Hong Kong sees mainlanders coming

The ceremony marking the handover of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997.

TEXT OF STORY

SCOTT JAGOW: Hong Kong is one hardcore money-making place. It has more than 67,000 millionaires out of less than 7 million people. A decade ago this weekend, Hong Kong became a Chinese territory again after 156 years of British rule. At the time, a lot of people worried China would crimp Hong Kong's free-wheelin' economic style. But that really hasn't happened.

In fact, one thing that's kept Hong Kong in the money is a huge influx of Chinese tourists. But, they don't exactly fit in with the white-collar crowd. Here's our Asia correspondent Scott Tong.


Scott Tong: Warning: This segment may contain content inappropriate for western cultural snobs. You will hear spitting . . .

Slurping of food . . .

. . . and airport loudmouths.

These are some of the complaints made about mainland Chinese tourists — whether the stereotype is fair or not.

Michael Degolyer teaches government at Hong Kong Baptist University. He says the ugly mainlander image is similar to the ugly American image.

Michael Degolyer: Mark Twain noted that Europeans when they visited America in the 1850s would complain about Americans spitting their tobacco in the railroad cars, basically being perceived as utterly uncivilized. And Hong Kong people have had a very similar kind of reaction to the mainlanders.

A big reaction came two years ago, when mainlanders flocked to Hong Kong's brand new Disneyland. A frequent complaint: jumping the queue, as they say here.

Here's Disney visitor Lourd, with his best friend Jed chiming in.

Lourd: We were falling in line for the cable cars. Then suddenly Chinese people came running beside us . . .

Jed: They were trying to cut the line, because they wanted to go first.

Tong: Were you in the front of the line or the middle or the back?

Lourd: We were in the middle. And the line was so, so long.

But for every complaint, far more people at Disney talked of progress, how mainlanders' behavior has improved vastly. Hong Kong resident Josh says just three years ago . . .

Josh: Mainland China was just getting exposed to the world. And I think as the tourists we start to see have more exposure to the outside world, they actually come to see what is appropriate and what is not.

Beijing is also pushing what's appropriate. It's launched a tourist education program, run by the government's Civilization Office.

And many say it's just a matter of time before they clean up their etiquette. And in a few years, when more and more head to Europe and North America, they may be savvier shoppers, too.

That's because mainlanders have learned from a recent bad experience in Hong Kong. This spring, Chinese state television aired an investigative report on mainland tourists getting duped in Hong Kong. Cue the creepy music:

It said Hong Kong jewelers colluded with tour guides and fooled mainlanders into buying fake diamonds.

I walked into one of the alleged crooked stores. But when the clerk realized I wasn't part of a mainland tour she encouraged me to shop at a competitor.

Wu Jingming says the scam-the-mainlanders trick has gone on for years. He's a self-described former scammer, and the author of a book called "How Could I Not Rip you Off?"

He says variations on this theme happen in Singapore, London and Los Angeles. Tour operators escort Chinese travelers to prearranged stores that then pay kickbacks of up to 60 percent.

John Ap teaches tourism at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He's relieved that the deception is now being made public.

John Ap: It's a blessing in disguise, simply because it's drawing attention to some practices that have been tolerated for far too long. And it's about time that it stopped.

Ap says the tourism industry in Europe and America need to heed Hong Kong's nightmare — they can't afford to turn off mainland tourists. In the next decade, more 100 million of them are expected to vacation abroad.

In Hong Kong, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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