She looked confused. My heart sank.
“Do you still have Apple Daily?” I asked in Mandarin with an embarrassed smile.
She smiled back and replied in Mandarin with a heavy Cantonese accent, “I ran out, but I heard that the newsstand across the street still has some.”
I looked across the street. In the pouring rain hundreds of people were lining up to buy the last edition. For the first time, I felt like a Hong Konger, even when I was speaking Mandarin.
This is the fourth article in a series on “The China Challenge.” The first article argues that authoritarian rule, interference in key industries and the legacy of the one-child policy will likely prevent China from overtaking the U.S. The second article takes the opposite position, arguing that freer trade and faster communication encouraged more bad behavior from China, and that’s helping it overtake the U.S. The third article explores China's immense demographic problems.