Tea Leaf Nation

Is Hong Kong Running out of Room?

Is Hong Kong Running out of Room?

HONG KONG — Tensions between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland have escalated again, this time ostensibly over a toddler’s diminutive bladder. On April 15, a scuffle broke out between young mainland parents, with their two-year-old boy in tow, and a local man who tried to take videos of the child urinating on the side of a street in Mong Kok, a dense shopping district. Amateur videos of the conflict that ensued first went viral on social media in Hong Kong, but now the news has exploded onto the mainland Chinese Internet, incurring a ferocious backlash against Hong Kong.

In 2013, a staggering 40.7 million Chinese tourists visited Hong Kong, the former British colony that became a special administrative region of China after the 1997 handover, according to city authorities. The inflow of mainland tourists has overwhelmed this city of 7 million and brought a host of social problems, or at least inconveniences. Locals here complain bitterly about crowded sidewalks, the disappearance of mom-and-pop shops due to high rent, and a scarce milk powder supply, since mainland parents often try to smuggle the safer Hong Kong version home. Behavior involving children seems to be a particular flash point. In January 2012, a video of a mainland mother feeding her child some biscuits in a subway car in Hong Kong, where eating or drinking is not allowed, managed to cause an uproar. In February 2013, a mainland mother suffered online wrath after encouraging her son to urinate in a bottle in a busy Hong Kong restaurant. In April of that same year, Hong Kongers lashed out against mainland parents who let their children relieve themselves in a train compartment.

The uncouth behavior of certain overseas Chinese tourists often earns scorn back home. But Chinese Internet users have lodged their sympathy squarely with these mainland parents, who appeared to be well-dressed young urbanites, not boorish loudmouths. Phoenix Media, a Hong Kong-based outlet that mainly targets a mainland audience, first posted videos of the incident on Weibo, China’s popular microblogging service, on April 21. Weibo statistics culled on April 22 already show over a half million total posts on the subject. 

A video posted online shows the child wailing loudly while the parents try to snatch the memory card from the camera of one young man filming the scene. The two sides evinced significant communications problems; the besieged family of three spoke Mandarin, while the Hong Kongers spoke Cantonese (the two dialects can be mutually unintelligible). The woman repeatedly yelled "Don’t you have children?" in Mandarin, at one point slapping the arm of a local man who grabbed the stroller. South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based English newspaper, reported that the police later arrested the husband for attempted theft of the memory card, and the wife for assault. (While the husband was released unconditionally, the wife was released on bail but is due to report back to the Hong Kong police in mid-May.)

The vast majority of mainland comments accuse the Hong Kong man of intentionally humiliating and harassing a family that made the best of a bad bladder situation. Hao Qian, a financial reporter based in Europe, fumed, "Being civilized doesn’t mean being coldblooded." Gao Cheng, an analyst at Chinese government-affiliated think tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, remarked that because of deep-seated fears of "homogenization and invasion" by mainlanders, Hong Kong lacks the "confidence and tolerance of a true cosmopolitan city." That’s a stinging charge for a town that bills itself as "Asia’s World City."

In mainland China, where paper diapers have only begun to catch on in urban areas over the past decade, toddlers in open pants are still a common sight, and tolerance for them answering the call of nature in public areas is high. In more upscale Hong Kong, by contrast, diapers are de rigueur for small children. Local parents caught short-handed can usually rush to the nearest shopping mall, often complete with child-friendly toilet seats and diaper-changing tables.

But this latest tiff goes beyond a culture clash. Tensions between mainland and Hong Kong have been simmering for years, with Hong Kongers fearing encroachment on their way of life and mainlanders angry that their presence is resented in a city nominally part of their own country (albeit a part governed by a separate system until 2047, one mainlanders need a passport to enter). Occasionally, radical locals have resorted to extreme tactics such as singing the "locust" song, a disparaging label for mainlanders, in front of tourists in busy shopping areas.

But in Hong Kong, and mainland China, money often talks — perhaps it will do so here. With mainland tourists there projected to reach a stratospheric 70 million in 2017, Hong Kongers and their northern cousins have strong incentives to find ways to share the city’s narrow sidewalks — and its elusive restrooms.